Notes on the Sacred

My hope is that people from different traditions can share with each other.  These are dark times in which “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  We need each other.

I have learned something about the sacred, and something about resistance to injustice, from First Nations people.

When is the sacred?  The sacred is saturated with being, as Mircea Eliade said.  It manifests itself in the relationships of a living universe—I and Thou—intense like fire, inclusive like family.

Scott Momoday, author of House of Dawn, said the theft of the land was a terrible catastrophe, but the theft of the sacred was even worse – the replacing of a living relationship to the world with an I /It relationship of objects, each with a monetary value.

The sacred was not part of the world I grew up in.  That world was one of war, fragmentation and death.  But in the ceremonies of First Nations people, in the singing, drumming, dancing, and in the enduring resistance to imperial policy, I experienced a feeling of astonishment and awe that made me want to revisit aspects of my own culture.

In his book, The Primal Mind the First Nations writer Jamake Highwater, says that modern artists have received inspiration from the caves of Altamira, and in his efforts to explain to Europeans the intensity of an aboriginal world view, he quotes Kandinsky on Cezanne, “he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything.”

Camara Laye, an African writer, wrote a book called The Guardian of the Word.  In this book he draws parallels between some western art and the traditional African experience of being, of the scared.  Camara Laye quotes from the European philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who talks of Van Gogh’s paintings.  “It seem to me that some secret spring of life is opened to us for a moment, as if the depths hidden in every existence were unveiled right before our eyes,”  Jaspers says.  Think of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for example.  Camara Laye goes on to say that in the traditional African experience “that secret spring of life is open, not for a moment, but constantly.”

Then the Europeans came.  The vision became blurred, and Camara Laye wrote that Africa is now “a continent in quest of a vanishing spirituality” – or as Scott Momoday might say, a continent experiencing the theft of the sacred.

The culturally formed images of my relationship to the mystery, the ineffable, will not be the same as the images of a person from another culture, but we will both share the experience of astonishment, awe, humbleness and gratitude.

In November, 1988, there was a women’s conference in Vancouver called “Women and Language Across Cultures.”  Out of that conference came an excellent book entitled Telling It, published by Press Gang in 1990.  Jeannette Armstrong, a First Nations writer, speaks in the book and she says, “I have been just sitting, listening…(and)…I have started to ask some questions, not only of myself and of my people as a cultural group, but of my people as a people from this land, from this earth, and as living parts of this universe.  And I think that when we start looking at what we are…we start to speak the real language – and that real language is a language that is understood by babies, and is known between people as relationships.  That language has more to it than words.  I think that when we begin to get to that point, then we can begin to cross these cultural, racial, social and class gaps.”

We have much to share with each other, in sisterhood, in brotherhood.

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