I am hiking the canyon loop, hunting ideas. I am edgy as I set off due to a constant ominous rustling in the brush along the path. Lizards darting, rabbits bounding, thrashers thrashing, rattlers slithering, imaginaries lurking. Nature welcomes home a long-lost cousin, wresting me from thought into the precarious present.
This experience, man walking through the wood alone, senses sharpened, is old. For a moment, there is little that to seems to separate me from the hominid forager ambling an East African savannah 70 millennia ago.
Except she wandered among the divine, sharing her footpath with woodland gods and an occasional drunken satyr. Her tribe worshipped local deities that governed fire, rain, and the moon. Neighboring clans had their own provincial spirits. Moreover, she felt inextricably connected to her surroundings so much so that she shared a spiritual essence with the rock on which she stepped and the leaves that brushed her face.
With the decline of animism and the rise Abrahamic traditions, God retired from earth. He moved to the putting green in the sky, slipped on a robe, grew a hipster beard, donned a Merlin’s cap and became detached from the earthly plane.
This cleaving of the material and the mystical altered the way we understand and treat our worldly artifacts. We often perceive objects in the physical plane as devoid of divinity and, by extension, disposable.
Can you imagine the mystical wonder a Bic lighter might have inspired a million years ago as Homo Erectus sought to domesticate fire? In your mind’s eye, envision the tribe huddled in awe around this neon yellow tube of plastic-encased butane, jabbing at its flint, agog as the flame springs forth. A gift from the Gods, it lies upon a hallowed shrine guarded assiduously by the bravest warriors. Now available in a 4-pack for 99 cents.
Plastic water bottles, party cups, straws, take-out containers, bottle caps, gift wrapping, coffee cups & lids, food packaging, plastic cutlery, outdated iPhones, antiquated stereo systems, drawers of chords and adapters. All whirlpooling around a gyre in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas, out of sight, out of mind.
These products of modernity are produced with the uniformity and efficiency that capitalism selects for. They signify almost nothing to us.
Our climate catastrophe stems from a self-authored story, an old scroll that gave us dominion over nature and animals forgetting, momentarily, that is actually what we are.
It is no coincidence that our epiphanies, our brief moments of divine connection, occur when we are re-immersed in nature.
But is there nothing sacred in the material? What about the hand-carved heart stone my daughter gave me to pack on long trips? Or my late grandfather’s Naval dog tags? Or the heirloom locket that carries the bleached images of my immigrant story?
Think of the dress that your mother seamed and hemmed for you, how precious and irreplaceable it is. Consider the connectedness it holds. She made it especially for you with all its oddities and imperfections. When you wear it, or just look at it, she is in the room with you. Now consider the dress sewn in a Chinese sweatshop on the rack at Marshall’s for $9.99 hung beside 100 frocks just like it. It’s a standardized commodity made by someone completely anonymous. It elicits nothing.
Material objects can be sacred and embody the divine when they are unique and interrelated, when they hold a story.
Envision your sacred space, the place where you write, pray or meditate. Better yet, visualize your ideal sanctum where you would be able to excavate and bare your soul. It is not littered with plastic tchotchkes. Perhaps there is a photo there of your grandmother or a family treasure she gave you when you married or graduated. Maybe there are the mala beads you wore on your pilgrimage to Rishikesh. Or the novel you dog-eared when you hit rock bottom.
What if your closet or refrigerator more closely resembled the intention of your altar space?
Schuyler nearly fainted the other day when she waltzed into the kitchen to find me making my own oat milk. Admittedly, Phoebe had emptied the pre-packaged version and I was desperate for an iced coffee. But it really wasn’t that difficult. And I savored that homemade iced latte as if I were sipping the sacramental wine from the Eucharist cup. Often the only sacrifice we must make to feel a greater sense of connectedness is convenience. We are so concerned with losing time, that we tend to misspend it.
The circle of my hike is closing. And I laugh at myself. Nature is not rustling about me. I am the raucous interloper here, trudging heavy-footed through a forsaken habitat forgiving enough to still welcome me.
If we are to pursue spiritually rich, globally sustainable lives then we must dispense of the dualism that separates the realms of sacred and material. We must hand stitch them back together. We must eschew the disposable and, and value the unique, the necessary, and the objects that become the artifacts of our personal story.
We must start treating the entire physical world like our altar space.