Watching the deer
Sacred Ground: Part II

Sacred Ground

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From "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders (in Wonder and Other Survival Skills):

autumn leaf"Traditional peoples distinguish between tales of the everyday world and tales of the spirit world, between history and myth, between profane and sacred. The distinction rests, of course, on a belief that there is a spirit world, an order that transfuses and informs the changing surfaces we see. Visions of that sustaining realm may be sought through spiritual discipline, but they may not be summoned. If they come, they come as gifts, unforeseen. By telling stories, we conserve the memory of their passing, and we prepare for the next illumination.

"I'm aware of some grave objections to stories in general and to sacred stories in particular. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster offers and opinion that is widespread among literary sophisticates when he refers to story as 'this low atavistic form.' According to Forster, stories preserve 'the voice of the tribal narrator, squatting in the middle of the cave, and saying one thing after another until the audience falls asleep among their offal and bones. The story is primitive, it reaches back to the origins of literature, before reading was discovered, and it appeals to what is primitive in us.'

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"Over the past century, our craving for story has provoked sighs from the likes of Henry James, Gustav Flaubert, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. Their sighing proclaims them to be civilized, modern, free from illusion; they have left the cave to dwell outside, where stories shrivel in the harsh light of reason.

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"As for a belief in the sacred, that, too, according to many scholars, is a holdover from our benighted past. In Cosmos and History, Mercea Eliade argues that myth, ritual, taboo, every grasping for a transcendent reality, merely expresses our desire to abolish time, to resist change, to escape mortality. Nowhere is the desire to escape from 'the terror of history' more nakedly revealed, according to Eliade, than in 'primitive' societies. His examination of the uses of myth in ancient culture leads him to a rhetorical question: 'May we conclude from all this that, during this period, humanity was still within nature; had not yet detached itself from nature?' The moral is clear: so long as we seek an order outside of time, we remain primitive, childish, perilously close to the beasts; only by detaching ourselves from nature, weaning ourselves from sacred stories, and accepting the terror of history as the sole reality, can we become fully human.

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"Having read Eliade, not to mention Freud and Jung, one would be hard pressed to deny the psychological component of myth. But to go to the opposite extreme and claim that myth is nothing but a projection of psychic drama is equally simplistic, and perhaps more dangerous. That danger is that in our narcissism we will be content to think and speak and care only about ourselves.

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"Joseph Campbell avoids both extremes by arguing that myth enacts two dramas at once, that of our psyche and that of nature. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell surveys the sacred stories from many ages and cultures to suggest that mythology speaks not only about the unconscious but also about the cosmos:

" 'Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world -- all beings and things -- are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during their period of manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.'

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"This is the belief that Barry Lopez found among hunting peoples, that Bruce Chatwin found among the Aborigines of Australia. You can hear it voiced by the Lakota shaman Black Elk, by the Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday, by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Christian mystic Thomas Merton. You can find it in the essays of the biologist Rene Dubos, of the anthropologist Loren Eisley, and of the physicist Freeman Dyson. You can trace it everywhere in Emerson's work, as in 'The American Scholar,' where he asks, 'What is nature?' and answers, 'There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.' In their various accents, these voices declare that a spiritual landscape does indeed flicker and flame within the physical one.

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"I believe that this doctrine is widespread because it is true, or at least it is as close to the truth as we have been able to come. Sacred stories arise from our intuition that beneath the flow of creation there is an order, within change there is permanence, within time there is eternity. Everything moves; yet everything is shapely. The Apache word for myth means literally 'to tell the holiness.' By telling the holy, sacred stories ground a people or an individual, not merely in a landscape, but in the power that create and preserves the land."

Nattadon 9"Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders can be found in Wonder & Other Survival Skills, a slim volume of essays from Orion Magazine by Sanders, Diane Ackerman, Rick Bass, Anthoney Doerr and others (The Orion Society, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women's Spirituality, edited by Marilyn Sewell (Beacon Press, 1991). All rights reserved by the authors.