The Experience of the Sacred

People often question the meaning of the terms “religion” and “spirituality.” One of the challenges in defining such terms is to identify a definition that captures the essence of the concepts, while at the same time limiting them to not be all-inclusive.

Psychologsts of religion often have defined religion and spirituality in terms of the “Sacred,” which further is defined as that which is holy, set apart, or distinct. The problem with this seems to be that the terms used in the definition are no clearer than the terms trying to be defined!

In light of all the great religious and spiritual traditions across the world, I’ve always thought that the Sacred has something to do with an entity that lasts forever. God, Jesus, the soul, and everyday objects connected with such entities (for example, Holy Communion) fit this definition. When I present this definition to students, many agree, while others say that this leaves out their view of that which is Sacred and, by implication, also what is spiritual. For instance, an atheist who finds intense positive emotion in sex or music might say that they have had a “spiritual experience,” which my definition wouldn’t recognize as such. My response typically is that the Sacred and the spiritual seem to have qualities different from merely experiencing intense positive emotion.

I’ve been thinking more about this recently, though, and wonder if there is another reason to believe that the Sacred is distinct. I wrote in my last post about the fear that I experienced in the presence of the mountains of northwest Scotland. At the same time, I’ve been living in what is considered to be one of the most “haunted” houses in Scotland. I’ve been interested in how students react to the possibility that ghosts are among us. Universally, the first response is that of fear, even though there is no real concern that the ghosts would ever directly harm anyone. This makes me wonder whether real encounters with Sacred entitities (and ghosts fit my definition of Sacred, I think, because they are thought to live forever) seem to always provoke a sense of fear. Perhaps this is because Sacred entitites always have a sense of mystery to them, a sense of the unknown, and also a sense of power, that makes people feel vulnerable and afraid.

This also makes me wonder what happens when people who used to have very profound feelings in the presence of the Divine lose that feeling over time. This can sometimes really frustrate people who long for that “real presence” that they used to feel. It almost seems that some kind of desensitization process occurs. When I heard about ghosts being in this house for the first time, I was afraid to go in the basement. But, now that I’ve done it a number of times, I don’t really think about it anymore. Last week, when I was in the mountains, I really felt the presence of God. However, I imagine that if I lived in the mountains, that feeling would subside. For people who want to retain that sense of the Sacred, this suggests that they might do well to seek out different kinds of experiences (for example, different kinds of nature experiences, different kinds of interactions, different kinds of ways of visualizing spiritual stories [I’m here thinking of Brother Lawrence’s ideas about “practicing the presence of God”).

Yet, I think part of living in this world is to see great spiritual truths dimly. This is probably part of why we experience fear in the presence of the Sacred and also part of why we become desensitized. However, it is the Christian’s awesome hope that, someday, we will see these great truths completely and that we will experience the Sacred face to face. The mystery of the unknown will be lifted and our fear will be transformed to something more like rapture or ecstasy. No desensitization will occur and we forever will grow in our delight of our God.


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