Wide Spot: Sacred

When I was a kid, sacred was about church. It was the Lord’s Prayer repeated each Sunday; it was the consecration, the communion cup, the baptismal fountain, the ashes on the forehead.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, the indigenous biologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts an observance enacted daily during the summer months that her family camped in the Algonquin National Forest. Wall Kimmerer’s father would rise early and start the coffee. When it had perked, he’d take the pot off the fire and, as the mist rose off the water, pour a steaming stream onto the ground, speak the first words of the day. “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus,” he’d say, using the Algonquin name for the highest peak in the park.

In an effort to connect this humble family rite with the larger framework of indigenous sacred ceremony which Wall Kimmerer learned as an adult, she asked her father how the coffee rite started. Was it the vestige of a tradition that hadn’t been suppressed by Indian boarding school? Her father said no. He just started doing it. Originally, he simply wanted to clear the plug of grounds that collects in the spout of a well-perked pot of camp coffee. But then the behavior took on its own life. It became something sacred, important, necessary for the start of a new day. “There weren’t always grounds to clear,” he said, but pouring the first coffee on the ground and dedicating it with a prayer became a way to say thanks, a mark of respect and gratitude for the day. By joining the seemingly mundane to a ritual, he caused the world to shimmer with sacredness.

One interpretation of the word “sacred” is set apart, particularly blessed, holier-than-thou. As a kid, I sometimes wondered if this meant that a rosary was more sacred than a rose. But as I grew up, I came to understand that “sacred” really means that something or someone is dedicated—belongs to—the Holy. This isn’t limited to ritual vessels, certain words, specific postures: they’re not the whole show. The whole show is everything. My understanding is that the physical world bodies forth and reflects the Holy in its every atom, in its every relationship. It’s all sacred. We simply have to notice.

From time immemorial, humans have created rituals in order to help ourselves pay attention to this overwhelming glory of daily reality. Now—as seasons go out of whack, as wildfires rage and mudslides tear the mountains away—now is the time for us to notice. Now is the time to stitch this world together with rites, with ceremonies, with marks of respect and gratitude. No, it won’t change the fact that climate change is thoroughly upon us, that humans are all a little crazy right now. But a simple ritual can enable us to see the shimmering reality underneath and throughout the seeming mess: Sacred. Beautiful. Gift. And when we see that sacredness, we’re more likely to figure out how to love it.

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