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.


The Qu’Appelle River runs through the Qu’Appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan.  So graceful and harmonious is this valley that it reminds the traveler of that visionary homeland where each thing has what it needs to live a beautiful life.  When I first saw the Qu’Appellle Valley, I thought that this place was like the home I might have had if the Great War of 1914-1918 had not cast a violent shadow over the entire twentieth century.

The Qu’Appelle River flows through the Qu’Appelle Valley like a Queen on parade.  Her name, “Qu’Appelle”, is French for “Who calls?”  This is a rough translation of the original Cree words for the river, and there are many stories as to how the river got its name.  One story goes like this:


Long ago a First Nations person was going down the river in his canoe.  One day he heard a voice calling to him.  He stopped paddling, and listened intently.  Again he heard the voice calling, and he called out in his turn.  No one answered him, so he carefully looked around for the tracks of another person.  He couldn’t find any tracks, and from that time the river was known as “Who calls?” (1)

Today we cannot hear the earth speak in the same way as aboriginal people did before the coming of the Europeans.  In the old days the relationship of First Nations people to nature was intense and personal.  Everything in nature had the power to reveal itself as a living presence, should it choose to do so, and should a person be ready to hear or to see.  This relationship went both ways.  Human beings were part of nature as were fish, trees, rocks and grizzly bears.  And because humans were created later than most other creatures, people were often humbly thought of as the younger sisters and brothers.  So did humans see themselves as members of a larger family on a living earth.  Black Elk said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of human beings when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe.”

In our technological, urban world we have lost much of our ability to hear many of the voices in nature.  We long for connection to the beauty we see, and we talk of spirituality rather than formal religion.  Spirituality is about the quality of our relationship to the world.  It is about our ability to see our connection to everything around us, to see the beauty, to hear the voices, to be present to the miracle of that which is simply in front of us.  Chief Seathl, after whom the City of Seattle was named, put it this way:  “Every part of this land is sacred in the view of my people.  Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove….”

We reach out to the people around us with deep caring.  We watch.  We listen.  Rain falls.  The wind is like breathing.  “All real living is meeting,” Martin Buber said.  Life is relationship.  First Nations people close many of their speeches and prayers with the expression, “All my relations.”

In April, 2010, an international conference for the protection of the earth took place in Bolivia.  President Evo Morales of Bolivia invited the peoples of the world to this conference, and more than 30,000 people from over 100 countries came to share their concerns.  President Morales urged the delegates to listen to the voices of indigenous people as they talked about respect for the earth and stewardship.

We can be more aware of the voices around us, and we can start with the people we meet every day.  Can we hear the person who is asking for help?  Eagles fly overhead at many of our ceremonies in the Downtown Eastside.  What are the eagles saying to us?  Waves on the shore of Crab Park have stories to tell. The Oppenheimer Park totem pole speaks to the long history of First Nations on this land, and it also asks us to remember those who have died in the Downtown Eastside, and those who have survived.

The old heritage buidings in our community speak to the early history of Vancouver, and in the streets late at night you can hear the voices of unemployed men during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They are marching in a snake parade because they are hungry and have no place to sleep.  Chinatown and Japantown have stories to tell of those who fought for dignity and human rights.

So many voices.  So much pain and courage and laughter.  “Who calls?” we ask, and we hear the voice of the other one, reminding us of relationship, or our kinship to the mice in the fields and the stars in the sky.  As Chief Joseph said, “The earth and myself are of one mind.”


(1)               River in a Dry Land, by Trevor Harriot, published by Stoddart, 2000, page 12.



When Orcas Play

Some time ago I was taking the ferry to Victoria, and as we were passing through the Gulf Islands, the captain announced that we were about to join a large group of orcas.

Everyone rushed to the railings, both port and starboard, where we could see the whales rising silently from the deep, shining silently, a huge fin in the water here, a whale breaching there in a glitter of white foam.  The orcas swam with such effortless grace and surges of power that we were transformed.

