The Stuff of the Sacred
“Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else… A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude or reject anyone.”
-Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation “Seeing Christ Everywhere,” Wednesday Feb. 13, 2019 To read the entire meditation, click here.
I don't think it's a stretch to say there are many people who find seeing, hearing and/or connecting with God is much easier when they have an opportunity to spend even a small amount of time out in nature. When I remember my own experiences hiking in forests, driving through mountains, or looking out across never-ending prairies or desolate badlands, I have no trouble recalling the sense of these being sacred places.
When it comes to the built environment, I grew up with the notion many hold, that churches are sacred spaces. For me, most other, everyday places that people spend the majority of their time fell into the realm of the secular. Nothing felt very sacred to me about office spaces or living rooms or grocery stores or the like.
I've carried some of this dualistic way of thinking into my relationships with people, too. Throughout my life, I’ve encountered people who just seem to have it all together with God, who have an almost palpable “holiness” about them, for lack of a better word. I've also known people who seemed pretty hopeless or truly bad. And then somewhere in the middle there are people like me, with fits and starts of touching into the sacred punctuating what otherwise look like pretty regular, very secular lives.
I thought marriage was sacred until my first one fell apart. Now, even with it's messy rough patches, I’m able to see it that way again thanks largely to my husband. I sometimes see service to others as sacred, having been given a strong sense of its importance by my parents, but I know I have often performed it out of a sense that it is the right thing to do, and not because I sensed a particular connection to anything other than the example set for me.
There have been some moments when I’ve thought about random others, like when I’ve noticed people waiting for buses and longed to know their stories, or driven through small towns in the middle of the night and wondered about the conversations going on around kitchen tables in houses where the lights were still on. These have been sweet, Spirit-filled - dare I say, "sacred" - moments, but I can go for a long time without really seeing others or being concerned about others seeing me.
The past month has put the way I think about all these things front and center. I’m presently halfway through an online class on Franciscan spirituality, and I’m finding some of the questions that are coming up tough to tackle. Last week, I was sharing with a friend some of what I was learning about the Franciscan worldview, particularly when it comes to non-dualism. This includes the idea that everything is sacred, and as noted in the quote from Richard Rohr at the beginning of this post, Christ is in everything and everyone.
In thinking about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, it’s easier for me to parse out seeing Christ in everyone than it is to include the part about Christ being in “everything else.” I have an understanding of Christ in creation, and I can buy that God/Christ/Spirit is indeed in the midst of my everyday comings and goings and all my interactions. But when asked to reflect on my relationship with things, I feel stuck, even though I can think of times Spirit has delivered some pretty poignant object lessons. “What about manufactured things?” I asked my friend. “Where is Christ in stuff?”
He challenged me to pick something weird in my house and see if I could find Christ in it, and to blog about what I found. The item I chose, pictured above, is a solar-powered fountain for a birdbath. It was a gift for my husband’s birthday this year. While he was gone for a few days, I set it up to surprise him, and it worked beautifully. But on the day of his return, in perfect, sunny conditions, it just sputtered pathetically. We haven’t been able to use it since. Choosing something I was mad at seemed like a great thing to put to the test for this challenge.
I didn’t carry the fountain around with me all week, but in the spirit of a common practice of Francis’s day, I spent a lot of time "gazing" at the fountain in my mind’s eye. My first reaction was that the whole exercise felt a little sacrilegious. Relinquishing possessions of any kind was a core part of what St. Francis represented. He considered himself married to poverty, and he lived following the example of Jesus in owning nothing. While he might have appreciated that the fountain ultimately existed to serve birds, the fact that I spent money on this frivolous, (mostly) plastic thing and then questioned finding Christ in it would probably make him frown.
I had originally thought about employing the three transcendentals – truth, beauty and goodness – to this task, but in reading more about them, I realized I didn’t really understand them enough. From what I do understand, Francis was not too worried about the academic approach to philosophies around the goodness and beauty of things; he favored a more intuitive and experiential approach. This is something I could work with.
What came to me then was mostly relational. I was grateful, so grateful, that in times that are so hard for so many, I was able to buy a gift for my husband. I was grateful that it was something that had potential to bring him great joy. (Many of his God moments are tied to bird sightings.) And I was joyful, too, about the idea that birds might be attracted to this fountain and the birdbath for relief on hot days.
There are plenty of examples of things working under water, but I recalled opening the box and my sense of wonder that its motor could function under water without electrocuting something. I had a sense of appreciation for the simplicity of the design and the fact that it generated its own power. I was pleasantly surprised when it worked, and then got to wonder some more as I watched at how slight shifts in sunlight changed it.
Even though I was aggravated when it quit working and have yet to try to fix it, the God-given curiosity which gives me a fighting chance at repairing it and the love behind wanting to do something for my husband felt like important things to pay attention to.
I couldn’t ignore the environmental impacts of both making an item like this fountain (solar power aside) and eventually discarding it. This alone was strong motivation for making a commitment to fixing it. At first, it felt important to acknowledge that the manufacture of the fountain meant jobs for people, and that this might morally offset the harm to the environment at least a little, but I don’t know where it was made, so it possibly represents issues of social injustice as well.
It’s a big stretch to make this comparison, but if I apply some of what stood out for me in the class so far, I might say this fountain came into a broken world through broken processes and is not anything a reasonable person would consider necessary, but it still has a certain, simple value/beauty in its potential to allow people to engage with creation (and now, also in its ability to serve as yet another object lesson for me.)
I may not have found Christ directly in the fountain, and I still have a very long way to go in addressing my relationship with things. But in the exercise, I got a small taste of how a single thing could expand my experience of God through what I see in my husband, a sense of wonder, and areas of concern like the environment and working conditions of others that could inspire action. I look forward to seeing how the Franciscan view of the sacred in everything continues to unfold in this class, and then in my own experiences.
In what ways is it easiest for you to “see Christ in everything?” Where do you feel most challenged by this idea? What questions does it raise for you about your relationship to people, places, or things? Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below.