We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Even our communication is much less interactive and personal than it was, due to the unfortunate preference for social media. If you couple that with the American mentality of excessive independence and secularism, it makes for a very disconnected society. I am not advocating that America lose its secular governance – especially with this administration, we do not have enough separation of church and state, and unfortunately in America, religion becomes conflated with the Religious Right and Christianity. But secular liberals have a hard time understanding anything that isn’t 110%, fair and square to the last drop equality and freedom. The idea of subjugating one’s personal desires to anything greater is simply unthinkable to them. And perhaps this is due to their having been raised in organized religion, and its heavy-handed requirements for personal behavior as well as its endless rituals and consumption of one’s time.
Despite all this, I still maintain that we need spirituality in this world. We need a sense of something sacred.
Two definitions under the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word sacred provide an adequate meaning for what I’m discussing here. One reads, “entitled to reverence and respect.” Another reads “highly valued and important.” In many cultures, certain daily rituals are considered sacred. For example, the tea ceremony, or even quotidian tasks such as how one slices tofu in the home, are considered sacred in Japan. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is equally revered. Ask any Italian worth his or her weight in semolina if there is a proper way to make pasta, and do not contradict him or her. But beyond food, there are other things that are considered sacred. Certain objects, such as heirlooms, need to be treated with respect, as they hold great significance to a deceased loved one. Color symbolism, such as red at Asian weddings, is important. Various poets or writers or artists of any genre are sacred to different cultures. Russians love Pushkin and Poles adore Chopin. Brazilians, a beautifully sentimental people, worship not only their gods, but also their musicians and their land of their country.
Part of our loss of the sense of something sacred in America stems from the fact that we have so few historical edifices or places and spaces that are important. Everything here is designed for efficiency and practicality, and in some parts of the country, like the Midwest, pragmatism is valued over anything else. We do not have many basilicas or mosques like the Istanbul “Blue Mosque” that take our breath away. We do not have ornate temples like in South India whose gopurams (towers) are sculpted impressively, if sometimes gaudily, by hand by artisans of astounding skill. We do not have, as a regular part of our culture, large plazas or public spaces that exist simply to allow people to congregate. There are no Macchu Picchus here, nor an Eiffel Tower. Other than the grand nature out west or in the mountains in the east, the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and other big cities, and the over-the-topness of Las Vegas, most everything in America in public spaces is built to scale, for efficiency and not for aesthetics. If something is large, it is usually just to serve a function: a convention center, a corporate headquarters, a shopping mall.
We do have reverence in America, but it often becomes extremist, centered on a particular person, celebrity, or even religious leader or cult figure. It can be jingoistic, insular, and dangerous. What I am talking about is the quiet reverence and respect that comes from history, from a deep love, and from a sense of the aesthetic. A quiet hush. This sense of sacred is something that makes secular individuals lay down their guard that says everything has to be about them, and experience a sense of humility and surrender that all the great spiritual masters have taught us for millennia. Life in America should not just be all about us; to live this way is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also robs us of a feeling of something beautiful that is beyond us. It disconnects us from our continuity with other beings that existed before us.
Take time to reflect on what is personally sacred to you, what is meaningful to you, something that you respect and revere.