Reflection on Sacredness
Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.
An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.
Late Middle English. This is the Past Participle of the now archaic verb sacre ‘consecrate’. The source is Old French sacrer, from Latin sacrare, from sacer, sacr- ‘holy’. Early English use reflected the sense ‘consecrated’, but the word is now closer to the meaning of Latin sacer.
Made holy, religious. Sacred is the PP of Middle English sacrem, to render holy, consecrate, a verb now obsolete.
A solemn religious rite, e.g. the Eucharist.
Sacred, pure, sainted. This word is nothing but Middle English hool, (now spelt whole), with suffix-y. The original sense is ‘perfect’ or excellent.
Late Middle English. This is based on Latin sacer ‘sacred’ and is from the Latin verb consecrate ‘dedicate, devote as sacred.’
Late Middle English. The early sense of dedicate was ‘devote to sacred use by solemn rites’. The source of the form is Latin dedicate- from the verb dedicare ‘devote, consecrate’. The notion of introducing an artistic work such as a book or piece of music, with words addressed to a friend or patron, dates from the early 16th century. The adjective dedicated used to describe a person who is single-mindedly loyal and conscientious, arose in the mid 20th century. It is often extended and applied now in transport contexts in the sense ‘allocated to a particular purpose’, e.g. dedicated route, dedicated service. Late Middle English dedication is from Latin dedicatio(n).
What is Sacred?
Sacredness and Wholieness
The etymology of ‘sacred’ gives a glimpse of what the sacred is. The Latin root of ‘sacred’ is ‘sacer’, which means ‘holy’. The understanding of sacredness is bound with understanding holiness. The word ‘holy’ finds a modern counterpart; ‘whole’-y. Completeness and perfection find mention alongside ‘holy’, or ‘whole-y’. The etymology of ‘sacred’ shows that what is sacred is also what is whole, complete, and perfect.
Strictly speaking, sacredness is a redundant word whose meaning is identical to holy. To say something is sacred, such as a sacred place or sacred ritual, is to say that it is holy. Sacred as an adjective, or addition to the subject or noun, is an emphasis on the wholeness and being of the subject or noun. To replace holy with sacredness is unnecessary.
From an introduction to the etymological root of sacredness, we are brought to the fundamental characteristic of sacredness; a consideration of things insofar as they are whole. Sacredness renders parts into a whole, elements into a universe, and processes to completion. Concern for wholeness is necessarily a concern for sacredness as the two concerns engender a similar response from man. The treatment of that which is sacred is similar to that which is whole; sacredness and wholeness engender awe, solemnity, reverence.
This concern for the whole has been explored by Mircea Eliade in ‘The Sacred and the Profane’. His work on the nature of religion as an exploration of what is sacred and how it is sacred reveals the wholeness of myths, symbols, and rituals. However, Eliade reveals an important paradox that must be given consideration when attempting to understand sacredness. The paradox is that ‘by manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding milieu.’
How something ‘becomes something else, yet continues to remain itself’ is possible through the manner in which sacredness manifests itself. Eliade illustrates how this manifestation is possible through the founding of a centre that is not only a fixed point in the formless profane space, but also an ontological passage from one mode of being to another. At the moment of founding the centre, everything ‘becomes something else, yet continues to remain itself’ because the centre renders orientation possible. Through this manner of ‘existential orientation from the centre’ is the very idea of the multiple rendered into the whole. At this point, nothing lies outside the whole including the multiple, and nothing lies outside of the sacred including the profane.
For Eliade, the centre is the formative principle in understanding sacredness. The centre is not only the place of sacredness, but its founding is of importance as well. Eliade’s equating of the founding of the centre with the mythical moment of creation of the universe, so as to imitate the gods and take a position close to the origin of existence, allows man that ontological passage from one mode of being to another which was mentioned earlier. This mythological act of creating the universe from founding the centre illustrates how man consecrates the world around him through rendering it as a whole that emanates from the point at which he is.
Furthermore, this notion of creation holds a special relationship to architecture. As was noted by Joseph Milne; ‘This mythic ‘beginning of all things’ is not, however, a chronological beginning, but rather a sacred pattern that underlines and governs the unfolding and meaning of temporal time. It crosses the motion of temporal time vertically and is present within it in all moments, uniting it in the eternal beginning or arche. It follows that architecture holds a place at the beginning of all things at a moment of eternal creation.