Children were beside themselves with excitement.  They called to the whales, not in words for words are a second level of experience, but in upre, joyful song that the unperceptimve would call screaming. Those mighty, moving, mysterious beings touched the children, and the rest of us too, in some deep, hidden part of our being that is the source of joy.

We were amazed at the beauty and power of those whales.  Something in us rose high when they burst into sunlight, and dived deep when they sank beneath the water.  We felt intensely alive, and it was the orcas who were giving us this gift.  We held them in awe. We loved them.  We understood, if only for a few seconds, that we and the whales were linked together, and that we had been linked together for eons and eons.

After a short time the orcas went their way, and the ferry went its way.  We returned to our seats, our newspapers, our coffee, and our French fries. Our eyes were a little bright, though, and we talked to each other in a more open way than usual.

“Maybe we humans really are a living part of Nature,” I mused, “and maybe that economic stuff about us being isolated and hedonistic creatures who pursue our own self interest in the so-called market is absolutely wrong.”

“Maybe that sense of reaching out, of standing in awe, of feeling related to, is an expession of our truest self. Maybe those orcas are our older brothers and sisters, and maybe we have much to learn from them – before it’s too late.”

Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, Community

I got shingles at the end of January, 2006.  It was misdiagnosed and it turned into post herpetic neuralgia.  My life stopped dead at that point, and I asked myself some questions.  What is this illness trying to tell me?  What’s wrong with the way I’ve been living?  Why didn’t my immune system take care of this?  I knew that I couldn’t let the pain take over, and that attitude was important in controlling it.

The American philosopher, William James, wrote,  “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”

Over a number of months I discovered five words that would help me find meaning in this new situation.  The first word is “Intentionality”.  It means making a commitment to a goal.  My long range commitment is to turn roadblock into challenge, and fate into journey.  Intentionality also means discipline and perseverance.  Living is a bit like driving a car at night.  The journey is long, but the headlights light up only a small part of the road.  As we drive on, the headlights illuminate a new section of the road – and so on until we reach our destination.  The point is we have to keep going.

The second word is “Mindfulness”.  A book that helped me with this word is called “Coming To Our Senses – Healing Ourselves And the World Through Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Mindfulness means attention.  It means being awake.  It means deep breathing, meditation, and prayer.  A French mystic, Simone Weil, wrote that attention without an object is prayer in its highest form.  When an anthropologist asked the Lakota Chief Standing Bear what his people taught their children, Standing Bear replied, “We teach our children to look when there is nothing to see, and to listen when there is nothing to hear.”  That’s mindfulness.  Mindfulness is at the centre of a balanced life.  It helps me control pain.  It helps me wake up and see the beauty around me, and when I see that beauty I am astonished.  Astonishment is a cornerstone of gratitude.

The third word is “Gratitude”.  I pray almost constantly – giving thanks for the sun, the stars, and the people I meet.  Here’s a quote from a poem called “Listen”, by W.S. Merwin:

“with the night falling we are saying thank you –
back from a series of hospitals, back from a mugging,
after funerals we are saying thank you,
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you,
in a culture up to its neck in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you,
over telephones we are saying thank you,
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators,”

The fourth word is “Compassion”.  When I see intensely, when I listen intensely, I am open to the pain of another person, and I care for that person.  And now I am in pain, and belong to the community of those who live in pain.  This experience has deepened my compassion.  The writer, Margaret Atwood, said, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” When I care, I am present for the other.  I hear her words.  As the Spanish philosopher, Miguel De Unamuno, said, “Bodies may be attracted by pleasure, but souls are attracted by pain.”

That brings us to the fifth word – “Community”.  It seems to me that the community of those who live in pain includes just about everyone.  We need each other.  Human beings are gregarious animals, and caring and co-operation are more important for survival than competition and selfishness.  In my view, women usually have a deeper understanding of caring relationships than men do, and Life is relationship – or as the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber said, “Life is meeting,” and meeting builds community.  But it only builds community if we can see and hear with mindfulness.

