Saturday, May 28

Finding the Sacred among the Secular: An Integrated Approach

A while ago, I was visiting the Philadelphia area with a few friends and when coming back from our walking tour of the city I remarked, "I would have trouble finding the sacred in big cities such as Philadelphia, not because it cannot be found, but because I am not used to finding the sacredness among the secular." One of my companions said in reply, "many people face the same difficulty, but it is important to seek out the sacred even among the secular. You will find your sacred spaces in the cities, Troy." We often portray the phrases "sacred" and "secular" as being in complete opposition to one another. Sacredness in our cities is seen as religious shrines, churches, mosques, temples or synagogues, whereas secular is labelled as only meaning "worldly," in a negative sense. This applies not only to our cities, but to our jobs, our lifestyles, our societies in general. This then raises the question - how do we find the sacred among the secular?

The Christian-Franciscan tradition would see everything alive and brimming with sacredness. According to Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, within the tradition, "there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane. All of the world is sacred... everything that happens is potentially sacred if you allow it to be."[1] The kind of spirituality that is fostered through this line of thinking allows for an upside-down, side-walk spirituality kind of approach. It means that you may find more enrichment in attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than in attending a Home Group through your local church. It means that even in what we label the "ordinary" or even the "profane," we can find moments of profound or deep connection. 

Earlier this month, I was taking a tour of various churches in that same Philadelphia area with a friend, and we came across a Church with a Christian shrine (pictured) in the alleyway adjacent to the building. Clearly, what originally began as a place of devotion has been re-purposed as a play-area for toddlers and younger children, a sort of day-care area. It could also be that the community there has learned to find the sacred among the secular - or if you rather, not to make their spirituality and their religious tradition separate from their daily lives. They may have implemented an integrated approach to the spiritual life - not make such a large divide between the sacred and the secular. I found this particular shrine a beautiful and very meaningful space. Why? Oftentimes a Christian shrine is cleaned up, possibly adorned with flowers or other such adornments. In this picture, we see that the area around the shrine is not completely "cleaned" up, it is messy! There are bicycle helmets, children's toys, bottles and other such things laying around everywhere. This is true to life - we cannot always separate the sacredness from the secular, we are compelled to find such an integrated approach! Although none of this may have been intended by the Church community, it is a helpful and very concrete example of how "messy" a real grounded, lived-in spirituality should be.

Consider the sacred and secular in the light of the resurrection narratives - "the Risen Christ is [almost] not ever apparent as a supernatural figure, but mistaken in one case for a gardener, another time for a fellow traveler on the road, and then for a fisherman offering advice. He seems to look just like everybody else after the Resurrection."[2] Even the disciples, after having seen the Risen Christ twice already, return to their "ordinary" or "secular" jobs of fishing! They do not become priests, they do not "try to get a job at the Temple, go on more retreats, take vows, leave their wives, get a special title, nor is there any mention of them... wearing special clothing beyond that of a wayfarer or 'workman'."[3] 

Why is this the case for the disciples? They had an integrated approach to the spiritual life, which included the "secular" and the "sacred!" As Rohr points out, "When the inner is utterly transformed, you do not need symbolic outer validations, special hats, or flashy insignia." They were able to find the sacred among the secular and continue living their lives because of this approach. In the Catholic tradition there are a number of "secular" orders, such as the Secular Dominicans or Secular Franciscans. The Secular Franciscans are called such not because they are more "worldly" than the Sisters of St. Francis or the Franciscan friars, not because they engage in any kind of profane behavior or anything along those lines, but rather because the Secular Franciscans follow a Christian-Franciscan spirituality but also live and serve intentionally "out there." They are married and unmarried, with and without children, working every kind of jobs. They have not taken religious vows to live in a community of other professed religious, but they live "in the world" and serve as they are. They have found ways to integrate the sacred with the secular!

