Monday, June 17, 2013
From my book in progress: Every Day Holy Day
Standing at the edge of Sacred Cenote at the ancient Mayan temple city of Chichen-Itza, I stared at the vibrant green water nearly 30 meters beneath me. I knew that archaeologists had recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery and human sacrifice from this alarmingly placid sinkhole, where Mayan priests, hoping to court the favor of the gods, had tossed their helpless victims who often included children. Just a few steps away, I could hear the cacophony of tourists buying cheap souvenirs and bottled water, but at the rim of the well, silence prevailed.
I understood why. The very rocks and cliffs seemed to have absorbed the fear and terror of those who had died and now, centuries later, their feelings reverberated, forcing even the most oblivious sightseer to silence.
Because of the horrors committed there, the place wasn’t holy, in the way that a great Cathedral is, but it was still sacred. It was a location where the veil between now and eternity was stretched so thin I could almost reach through it.
For me that is one definition of sacred.
I’ve felt that same sense at San Clemente in Rome, as I climbed down layers of excavation from the 12th century basilica where St. Clement is buried, through a fourth century church, to an altar to the Roman cult god Mithras and finally to the spring where the pre-Romans worshipped unknown deities.
Reflecting on the sacred places I’ve visited, I think I understand that a location becomes sacred, not by declaration, but through honest and sincere prayer, even when, because of lack of knowledge, that prayer isn’t directed to the Triune God.
The Cenote at Chichen-Itza isn’t sacred because the Mayan priests declared it to be so, nor because of the sacrifices that took place there, nor because of the gods that were worshipped there, but because, at the moment of their deaths, individual souls cried out to their Creator, seeking mercy, salvation and hope and, at the moment of those deaths, their Creator answered.
San Clement is sacred because for thousands of years, people have been coming to that spot, seeking to do the will of God as they understood him, even when they believed that will involved slitting the throat of a bull and washing its blood way with spring water.
St. Mary’s in my town is sacred, certainly because the Sacrifice of the Mass is and has been offered there so many times, but also because countless prayers from countless pilgrims on life’s spiritual journey have been said in its pews, giving an ordinary city block a sacred dimension.
This power to transform the ordinary into the sacred isn’t the prerogative of priests and saints. It’s something we all possess. By the way we focus our attention on the divine, we can turn our homes, yards, even our cars into sacred spaces.
Summer is a wonderful time to work on this transformation because during this season, doors and windows are left open, meals are eaten on porches, and evenings are spent under the stars. We experience a fluidity between in and out which can become a living example of how the mundane can become sacred by our actions, intentions and our prayers.
This day, I urge you to infuse your own physical spaces with the intention of allowing the divine to permeate. Using the example of Brother Lawrence who says, “It is a great delusion to think our times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to cleave to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer,” we can gradually alter our environment so that when someone enters it, they immediately know they are stepping into sacred space.