A sense of the sacred can arrive unexpectedly. Perhaps it is created by a mirror-calm lake enclosed by rocky hills all bedecked with the orange and yellow of autumn colours, where the profound silence of wilderness is only filled by the lonely call of a loon. Or perhaps it’s a mountain top where the assembly of nearby peaks tower upward in a crescendo of gravity-defying exuberance, and the snow-lined ponds far below radiate the same azure blue as the cloudless sky.
But anything natural can trigger this sense of the sacred. It could be an open meadow softened by morning dew, as the slow rise of silver mist frees it from the cool shiver of night. Or it could be a single tree when its great height and girth boggles an imagination trying to comprehend how a little seed is capable of orchestrating such astounding complexity and intricacy. But it could also be a delicate blade of grass curving into a gentle arch, bedecked by a necklace of raindrops hanging from a spider’s web. Both the small and the big can create a sense of the sacred, that moment in time and place where the world flashes its beauty and all the countless pieces of it each declare they are in exactly the right place.
No one should then be surprised that some aboriginal cultures speak of “power places” where the wisdom of Earth’s intelligence seems to shout rather than whisper. Regardless of season or weather, these places were recognized as sacred — even when native cultures were usurped by Christian ones, these “power places” often became the locations of churches. The Shinto tradition of Japan venerates special stones and natural settings that seem to resonate with special communicative strength. And the Gaia Theory — heavily supported by scientific evidence — echoes the notion that all the natural components of Earth combine to form a collective intelligence that regulates and stabilizes the conditions that permit life to survive and flourish.
This idea may seem foreign to a materialistic Western culture that venerates the importance of the individual, discourages the diminution of self, and doubts the validity of the mystical experience. But the Gaia Theory has its living parallel in bees, ants and termites. Termites, for example, can function viably only as a collective consciousness. As individuals they are totally lost and useless. But a critical mass of them coalesces into a whole awareness able to function as a purposeful community that can build superbly designed mounds — complete with air conditioning — and sustain orderly and complex societies. The famous American biologist, E.O Wilson, referred to this phenomenon of collective consciousness as one of the science’s most important but unexplained mysteries.
If insects can do it, and the same is possible for the entire fabric of Earth, then we should be capable of experiencing it in special places during special moments of receptivity. We just need to open and receive what is bigger than the confines of self, larger than the limits of purposeful objectives, and greater than any sense of human time. One of these moments has to expand beyond the narrow confines of individual knowing to receive what is greater than thoughts can think. Bewilderment has to be trusted if wonder is to coalesce into the sacred. Certain places activate this process, so they are deemed sacred because no other designation fits their informative power.
The sacred is not religious. It is not doctrinal. It is not belief. Rather, it’s more like an inner emptiness that has been waiting for a special kind of filling. And, in response to a silent calling, the natural world rushes in to fill a void left by our disconnection from our origin.
The mystical experience of wholeness transforms everything into the sacred. All the disparate parts and pieces of distinctions meld into a unity that seems to exude contentment and completion. And the imagined tensions between conflicting differences balance into a stillness that lives and changes without disturbing a pervasive sense of immeasurable calm.
This is why those who experience a sense of the sacred can’t explain it — their epiphany can’t be rendered into separate components without destroying the sense of wholeness that pervades it. So those with a sense of the sacred seem to be motivated by a force outside the linear thought and logical reasoning that tries to connect individual pieces into conventional understanding. When separate parts keep dissolving into a wholeness that is bigger than explanations and even self, then the mystic has experienced the sacred. “To see a world in a grain of sand…,” wrote the 18th century English poet William Blake, “and eternity in an hour.”
Nature is most likely to elicit this sense of the sacred because it is the most consistent, authentic and ancient of all human experiences — we grew out of nature as a child grows out of its mother so the connective roots even precede our origin as a species. This is why the forests, lakes, rivers, stones and mountains of wilderness can elicit such powerful responses in some people. Their collective wholeness is a glimpse of the intelligence and wisdom that is our earliest beginning, our timeless history and our uncertain future.
The sacred that is experienced at one place on one occasion can dissolve obstructions and so allow it to happen anytime, anywhere. Differences disappear. The blade of grass becomes as large and miraculous as the mountain; the slow time of silence becomes as symphonic as the thunder of waves on beaches. The world sings and sighs its orchestral beauty just as it flashes and dances its exquisite shapes and forms. In moments of profound insight, we call it the sacred. But it’s really just the astounding beauty of ordinary nature that we have failed to notice.