‘[Religious man] always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.’ Everything acquires a new relationship for the religious man whose ‘existential situation’ is rooted in the sacred, as opposed to the profane. Nor is relativity possible for the religious man. No thing has being or is real insofar as it is considered outside of its relation to the sacred. The foundation of the centre is an act whereby the actor inhabits the thusly created world. Indeed, man participates in being through a sacred existential situation where he ‘ritually re-actualises the paradigmatic act of Creation’.
An Example of Sacredness
Eliade gives an example of sacredness by contrasting it with profaneness. In every example the manifestation of the sacred is of something of a completely different order, as opposed to the profane where the absence of manifestation is only homogony. The profane stone is indistinguishable from all other stones, but for those to whom the stone is sacred its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. Furthermore, by manifesting the sacred, the stone becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in the cosmic milieu. In this manner does recognizing the stone as sacred also recognize the cosmos as sacred. Nothing lies outside of sacredness.
Furthermore, Eliade goes on to say that the sacred is equivalent to reality, and is saturated with being. The polarity sacred-profane is often expressed as an opposition between real and unreal or pseudo-real. Things such as rocks become real only insofar as they participate in reality and the cosmos; a part of the whole.
Another example is that of construction in ancient India. Initially, an astronomer instructs where the first stone is to be laid. Mythologically speaking, this point lay above the head of the snake that supports the world. A stake is driven into the ground to fix the snake’s head. A foundation cornerstone is laid at the exact centre of the world, as the ritual fixing of the snake is a conquest over chaos and the un-manifested. This act of construction is rendered as an act of creation. Man gains orientation and being through ritual construction. Eliade goes on to say that the house is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony.
Two important examples have been touched on in Teilhard de Chardin’s seminal explorations of wholeness. The first example is a cell in a living body, and the second example is a stone in a vault.
The cells in a living body are an example of unity without losing the personality of each cell. Each takes part in an organic and natural whole, but cannot be explained or live in the full sense of the word outside of the complete body. In Teilhard’s words, ‘each cell is itself plus ourselves’. The particular cell has its own activity and movement, but cannot be understood outside of the whole body.
The stone in a vault also participates in unity whilst maintaining its personality. Each stone has its own shape, but cannot be understood in its own unique shape or unique spatial equilibrium outside of the vault. The stone is unified with the form of the vault.
Teilhard also makes the caveat, which will be mentioned now, that a certain imperfection exists within the examples. The individuality of the elements of stone or individual cells is partially suppressed by the dominating form. His unique vision is perfect unity through perfect differentiation, and these examples fall from his standard of perfection. Furthermore, Teilhard rejects monism due to monism’s tendency to merge the particulars into an undifferentiated whole, thereby annihilating the joy and mystery of union.
The next example of sacredness was mentioned initially in the etymology of sacrament. The Eucharist as a rite and as a sign of something sacred is a well known example to note. Furthermore, it is an explicit example of the paradox pointed out by Eliade, namely that ‘something becomes something else, while remaining itself’. The person, through the ritual eating and drinking becomes something else. "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh blood, abideth in me, and I in him" (John 6:57). As an example of sacred ritual, the Eucharist takes a unique position in that its proximity to ‘founding the centre’ and ‘creating the universe’ is so very close. The fundamental nature of eating and drinking brings the person close to the ‘creation of the universe’, and consequently allows for a ‘break in ontological plane’. The Eucharistic ritual is a fundamental example of the relation man takes in the consecration of the universe, as man is not sacralising something out there, but is sacralising himself. From his very being is the centre founded, and the cosmos sacralised.
What is illustrated by the examples is that for man to see the world as sacred, he must make it sacred, or consecrate it. For every sacred manifestation there corresponds being. Only in this manner can the act of consecration escape fictionalization. Insofar as man is, is sacred manifest. His very act of being cannot be a fiction or figment of imagination. To make the world sacred, or consecrate it is to make it whole, as being can never be anything but whole. Furthermore, the act of making is not an act of wilfulness against anything, but instead more of a fruition or birth of what is.
