“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.
For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.
It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:
- “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
- “a moment… that was really real,”
- “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
- “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
- “a sense of uplift,” and
- “a sacred moment.”
Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”
What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.
Given this, I wonder whether this year has been more emotionally and spiritually difficult for me because I have withdrawn – often for public health reasons – from opportunities for deep “connection with someone or something.” For example, I mourn the losses of a shared physical classroom experience where the “magic” happens with my students, the bonding ritual of my family’s yearly vacation to somewhere special, and the spiritual connection of face-to-face worship. My routine now is much more bland. I stay at home most days, most of the time, plugging away at work on my computer. I’m not depressed or anxious in any significant way, but I do feel the void of positive emotions – such as awe and “being moved” – that so often stir me.
As we move into a pandemic fall and winter, I wonder about other possibilities.
To some degree, meaningful connection depends on our ability to be aware – in the moment – that what we perceive as sacred is still all around us. The belly laughter of children, the soft touch of a companion, the changing fall colors, the regularity and uniqueness of each sunrise and sunset, and the sense of the mysterious that sustains and guides us – these all have the potential to move us, if we only can pause to “take it in.”
Recently, I was inspired by this article in my local newspaper, as it reminded me of the Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (often translated “coziness”). As we socially distance ourselves this winter, can we do so in ways that connect us with each other in ways that maximize charm and coziness? Can we gather “over a mug of hot chocolate on the front steps,” for example? My wife and I recently purchased some string lights for our front porch and a new firepit for our back patio to connect with family and friends in some spacially distanced and yet hopefully memorable ways.
We also can remember times from our past where we experienced sacred moments. We can write about these or tell stories with those with whom we shared them. In these ways, we may reexperience some of the positive emotion we originally felt.
Finally, it’s possible to use this time of “mini-hibernation” or “mini-sabbatical” to plan for a future beyond the crises of 2020. We may be able to learn from our inner experiences this year to become clearer on what brings us joy and satisfaction. I’ve already written down some new goals, including travel opportunities I want to pursue, specific experiences I want to share with others, and my desire to find a new church community. Imagining these possibilities brings hope for more sacred moments in the future.
*The Oxford Online Dictionary defines malaise as “a general feeling of being ill, unhappy, or not satisfied, or that something is wrong in society, without being able to explain or identify what is wrong.” Thanks to Judy Johnson for sharing how this word captures her current experience.
Your bulleted list provoked some thoughts.
1. Mark Sayer wrote in his book, The Road Trip that Changed the World, “The word awesome is everywhere, not so much describing a transcendent idea of God, but a transcendent experience—which in the current language of faith can be used interchangeably between a worship service and an alpine skiing tour of New Zealand.” Sayer argues that worship, as currently practiced in the modern church, and skiing (or pick any similar experience) are characterized essentially as sources of that “awesome feeling.” Eugene Peterson conveys a very similar critique of church worship in his book, The Jesus Way. The Psalms, in contrast, describe the worship of God as the ultimate experience of the awesome. And, how can one read Colossians 1 and not be absolutely floored (awed) to realize just who our God is. No other experience in life comes even close to the worship of our incomparably majestic God. Sayer believes that most Christians don’t see it that way. I concur, based on lengthy conversations with life-long Christian friends.
2. With the exception of “a sense of uplift,” which occurs but is not a constant for me (maybe it should be!), I can honestly say that the items in your list describe my prayer times. I definitely would not have said that ten years ago. For most of my life, I did not experience the “awesome” in prayer, and prayer was a boring chore, practiced only sporadically. For this reason, except for saying grace at meals, prayerlessness is common among Christians. Were Christians to rediscover the majesty of God, corporately AND individually, the church would be a different place.
“More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!” (Ps 93:4 NRSV)
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