There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.
– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry
This year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”
Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.
We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.
There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.
The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.
The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.
The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.
Is “Nothing” Sacred?
The question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.
William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”
So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”
This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.
This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?
Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.
Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.
Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.
The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.
Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.
To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?
Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.
These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.
The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.
Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.
Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden
Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.
It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)
So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.
This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.
P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.
This poem is too short to quote from and make any sense. So, I will quote the whole thing. “The Want of Peace” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
The first and second stanzas stand in contrast to each other. The first represents the desire to live in peace with the world around us (and consequently each other), while the second reveals the truth about ourselves and the world we have created. This poem touches on some of the same themes discussed in the poem “The Dream” previously, the world as it should be contrasted with the world as it is, including ourselves.
I would like to focus on the other theme of this poem, peace. You may have heard that peace is not just the absence of conflict. This is still not a definition, but continues to allow the concept to be defined in the negative. “Not the absence of conflict”, I count three negatives in that short phrase. If it’s not the absence of something negative then it must involve the presence of something positive. I think Berry hints here, even in the negative, that presence itself is part of what is missing.
We have precious little practice or time in our culture for presence. There are too many advertisements, meetings, jobs, things to do and things to buy for us to be wholly present at any of them. Indeed, North American culture’s favorite past time substitutes the absence of activity, choosing instead to passively watch various screens, for any sort of real presence. (Insert thought here about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the “real presence” of the Eucharist.) “Going to the movies” or “watching TV” sound like activities, but in reality they are extended periods of inactivity and absence.
In contrast, real peace can be found in things that seem like inactivity, but are pregnant with presence and mindfulness, like the “fisherman’s silence” or “the gardener’s musing on rows”. John Zerzan talks about the way that language often (or always according to him) mediates our experience and keeps from an authentic encounter with the world. The presence in silence and musing is an unmediated experience in which we can find profound peace. So, peace can be found in silence. I could do a whole post on this topic, meditation and the Christian practice of centering prayer. Silence is where we are forced to encounter ourselves as we are, without the image mediated to us by advertising, popular culture and the media.
The poem concludes with the thought that we are led into this lack of peace by “burning men”. Indeed our leaders seem unanimous in their quest to build and sell violence in many forms, weapons and wars on everything from crime to drugs, not to mention nations and finally the never ending nebulous war on terrorism. The weapons of war have brought us everything from ammonium nitrate and agrochemicals to nuclear power. Yet, we expect something other than violence from these technologies.
When we finally acknowledge the absence of peace, the gaping hole left in the wake of these weapons, both physical and mental, we find ourselves in darkness. Yet, perhaps Berry is pointing us in this direction, the darkness is precisely where we find the “dumb life of roots”. The life cultivating the hidden mysteries of the soil is looked down on in a society that creates this absence of peace in order to fuel its unquenchable desire for growth. This is our refuge, or at least I know it is mine. With all my “education”, it is the life spent cultivating life above and below ground that allows presence into my life.