Cultivating the Sacred in Your Daily Life
How can we cultivate the sacred in our daily lives – and what does that really even mean? Fabiana Fondevila gives us the low-down
by Fabiana Fondevila
Many of us have grown up to identify ‘the sacred’ with moments of prayer, religious songs or ceremonies, acts that take place on specific holy days of the week or the year. Indeed, in its origins, ‘sacred’ was what happened inside a church, and profane was everything that took place outside its portal.
But ‘sacred’ really means ‘to consecrate, to immortalise, to dedicate, to make holy, to set apart’. So the question is: What is truly holy in your life?
If you are like me, perhaps you find in Nature an infinite supply of solace, peace, enchantment and wonder. Or maybe you light up with certain kinds of music, art, architecture or landscapes. Perhaps you are moved to your core by the conversations you have with your loved ones, or stilled into silence by reading a perfect poem. Or it may be that witnessing or performing a great act of kindness is what truly brings you home.
Whatever it is that strikes a deep chord in your heart, whatever you hold in highest regard, that is your doorway into the sacred. And the way we humans have found to honour the sacred is to bless it with our love, time and attention.
How shall we go about doing this? Let us count the ways!
The ancient art of ritual
One time-honoured way is to create simple rituals to celebrate those moments that feel especially meaningful and transcendent.
What are rituals? One way to describe them is as symbolic acts that help embody transcendent truths and the emotions they evoke, such as awe, wonder, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, joy.
Rituals do not have to be pre-planned, elaborate affairs. Sometimes, a simple candle and a few words of gratitude is all it takes to turn a regular weekday dinner with family into a time of communion.
Or, perhaps, it may happen that every time you pass a certain tree, which holds for you an important memory, you might bow to it slightly, or softly touch its bark. Such a subtle act would go unnoticed to an outside observer, but for you, the act would contain a world of meaning.
So, what does a ritual practice entail? These are some of the elements:
- An intention. It could be to celebrate, honour or mourn a milestone or transition in someone’s life or, in its everyday version, to underscore the importance of a bond, an activity, a memory, a place.
- A symbolic gesture or act to be performed, whether alone or with others. The gesture can be accompanied by a poem to read, a song to sing, movement or dance.
- In more formal rites, it is important to mark a clear beginning and a clear end. Everyday rituals can evolve spontaneously and begin and end on their own.
But ritual is certainly not the only way to honour the sacred. A more straightforward (although not necessarily easier) approach is, simply, to pay attention.
The path of attention
‘Attention is the beginning of devotion,’ said the beloved American poet, Mary Oliver, and also: ‘This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness’.
What did she mean by this? As a lifelong lover of nature, she trained herself in the art of paying attention. Her poems describe the minute movements of a bird’s wing, the subtle changes of colour as dawn breaks over the forest canopy, the startled look on a doe’s eyes as it stumbles upon the author behind some brush.
However, in her book of essays Long Life, she describes how she only really learned to pay attention with an open heart, letting what she was seeing affect her, after watching photographer Molly Malone, her partner of many years, go about her work.
This is what she said: ‘Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter… Molly instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles’.
Here is the practice:
Whenever you find yourself undertaking an action that seems essential to your life –looking after your children, tending your garden, cooking a meal for your family, attempting to write or play a song, walking under an open sky: can you strive to see it all with fresh eyes?
This is not the same as pretending one is seeing it all for the first time, but, rather, looking beyond the ordinary into the extraordinariness of those people, places and moments, reaching for those ‘heavenly invisibles’.
Can you take a moment to let it all in, savour the grace that is expressed in and through the mundane, reminding yourself that no moment is eternal, nor comes back in its exact form?
This leads us straight into our final, and perhaps most important practice for honouring the holy.
Gratitude, the art of receiving
‘It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy’, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, who graced me with the gift of a preface for my book, Where Wonder Lives.
What is gratitude? It is the perception of receiving something value that does not come entirely from us. We might consider that the good things in our lives come from God, the universe, a certain degree of good fortune. Whatever the cause, as long as we are enjoying something we did not (or could not) pay for, work for, strive to obtain, then we are in the presence of grace, and the heart’s natural response to grace is gratitude.
However, though we may feel grateful spontaneously at different times of our lives, it is likely that go we for days without feeling it or thinking about our many reasons to be grateful.
When we take the people in our lives, our good health, or the colour of the sky for granted, we miss out on the opportunity to experience the kind of joy that comes from a grateful heart.
Here is the practice:
- Start a gratitude journal. Every night write three things you are grateful for that day. Make them different every day, and specific.
- Write a gratitude letter. Think of a benefactor (someone who influenced your life for the good or went out of their way to help you or teach you) and spell out your gratitude in a letter. If possible, read it to them looking at their eyes.
- Practice ‘gratitude by omission’. Think of the many painful or bothersome things that could be happening right now and are not. For example: I could have a headache, I could be angry at someone, I could have just lost my job.
- Give thanks for the little things, with as much feeling as you can muster. Don’t take for granted that server that remembered to bring you the ice your ordered, thank them with your eyes, your smile, your heart.
Paying attention, creating rituals, and practising gratitude are just a few practices that can help us keep the sacred up front and centre in our lives, where it belongs. May they be a source of sustenance in your life, and an expression of your deepest, wildest, and most abiding nature.