Here are the five words that have helped me find a way to live with pain.  Intentionality, Mindfulness,  Gratitude,  Compassion, and Community.  You will have other words that have helped you.  Putting words down on paper is one way of finding out what we actually think about something, and sharing those words is a good way to start a dialogue.

~ Sandy Cameron

Why I Am Fasting From March 25th to April 1st, 1996

The Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) goes into effect on April 1, 1996.  It abolishes 4 of the 5 economic rights in the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) which it replaces, and cuts $7 billion in transfer payments to the provinces for health, post-secondary education, and social assistance.

Gone are the right to income when a person is in need, the right to adequate income, the right to appeal, and the right not to have to work for welfare.  The only CAP right maintained in the CHST is the right to income assistance regardless of the province a person is from.

The CHST will place Canada in a position of breaching international human rights law expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), all of which Canada has signed.

Under the CHST provinces will not be obliged to have financial assistance programs for persons in need.  National standards for social assistance will be gone, and so will one more building block of Canadian unity.

A fast is a reminder that hundreds of thousands of Canadians, many of them children, do not have enough to eat.  A fast is an expression of solidarity with those who are hungry.  There’s a great deal of denial that unemployment, poverty and hunger are serious problems in Canada.  Business lobby groups try to prove that 8% unemployment is full employment, and that poverty is not a major concern.  However, the growing need for food banks is proof that something is terribly wrong with our economy.  The public safety net is collapsing, and with the abolition of national standards for social assistance, the way is open for third world poverty in Canada on a large scale.

A fast is a way of grieving for Canada, the second richest country in the world, where:

(a) the infant mortality rate is increasing.

(b) the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing.

(c) the number of homeless is increasing.

(d) official unemployment is close to 10%, and will continue at that high level for years to come.

(e) the suicide rate for teens between the ages of 15 to 19 is the third highest in the world.

(f) universal health care is being eroded, and a two tier health care system is developing.

(g) our schools are being ravaged by cuts, and many post-secondary students cannot afford a university education because of high tuition fees.

A fast is a way of grieving for the numbness and paralysis of many Canadians in the face of growing injustice.  We see long food bank lines, and we get used to them.  We see more and more homeless people, and we get used to them.  We know that increasing rates of poverty and unemployment cause increasing rates of family breakdown, infant mortality, child abuse, malnutrition, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, homicide, rape, property crime, youth alienation, and we get used to it.

A fast is a way of grieving for our political and economic leaders who have become dehumanized by the structures they themselves manipulate, and whose acquisitive, aggressive way of being in the world is the opposite of being in the world for others.  They are unable to grasp that it is not just that some people are rich and others poor.  It is that some people live and others die.

A fast is a way of grieving for those who speak out against injustice, knowing full well that the principalities and powers that warp and brutalize our society are so strong that it is necessary to pay a price to oppose them.

A fast is also an act of protest, a powerful action by a powerless person, a time of reflection, an act of penance for oneself or for those who are destroying our country, a way of demonstrating commitment to something beyond one’s personal comfort, and a symbol of hope.

We were proud of ourselves after the Second World War, for we had seen what we could do in a national emergency.  We thought of ourselves as a people with a common democratic purpose, and we even dreamt of having our own flag.  Our dreams were not so different from the dreams of many other people in the world, and were expressed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  It included the right to decent work, decent income, adequate food, clothing and shelter, respectful relationships, and the opportunity for each person to participate fully in the life of a healthy community.

Today Canadians fear the loss of hard-won social democracy in the global economy of competitive impoverishment.  We long for community that lifts being-in-the-world beyond the predatory stage of human development.  We do not want our success to depend on another’s failure, nor our prosperity on another’s poverty.  We want to be in control of our lives, to belong to our land, to live with our traditions.  This dream is worth fasting for.  This dream is worth fighting for.

~ Sandy Cameron

The Slave Ship

In 1840, a famous English painter by the name of William Turner, painted a large picture called “The Slave Ship” which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

It is a picture of a ship in a terrible storm, and the ship is in danger of sinking.  To save themselves, the masters of the ship are throwing the cargo overboard – the cargo in this case happens to be human beings – black people brought from Africa to work as slaves in America.  You can see them bobbing around in the sea, abandoned to drown.