Using the example of the vault and the stone, we can draw an analogy to the act of laying the stone or consecration, and sacredness. In the same manner that the stone relates to the form of the vault, so too does the act of laying the stone relate to sacredness. The placing of a stone must be done with an understanding of the form, prior to the form’s material completion. This act of construction becomes an act of consecration as the unity of part to whole is dedicated from the start. The sacred manifests itself through a construction whose concern is wholeness.
The laying of the stone as a unit that takes relation to the vault as a whole is an act of mythical creation in that the laying of the stone as it relates to the vault is not only a literal act of creation, but also an act of centre creation in that everything takes its place from the original act of placing the stone. Everything within the subsequent construction process is understood from this initial act. The two senses apparent at this point, 1) consequences for the building process by what has already been placed, and 2) the being and structure of being that results from the building process, are both understood from this initial act. It should be noted that these two senses are inseparable, and each informs the other.
Furthermore, as the founding of the centre corresponds to being, it follows that the sacred laying of the stone in a vault corresponds to being as well. The implication of this is that founding the centre not only gives creation, orientation, and being, but also gives a manner of founding the centre whereby the founder is co-extensive with the founded. Indeed, Teilhard makes the point, ‘Each centre of consciousness in the world could not know the world as it is in fact capable of knowing it, except by being co-extensive with it.’
Knowledge and construction hold a close relationship in a process of construction whose concern is wholeness. Knowledge so conceived, namely as placing being as the foundation, becomes inherent within the building process. The act of laying the stone in the vault requires an understanding of the stone insofar as it relates to the whole vault. Understanding the stone as it relates to the whole vault is a simultaneous understanding of wholeness and being, as being can be nothing other than whole. What is suggested here is that the stone and the vault disclose themselves through the act of construction, and hence render construction as a source of knowledge. The subversive element becomes apparent when we consider this close relationship between construction and knowledge in the context of contemporary architectural culture where theory and practice are so sharply divided.
Consecration as building practice whereby individual elements are understood insofar as they are allowed to disclose themselves in relation to the whole, re-actualizes the paradigmatic act of creation suggested by Eliade. Creation, consecration, and construction become intertwined. The disclosure of what the stone in the vault is, is an example of how everything acquires a new relationship for the religious man whose ‘existential situation’ is rooted in the sacred, as opposed to the profane.
In the manner of allowing the stone and vault to disclose themselves, can we have making that is not wilful. This fruition or birth of what is develops from a sense of wholeness. The individual shape and character of each stone is only understood in relation to the vault, and what needs be made arises from this understanding. The order and necessity of things is determined by the unity of things. The act of making is an actualization of the being of the material stone. What is required of the maker is not wilfulness, but instead understanding and a concern for wholeness, for from wholeness does necessity arise.
The Centre and the Whole
The relationship of the centre to the whole is synonymous with the example of the stone to the vault. Each exists in tension with the other. This sacred manner of looking at things brings the centre of the person inline with the holy. The unique centre is what allows for apprehension and orientation, but the unique centre can only be fully realized in the concentration of the whole. The person may only know (w)holiness insofar as he partakes in it.
The founding of the centre of the person and the founding of the centre of the whole cosmos exist co-extensively. The ‘mythological act of founding the centre’ that was mentioned earlier whereby the whole cosmos emanates from the centre, not only provides an orientation when looking out towards the whole cosmos, but also provides a point of concentration when looking from the whole cosmos.
To quote Teilhard again, ‘Personalized being, which makes us to be human, is the highest state in which we are enabled to apprehend the stuff of the world’, and from this we can see the relationship between centre and whole. That relationship is best understood as an emphasis on being. The person is insofar as his centre is a concentration of the whole. The apprehension of the unity of all things is a focusing of that unity and whole. From this focusing of the whole, the personal centre becomes part of the whole, thereby realizing unity ontologically. Again, we can say the person may only know holiness and sacredness insofar as he partakes in it, and we can also say that this inescapable appropriation of the centre for the whole, and the whole for the centre, renders all apprehension as necessarily sacred. In the case where an apprehension is not held to be sacred the choice of keeping either the apprehension or the sacred should be limited to the latter.
