A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Dwelling In The Possibility Of The Sacred

It's fascinating how words can change their meaning and popularity over time. Society is constantly dynamic, ever changing - changes brought about by the latest political trends and philosophies, by science and technology, by war, by climate, by many other things; changes in fashion, in habits, in lifestyle, in health, in beliefs and opinions, in morals and ethics, and so on. And the language we use necessarily reflects these changes.

For instance, in post-WWII Germany you could no longer comfortably use words like 'Volk' (the people, the mass) or 'Vaterland' (fatherland) and many such 'loaded' words. National Socialism had polluted this vocabulary. The words had become tainted with fascism. And to take another example, this time from the religious field, it's difficult to use with confidence words like 'God', 'Heaven','Covenant', 'Salvation', 'Redemption', 'Absolution', 'Sin', 'Evil' and scores of other 'Christian' words post-Darwin, post-WWI and post-Existentialism.

But these 'religious' words haven't really gone away. It's just that their meaning has changed, as meanings do - and widened, and, to some extent, become secularized. They have lost their capital letters. And that's just fine. Why should the Religious have a monopoly over the religious? Why should my God be better than your god?

Take the word 'sacred'. We tend to associate it with Christian holiness, but that's a very partial view. The word comes from the Latin 'sacrum' which refers to the pre-Christian gods of Ancient Rome and, spatially, was the area around the 'templum' (temple). All religions can share in the sacred - as well as humanists, agnostics, atheists, pagans... all of us. The numinous is available to everybody.

In the book I'm reading at the moment, Coming To Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn, I've just come across this paragraph:

In a lovely appreciation of all that is mysterious and sacred, Emily Dickinson invokes the wholehearted affirmation: 'I dwell in possibility'. Her very next line is 'A fairer house than prose' - which I take to mean the domicile of reasonable, rational, linear, and so often limiting thoughts and opinions. Can we say the same? Can we truly dwell in possibility? In not knowing, but risking anyway? And in this very moment? How does it feel?

Here's the poem he quotes, by the wonderful Emily Dickinson:

 I dwell in Possibility

I dwell in Possibilty -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -

Of Chambers as the Cedars -
Impregnable of Eye -
And for an Everlasting Roof -
The Gambrels of the Sky -

Of Visitors - the fairest -
For Occupation - This -
The spreading wide of narrow Hands -
To gather Paradise -


am said...

Yes. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

"Yes" to all of this!

Andy (who is a priest, which I suppose makes me Religious?)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for reading, am... and Andy, you're my kind of priest!

The Solitary Walker said...

And Andy, note that I said 'difficult' to use those words, not 'impossible'... As with all words, to be use with care (in both senses of the word). We dwell in the limitless realm of the possible...

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you're right. Words need care - they can change how we think. I was reading something by Alan Ecclestone yesterday. He suggested that we refrain from the word 'individual'.

Bill said...

Words, words, words. Really interesting, all this.

I'm often struck by the fact (well, it seems like a fact to me) that the terms of "religious"/"non-religious" debate have really been fixed by religious people/institutions. For example, they ask the question: do you believe in God? Everyone else is then put on the back foot and has to answer it. Atheists are only atheists because theists demand that they define themselves vis a vis theists. I think a lot of atheists, if they thought about it (perhaps many do), would not like to think they were pushed around intellectually by theists to this extent.

It would be more logical for believers to describe themselves as anihilists. But if they did, I think we'd end up in a situation that's just as dotty.

I hope this makes sense!

And then there's the word "believe", and the assumption that this is what we as humans do or don't do with God. Everything is seen in terms of one way of thinking. This, for me, is why Zen (and Taoism) are so interesting: they can give one the opportunity to make refreshingly new sense of Western thought/spirituality (a lot of shorthand there - this is just a comment!). I think Alan Watts said something similar.

People are forever srguing about God and religion in ways which I'm sure would earn them a clout with a stick from a Zen teacher.

I could go on...

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, Andy, often I weary of the individual self, with its partial view of the world, its illusions and delusions, its gripes and anxieties, its ambitions, regrets, prejudices, half-formed opinions, little joys and sorrows. And especially the self's puffed-up opinion of itself, that strutting sense of self-importance. If we can forget the self for a bit (or, to put it another way, be very conscious and mindful of the self, so that we can rigorously observe it and its actions, and 'put it in its place'), we may be able to rest in the ocean of pure Being. What a relief! (You can tell I've been reading that Buddhism book.)

Jim, yes, I think that makes sense. I see what you're driving at.'Everything is seen in terms of one way of thinking.' Or even, everthing is seen in terms of thinking alone. I think you're a theist, I think I'm a deist, I think he's an atheist, I think he's a Buddhist... The Buddha himself denied he was a Buddhist! It was reading Alan Watts and Krishnamurti long ago which first got me interested in Zen. Love your last paragraph! You're right.