Turner got the idea for his painting from a true story about a slave ship ravaged by plague.  The captain ordered the sick and dying Africans to be thrown into the sea because he could claim insurance for them if they were lost at sea, but not if they died on his ship.

When he painted this picture, Turner was not only making a statement about slavery.  He was also commenting on the relationship between the rich and poor of England in the nineteenth century.  “The Slave Ship” was a powerful political, as well as artistic, creation.

Turner’s statement is as true today as it was in 1840.  In these stormy, Scrooge-had-it-right, economic times of corporate mastery, governments and corporations are throwing human beings into the sea of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness so that those who have much can have even more.

~ Sandy Cameron

An Angry Old Man Hates Democracy

Jean Swanson and I went to Victoria on February 23/02 {thanks to busses supplied by the B.C. Federation of Labour}, to attend the huge rally to protest Gordon Campbell’s vicious cuts to social programs, labour standards, environmental laws, and government services.  About 25,000 citizens were there.  It was an inspiring and peaceful rally – one more step in the long fight to stop the big business fanatics who want to serve up B.C. citizens and resources on a platter to international corporate and investment powers.

During the rally Jean and I went for a walk on the streets close to the Parliament Buildings to stretch our legs.  We saw a man in his seventies walking towards us.  He had a slight limp, and he used a cane to steady himself.  He had a round, flushed face and a handlebar mustache.  He wore a jaunty brown fedora and an expensive, brown camel hair coat.  He was obviously very angry, and smoke appeared to be hissing out of his ears.  His eyes flashed like a prairie thunderstorm.

“Thousands of socialists are ruining the lawn,” he snarled.  (the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings)

“And a handful of capitalists are ruining the province,” Jean replied, as fast as an Ali left jab.

“Canada is a capitalist country,” he said.  “You only get what you work for.”

“Canada is supposed to be a democracy,” I said.

“Democracy is a joke,” the old man said, and he walked on, muttering to himself.

Why did he call democracy a joke, I wondered.  What did he mean when he said that Canada was a capitalist country?  Capitalism is about accumulation.  It is about buying cheap and selling dear.  It is about maximum profit.  The old man holds the value of making money above all other values, and he thinks Canada, also, should hold the value of making money above all other values.  That’s why he called Canada a capitalist country.  Democracy, on the other hand, is about equality, citizen participation, and human rights.  Democracy and capitalism have never gotten along.  They hold different visions about what it means to be a human being, and how a human being should live.

The old capitalist who called democracy a joke reminded me of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ story called A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge said, “Humbug” when his nephew wished him a Merry Christmas.  What did Scrooge mean by that?  He meant that the value of making money was the only legitimate value, and the values of Christianity, and the other great religions of the world, were just so much “Humbug”.

Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute wrote an article in the Toronto Star (Dec. 24/92) entitled “Dickens was wrong; miserly Scrooge was a hero.”  In it Walker took the same position as the old capitalist we met on the streets of Victoria.  Making money is the only legitimate value.  Scrooge is a hero according to Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, and this neoliberal propaganda tank is a major influence on the corporate elite that controls the B.C. provincial Liberal Party.

The narrow, self-centred, acquisitive values of unrestrained corporate capitalism lead to a world where,

“Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.”

(King Lear, by Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 2)

We have some very dangerous, violent people in charge of our province right now.  They have a monetary vision of the world that is quite different from the democratic vision of most ordinary Canadians.

~ Sandy Cameron

Beauty Brings The Gift Of Hope

The Alhambra is an ancient Arab palace in Granada, Spain.  I knew a little of the history of the palace, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the intricately carved stone archway at the entrance.  It was poetry in stone.  So powerful was the beauty of this architecture that my legs became weak, and I almost fell.  I have to change my life, I thought.  In the face of this beauty I have to change my life.  I wish the buildings in my city of Vancouver were beautiful.  My city is a machine for making money.  When I go back home, I want to make something beautiful.

