How does sensory information, usually specific to a particular ecology, become transformed and distilled into meaning so vital to human beings that it reaches the level of being Sacred?
First of all, of course, the person has to have sharpened senses, usually focused on survival -- either as a way to find food or as a way to avoid becoming food. That’s the way it is for all animals, but we admit we don’t smell as well as dogs, see as well as eagles, and so on. Still, we have skills and priorities and those can be negotiated so as to hear jazz or interpret YouTube vids -- whatever. Too much of modern life is a mono-sense, a mono-culture, with blurry priorities that teach us to shut out rather than to focus and draw in new perceptions. Not enough sharp danger.
Second, the brain’s networking (better to use a verb) which consists of both neural nodes specific to senses and cross-node or distant processing connections. (Somewhere on YouTube is an actual photo of a neuron axon snaking around through the maze of cells like an extension cord in search of the proper connection, which it probably “knows” through “smell” which is the same thing as molecular analysis. This animal filament growth is much like the mycelia that connect humble mushrooms to the root-hairs of trees so powerfully that if the mushrooms are all removed, the trees die.)
Third, most of this processing of information is set up early in life and hard to change, but not all of it is. Humans are the only animals able to think about “how” they are thinking as well as “what” they are thinking. This is often done outside the individual in the culture, which can act as if it were a unified individual though it isn’t, and ask individuals to entertain new ideas, discard some of the old. We manage ourselves in part by watching the people nearby, esp. the ones we admire. If they change, we change.
Fourth, this is an “emergent” skill that comes about through the interaction of the unconscious-but-busy processes of neuron connections. Before this kind of reflection can take place, another skill must “emerge:” that of consciousness, knowing that you are thinking and then getting access to how you are thinking. Not everyone can do this latter. Some call it “reflexivity.” Researchers are VERY interested in these emergent skills such as “reflexivity.” War is a reflex: peace is reflexive, being aware of one’s behavior. Pulling the trigger is a reflex: NOT pulling the trigger is the result of reflection, reflexive, considering the consequences. Psychotic “shooters” lack this skill.
In past decades we have talked a lot about “consciousness-raising”, meaning recovering awareness of neglected realities, both human and environmental. Women sat in circles with a lit candle in the middle, telling the stories of their lives and real-izing each other. “Who knew?” we asked. “Who knew?” and “You, too?” It was patterned and intense, life-changing, courage-building, sometimes doomed. It still had not reached the level of being Sacred, though it was certainly on the way.
The women who had been taught that the institution of their church denomination was Sacred tried to capture the hierarchies and offices. They’ve done pretty well -- becoming bishops and so on. But there was an unexpected side-effect: instead of achieving the status and respect of the office, the office became unimportant, just management and caretaking, shrugged off by alpha men. If women enter a high-status vocation, all the status goes out of it. But that’s just social status stuff. It can be pretty intense (consider what happened to the uppity Joan of Arc) but it is still socially determined and enforced.
Still, it was fun thinking about God as a Goddess, Jesus as a daughter. Theology is all metaphors and it can’t be confined except by authority and thinking in boxes. It’s mostly writing and a kind of philosophy that’s like math, algebra syllogisms: “if this is true, then that must be so.” Everything must have evidence -- even science which is, let’s be honest, a competing theology with no theos. If one can keep a healthy sense of possibility, it’s good.
None of this is sacred experience. Some people think about sex as a kind of patterned experience that they hope will bring them ultimate ecstasy, like that of Saint Theresa of Bernini’s portrait in her orgasmic state of beatitude. The secular sex experimenters try helpers, accoutrements, drugs, electrical gizmos -- but the human body can only perform the hat trick of orgasm so many times and only to the limits of the specific body. It’s a bribe for procreation, not an ultimate end.
All these things are social, shared, even useful. But they are not what I mean by sacred experience. This is not to say that all of the above, including sex, cannot be means to the end, materials for liturgy.
True sacred experience is more like being struck by lightning -- all systems of the body involved. But I’m thinking there are variations in the voltage. It can be lethal. Or occasional. Or I’m thinking it’s possible to feel the Sacred in a low-voltage constant way, a sort of quiet thrill through sense organs to emotion to thought to whole-body constant meaningfulness. You can prepare for it, I think, by being open and responsive, but there are no guarantees. It seems to help to be around people who have this confidence in existence, this feeling that it means something. I don’t have it. I just have a strong feeling that it exists, that it is emergent, and that it can’t be expressed in words -- it must be evoked by the arts.
If skill and insight are used to create a patterned experience that touches off the structuring of meaning for both individual and culture and if it is done with focus and passion, the result is very likely to be Sacred Meaning. No guarantees. Can’t be just connect-the-dots on Sunday morning. Takes energy. Can’t be replaced by reading the Sunday New York Times wearing jammies with espresso in hand and good music on your Bose.
No matter how skillful the liturgist, how resourceful and intense, there is no equivalent to the Sacred Moment that the outside world itself, belly to belly, can detonate in a person without any warning or defense. THEN all the resources of human skills become crucial in order to respond to the meaning of that contact. Won’t mean the same thing to everyone. Might never be told to anyone. If there is NO response, it will die.