The centre and the whole can be understood from Eliade’s notion where something ‘becomes something else, yet continues to remain itself’. Again a certain tension presents itself in that the personal centre becomes more personalized through its relation with the whole, for the whole is brought together in the centre. The personal centre is something else as it relates to the whole, while simultaneously being more itself in its relationship to the whole. The personal centre has more being, and hence more uniqueness in its relation to the whole. The personal centre is more of a personal centre insofar as the ‘stuff of the world’ is concentrated. The personal centre becomes a point of sublimation within the whole where the ‘stuff of the world’ is understood as it is. What is implied here is that the ‘stuff of the world’ discloses itself through being. At this point, the sacred manifests from reality itself.
The rites and rituals mentioned by Eliade not only mark those places where a break in plane is possible from profane to sacred, but also mark a different relationship to the ‘stuff of the world’. Not only is the ‘stuff of the world’ seen as ‘something else, yet itself’, but the act of seeing is rendered as sacred as well. This manner of sacred looking is approached through dedication.
To understand how dedication relates to a sacred manner of looking, the proximity of dedication to devotion must be explored. That these two words, dedication and devotion, occur together is important. Dedication is commonly understood as either ‘allocated to a particular purpose’, or as ‘single-mindedly filled with convictions’. These senses of the word dedication are foreign to dedication as a sacred manner seeing. What must be realized is the implicit relationship to ‘the stuff of the world’ suggested by holding dedication and devotion as a conviction. That implicit relationship is that the person holds ideas about ‘the stuff of the world’, and the ideas are divorced from the ‘stuff of the world’.
To speak of devotion as a sacred manner of seeing is to speak of devotion as passion, affection, and appetite. Looking at devotion as a sense of ‘conviction’ suggests an aversion of a sacred manner of seeing, for one cannot manipulate or control appetites or passions. Devotion in the sense of passion or appetite suggests a participation that is absent with devotion in the sense of ‘conviction’. What the ‘stuff of the world’ requires in not a set of convictions, but instead an allowance for the ‘stuff of the world’ to become fully itself. This allowance occurs through the appetites and passions of devotion.
Devotion as passion or appetite allows for a sacred manner of seeing in that the rites and rituals of dedication provide an orientation whereby the ‘stuff of the world’ can disclose itself. No set of convictions prevent a sacred manner of seeing when genuine passion and appetite are combined in dedication rites.
The sense of purposefulness in devotion and dedication takes on new light when considering that through passion and appetite, the purpose of the ‘stuff of the world’ is to be what it is. To become fully what it is, is the purpose of dedication rites. We must remember at this point that something becomes fully what it is through its participation in the whole. The appetite exists as a need for wholeness; some deficiency that is inherent and unchangeable within the order of things that brings things to more complete being. Dedication brings about a sense of sacredness in that through purposefulness, the being of the ‘stuff of the world’ is brought into focus.
It follows that to dedicate something is to orient it. That orientation is towards the natural, perhaps inevitable, end that is inherent within the matter at hand. The relationship of sacredness to the matter at hand is understood through a bringing about of the complete range of the forces of matter at hand. Through a bringing about of the complete range of the forces of matter at hand, shall the spirit of the matter at hand be revealed, for sacredness lay near the unity of spirit and matter.
The difficulty with articulating dedication and devotion as it relates to sacredness lies with the presence of the person and the will-fullness of the person. To establish the subject as the exclusive source of sacredness is to destroy sacredness. The very nature of sacredness does not allow for the supposition of person as bestowing meaning and sacredness upon the world. When compared with sacredness, such a supposition shares affinity with arrogance. Denying that sacredness is a characteristic of the ‘stuff of the world’, and placing sacredness simply as a judgment prevents the disclosure of sacredness. The artificiality of placing sacredness within the person excludes sacredness; if the worth of something is determined exclusively by my own decision to make it so, it no longer holds any worth.
The relationship that the person must take in the act of dedication is one of mutual reinforcement. Person and ‘the stuff of the world’ both gain new being through dedication and devotion. Only through an act of dedication as dedicating matter to its purpose (i.e. form) can man partake in sacredness. Things making themselves through dedication to the purpose of the initial thing allows sacredness.
The forces of matter which I have been emphasising should not be confused with a scientific understanding of forces of matter, although a sacred understanding of the forces of matter would contain within it any claims to validity made by science. What is being suggested here is the notion that a valid manner of relating to matter is possible, even necessary, through sacredness. Such evidence can be seen in the Gothic cathedrals built over one thousand years ago whose fruitful confrontations of spirit and matter developed from the personality of Christianity.