Vincent Van Gogh saw the ugliness and injustice of his society.  He wanted to help people who were suffering, and he went to live in a mining village where the people were very poor.  He wasn’t any help, though, because he gave everything he owned away, and his family had to rescue him.  Slowly an idea formed in Van Gogh’s mind.  He would make the world a better place through his paintings.  He would make something beautiful, and give it to someone as a gift.  “How can I be of use in the world?” he asked in a letter to his brother Theo (July, 1880).  “Cannot I serve some purpose and be of some good?”  The millions of people who line up to see the paintings of Van Gogh, and come away with renewed hope, have answered that question.

I wonder what Van Gogh meant by the word beautiful?  He said that he wanted to paint things as they really were, and the writer, John Berger, thought Van Gogh’s entire life was an endless yearning for reality. (Selected Essays of John Berger, edited by Geoff Dyer, Vintage International, 2003)  The problem is that different people see reality differently.  The reality Van Gogh was seeking was not the reality of the scientist who said that what was real could be measured with a calculator.  Van Gogh’s reality was closer to William Blake’s statement: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, people would see everything as it is, infinite.”  This was a vision of the sacred, using Mircea Eliade’s definition of the sacred as that which is saturated with being – the essence of things.

The philosopher, Karl Jaspers, described how Van Gogh’s paintings captured the essence of things.  “It seems to me,” he wrote, “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.”  To see things as they really are is to experience the sacred.  The person who sees with full attention becomes a seer, and that person will reject the materialistic, profit-driven society we live in.  In this sense the spiritual is political.

The philosopher, Heidegger, defined truth as the unconcealedness of being, and beauty as the clothes of being.  This is the reality Van Gogh sought.  This is what Keats meant when he wrote in his poem Ode To A Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  We share being, for all things are one in that they are, and all things are many in what they are.  Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation expressed our connection to all that is when he said, “The earth and myself are of one mind.”  If we are of one mind, or one reality, with all that is, then we are kin with the mice in the forest and the stars in the sky.  First Nations people state this reality in the phrase “All my relations”.  Beauty as the clothes of being carries a political message because we have no right to harm or exploit our relatives.  Brother Sun; Sister Moon.

We are part of the healing of the world when we create something beautiful.  We reach out to our sisters and brothers with the gift of hope – a song, a poem, a dance, a painting, a banner, a poster, a photograph, a quilt, a sculpture, a play, a newsletter, a story, a speech, an opera, a collage, a drawing, a wall hanging, a mural, and the giving of a kind word from one person to another.  All these creations are precious stones for the bridge we are building across the river of despair and injustice to a land of beauty where everyone is included.

Hope In Spite Of The New World Order

The global economy, driven by the dynamic of accumulation, creates enormous poverty as well as enormous wealth.  As documented in the book Global Dreams, Imperial Corporations And The New World Order, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening as wages are forced down, social programs slashed, and unemployment increased in a brutal pattern of competitive impoverishment.

There is hope in spite of the unrestrained accumulation of transnational corporations, however, because human beings will always fight for justice – as the people of South Africa remind us.

Unfortunately, few politicians in Canada have the vision to speak words of hope to the millions of Canadians who are being hurt by the unemployment and poverty created by the transnational global economy.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, President of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Mexico, is one person who can speak from the heart to the suffering people of the world.  In an article in Global Visions – Beyond The New World Order – edited by J. Brecher, J.B. Childs, and J. Cutler (Black Rose Books, 1993), he wrote:

“Considering our existing world, to create an order of justice and equality might seem an impossible task.  Some, blinded by the interests that move the great powers today, believe that the present order cannot be changed.

“They do not want to see that in the heart of every nation there are men and women who fight against any form of oppression, marginality, and exploitation, and that defying injustice has always brought great changes and progress for humanity.

“Therein lies our optimism that changes are possible.  People are struggling for them, and without doubt they will be attained.  In every nation some lights remain.  They may seem weak, but history has taught us that these flames are the ones that light up consciences and warm the will to continue.  When they become more intense, they move peoples and nations.”