“The sacred is that which reminds us; the secular is that which bids us forget.”
Stephen Graham, A Tramp’s Sketches (1912)
The sacred is anything that makes you wonder if you might be likewise sacred. The secular is everything that calls this silly moonshine and idle applesauce. The sacred is anything that suggests that life is more than Houseman’s “long fool’s errand to the grave.” The secular is everything that snorts and says stick to your errand and wipe that fool grin off your face.
Anything can be sacred if it occasions the sublime. Sublime means on the boundary or at the limit, and it denotes an experience of being at the outer edge of the everyday world, of standing on the threshold of a profound mystery. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes a man who describes it this way:
“I felt on these occasions . . . an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life.”
It seemed on these occasions that there was more to life than this man had formerly supposed, and this naturally caused him to think that there might also be more to himself than he had formerly supposed. The Psalmist described sublime experience when he wrote,
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls
The mystery beyond the waterfalls calls to the mystery deep within a man’s soul. From its depths, the soul responds. And the man who is conscious of this exchange between deep mysteries is thereby reminded that he is a sacred being, and that his errand is neither foolish nor to the grave. His errand is to that deep mystery that calls from beyond the outer edge of the everyday world
Stephen Graham heard this mysterious call from all natural beauty, and so called all natural beauty sacred. Describing the countryside he and a companion passed through on a walking tour, Graham wrote:
“It seemed that we were surrounded by mysteries just about to reveal themselves.”
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Imagination is the power to see mystery beyond the limit of everyday experience, and it therefore entails a capacity to be reminded by the sacred, to be called by the sublime. In Plato’s Symposium, the Arcadian prophetess Diotima says that a human mind is “pregnant” with “spiritual children,” but that these children cannot be delivered without beauty to induce labor. What Diotima calls beauty, Graham calls sacred, and both are identical with the Psalmist’s deep that calls to deep.
“When the pregnant mind meets beauty, it is filled with happiness and overflows in joy and is delivered of what it bears. But if chance brings it to ugliness it shrivels into wry-faced grief and turns back and shrinks away and bringeth not forth, but distressfully retains its pregnancy.”
What Diotima calls ugliness, Graham calls the secular, for as the countryman Graham tells us:
“The town is dangerous in that it has little beauty. It causes us to forget.”
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Charles Darwin wrote an Autobiographical Sketch when he was seventy-two years old, and in it described a dolorous spiritual change he had suffered some forty years before. Until he was thirty, Darwin said that poetry, pictures and music had afforded him exquisite delight, but in the years that followed, his taste for these things shriveled into “wry-faced” grief, and he at last found them unbearably dull or positively repellant.
“I retain some taste for fine scenery,” the great naturalist wrote, “but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it once did.” Darwin explained the shriveling of his “higher tastes” as a consequence of his scientific lucubration.
“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.”
Perhaps turning the mind into a machine for grinding out general laws shrivels the higher tastes because, as Graham said, the secular is that which bids us forget, because the roar and clatter of powerful mental machinery prevents a man from hearing or answering the call of the deep from within the roar of the waterfalls.