Consider Psalm 139:7 which says, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" The Psalmist is saying that God is everywhere! We read elsewhere that "whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1st Corinthians 10:31). One can find sacredness among the secular. Too often, we create divisions and wedges between the secular and the sacred, and certainly at different times or for different reasons, it can be important to separate the two. But creating this subtle division also keeps us from seeing the goodness, wholeness, sacredness and holiness not only in ourselves, but in other places and other things! It allows us to find sacred spaces even the cities. It allows us to find sacredness in our workplaces. It allows us to find sacredness on the streets. If we narrow our focus to block out everything that is not adorned with religious symbolism or meaning, we will lose many things that are very important to our human development.

"Our Lady of Cramer Hill"
No Copyright Infringement Intended
(Artwork by Bernadette Brown)
Consider this artwork of "Our Lady of Cramer Hill." Cramer Hill is a neighborhood in East Camden in New Jersey, the same Camden often portrayed in the media as being one of the most violent and most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. Having served and ministered in Camden, from personal experience I can say that although there is truth in some of that, there is also a lot that the media ignores or is unaware of. There is a wealth of sacredness to be found among the secular in places such as Camden.

This piece of art, done by Bernadette Brown, illustrates multiple things for us. The central figure is "Our Lady of Cramer Hill," intended to be St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. The underlying question is - "if Mary were to appear today in Cramer Hill, what would she look like?" Notice the broken windows and boarded-up doorway, the broken buildings and cracked sidewalks. Notice the cat - one of many - running around the concrete jungle. Notice the shoes draped by their laces on the power-line, a visual sign that a drug dealer is nearby. Notice the drug needle beneath her feet. Notice the liquor bottle close by. But notice also the halo produced by the lamppost behind Mary. Notice the word "Peace" on the building. Notice the flower in her hair. Notice the moon above, shining in its splendor! Notice the stars on her shoes, reminding us of the cosmos. Notice the Spanish phrase "Dios es Amor" ("God is Love") etched behind her. Notice too, the little flower coming up through the cracks of the sidewalk, life among the seeming desolation. Much like the shrine with the children's toys scattered everywhere, this is not a typical image of a "sacred space" where one would go to find God. And yet, it is in these very places where we sometimes find the Divine the most present!

For everyone of any religious tradition or background - Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Bahá'í, or what have you, finding a way to integrate both the sacred and the secular is indeed a very important step in our personal, communal and societal growth. Imagine if we approach economics from an integrated perspective! What would that mean for the homeless? For those who are stricken by poverty? Imagine if we approached science from this perspective! You can still find the sacred among the science - you can still be amazed and enriched through such perspectives! One of the many criticisms in Christianity is that practicing one's faith should not be a Sunday-only event![5] One should live out their faith - or spiritual journey - every day of the week. Entering into "sacred-spaces" of churches or shrines can and is meant to be helpful in finding encounters with the Divine, but for some individuals, they find the Divine more easily by attending an A.A. meeting or serving the marginalized at a soup kitchen or breadline on the streets. This is the intention behind the term "sidewalk spirituality," is to live out your faith or your religious traditions even at the margins and edges of society.

This is when we are able to go through large cities such as Philadelphia and find meaning and sacredness everywhere. We can, of course, simply go in the churches along the streets where one may go to seek peace from the business of life. That of course still holds true and good for many people, including myself. But for others, finding that balance in an integrated approach is crucial and even vital to having a healthy understanding of what it means to live spiritually. For these aforementioned reasons, this is why St. "Bonaventure said that an uneducated washer woman could, without even knowing it, be much closer to God than a doctor in theology such as himself."[6]

For the Christian, this line of thinking should serve as an imperative or motivation. If we can find God in everything and God is in everything and everyone, then when we carry out works of mercy - visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, sheltering the shelterless (or giving a home to the homeless), giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked or those with little resources or what have you. We ought to treat each and every individual person as if we were greeting the Divine, and treat every space as if it was sacred. This kind of mentality could lead to less boundaries and less challenges between many. How this mentality is carried out practically and realistically is up to each individual person. Certainly, taking up an integrated approach between the sacred and the secular will not solve every problem that we face today, but if we begin to shift the way we approach these issues, we may have made a good step in the right direction together.

[1] Rohr, Richard, OFM. Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi. 1st Ed. ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 10. Print.
[2] Ibid, 16.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Or Saturday, for Seventh Day Adventists and Jews. Friday is the holy day in Islam.
[6] Rohr, 12.

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