Dedication as we are trying to come to understand it is a unification of personal wilfulness with the purpose of matter. Ultimately, dedication is an act of creation whereby the articulation of particularities of material brings about the understanding of universals. Synonymous with the relationship of centre to whole, personal wilfulness brought in line with the purpose of matter do we get a dedication to sacredness.
The incessant ‘personal wilfulness’ crops up at this point with the notion of dedication through the purposefulness of matter. “Is it not a choice to dedicate in the first instance?” Such a question lies outside of a sacred manner of looking at things due to the initial assumption that material is not meaningful initially. To address the question, it would be more appropriate to ask, “Is dedication creation from nothing?”
Eliade speaks of founding the centre as a manner of dispelling chaos, but to assume that chaos is something with being and existence is possibly an assumption not to be made. Nonetheless, we shall try to come to some understanding of the moment of creation in dedication. The term, ‘eternal beginning, arche’, suggested by Joseph Milne could give us a clue as to dedication and creation, and help to answer, “What is before the beginning?”
Before the act of creation, we have two possibilities. The first is to have absolutely nothing, the second is to have potency and potential. Neither possibility proves itself as completely acceptable, however.
To have absolutely nothing or nothingness is inconceivable if the connections between being and knowledge previously established herein are to remain valid. There is no way of actually knowing nothingness. From the first possibility what is implied is the exclusion of any sort of degree of being. Nothing exists before the act of creation or dedication. The incompatibility with history is obvious. To relegate all of history to non-being is unacceptable and false.
To see potency or potential as existing before creation is to deny the act of creation. Creation itself is called into question if what existed before creation already is, even in potential. If creation is to remain itself creative, it must wholly and completely create something new.
The understanding that we are seeking when looking at the point of creation renders whatever is (or is not) before creation as ‘something else, yet continues to remain itself’. What exists before creation must be simultaneously outside of creation, yet contained within creation. Such inquiry is not new, it must be noted. Plato’s Timeaus addressed such questions with the exploration of space.
It becomes appropriate to name that which exists before creation as space, and through understanding space can we understand the act of creation and ultimately understand sacredness. We can begin by remembering the nature of matter that was suggested earlier, and the nature of material to form or being. The act of creation is the point at which matter gains form or creation. In the same manner that material is given form, so too is space given form. We could even go on to say that material shares a close relationship to space, or in other words that material has a space, or material implies a space.
Material implying a space would have some grounds as an acceptable formulation given this quote from Plato: “[space] is apprehended when all sense is absent, by a kind of spurious reason, and is hardly real”. Furthermore, in the act of creation, it is impossible to know that which does not have being or existence, so if we are suggesting space is before creation, knowing space becomes difficult or even impossible. However, space exists within creation so a final assessment of space as unknowable is to be avoided.
The analogy of space to material is helpful. Indeed, Plato uses such an analogy when attempting to describe space. “Suppose a person to make all kinds of figures of gold and to be always remodelling each form into all the rest; -- somebody points to one of them and asks what it is. By far the safest and truest answer is, That is gold; and not to call the triangle or any other figures which are formed in the gold ‘these’, as though they had existence, since they are in process of change while he is making the assertion; but if the questioner be willing to take the safe and indefinite expression, ‘such’, we should be satisfied.” It should be noted that ‘such’ as it is being used here refers to ‘kind’, or a category of thing distinguished by some characteristic or quality. Space is then a universal nature which receives all being and form. Plato also makes the distinction that space assumes a form like that of any of the things which enter into her, and for space to assume any form it must have no form or being itself. It should also be noted that certain Greek to English translations describe space as puzzling or even incomprehensible.
Creation from nothing is not possible, nor is creation from prior being possible. The character of space allows for creation within this situation. Essentially, space must have both a character and be characterless. Space receives all forms but does not have form. Only in this understanding of space can we have something existing before creation that is also a part of creation, thereby maintaining a sacred conception of the cosmos in that form and space exist in unity.
Form and space exist in a tension in that space has no being but we only know of it because of being. Space cannot exist or be explained outside of form. Space has its own character of being characterless, which simultaneously renders it outside of form and impossible to be understood outside of form. It should be noted that form and space exist in a similar relationship to each other as do the stone to vault or the cell to body in the previous examples.