A Perspective on the Sacred and Profane

This is a juicy topic, one I’ve been mulling over for a few weeks now. The difficulty has arisen from one thing: it’s been hard to reconcile profane acts like terrorism into my essential notion of a sacred universe. With events like 9/11 lingering in the culture and the day’s glorious rainbow after a hard rain, I’ve been stumped. Then I realized that it boils down to a simple dichotomy: nouns are inherently sacred, but verbs have the potential to profane. While this may seem a bit simplistic, it actually describes how profanity can exist in a sacred universe.

First, lets take a look at the words “sacred” and “profane” themselves.

Merriam-Webster states that “sacred” is an adjective that can be defined as “worthy of religious veneration.” This fits elegantly into my concept of the universe as an inherently sacred place, where everything in it is worthy of respect and offers an opportunity to expand our individual capacity as a sacred being. We each are a piece of the Divine and each share the goal of increasing the ratio of divinity to humanity within ourselves. We do this over the course of their lifetimes, with the ultimate goal being a return to the Divine. Merriam-Webster defines “profane” as a transitive verb that means, “to treat (something sacred) with abuse, irreverence, or contempt.” Within these definitions we see a vital difference between the sacred and profane. Sacred is worthy of veneration — a sacred thing is, by definition, a noun. Profane is active, an action — to defile something that is sacred.

Granted, it does not all fall into place in the puzzle, for profane can also be an adjective that means, “serving to debase or defile what is holy.” Since profane can, therefore, describe a noun as sacred can, the logic seems to fail. However, it actually helps describe the argument better. (Trust me on this.) In a sacred universe, something must be acted upon to make it profane. Therefore, behind every profaned noun, there was an action that made it so.

Therefore, I see all nouns as inherently sacred. Every noun (person, place, or thing), each building, tree, cell phone, person, city, is a piece of, or expression of, the totality of the divine. Yes, I know this is hard to feel when one’s morning coffee at the local cafĂ© is constantly disturbed by another patron’s “must-take” call. But it is nonetheless true. Even if a new building is erected in an area that was once a forest, the building itself is inherently sacred. The building itself does not actively go against the order of the universe, and is an expression of those that built it. Granted, the action of tearing down the forest without a care for the natural state might be considered a profane act, or the building might be ugly enough to warrant being thought of in terms of profanity, but it is nonetheless an expression of sacred within the totality of the sacred universe.

Verbs are potentials — they can be sacred (such as when we worship the God/dess, or bless a newborn, or heal a friend), or they can be profane (such as when a terrorist destroys a building full of innocents, or a vandal desecrates a grave “for fun”). And this is why I say that people themselves cannot actually be described as profane, although their actions might be.

And here we must touch briefly on the concept of free will. We are given the gift of being able to choose our actions and the way we move through the world, and by our actions we produce sacred objects, or enact profane deeds. Life is not a series of sensations produced by brain chemistry and reactions to environmental factors, but an unending chain of choices made, consciously and unconsciously.

As a Witch, it is critical for me to listen to my inner self, that part of me which is intimately connected with the Divine. Further, I must be open to explore, seek, and act in accordance with that voice. I believe that this is true for most Pagans. It is vital for us to experience the sacred in our lives, rather than just going by what we believe in our heads. I have come to believe, as a baseline, that all parts of our universe are sacred and that between them there are sacred connections and influences. God/dess is not separate from any part, connection, or influence, but is immanent in all. I also believe that we create the sacred in our lives as much as the sacred universe creates us.

This is why even a person with thoughts or feelings of hatred can’t be considered profane. That person does not go against nature and, frankly, his or her ideas aren’t even profane unless he or she acts upon them. Then again, it’s not the idea but the action that desecrates the sacred. We judge another person by their actions, not by their thoughts or feelings. Although, how could we know another’s thoughts or feelings without seeing them taking the action to tell us or show us? We can’t. Again, action provides the basis for our judgment. Even if they think they are correct, or acting in a sacred manner, the consequences of the actions they take will bear out the truth. (I’m reminded of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.)

Human beings have the ability to feel, think, and choose. We always have the choice to not act upon ideas that are wrong and offensive to the universe. Profane thoughts cannot even spread to others unless one actively does so by communicating these ideas to others in a way meant to convince them of the validity of the ideas. Once again, it takes an action to violate the sacredness of the universe.

Where is the line drawn between sacred and profane? Between the noun and the verb, the object and the action. And it is the human capacity to recognize that difference that places the burden of responsibility and judgment squarely on our endlessly capable shoulders.

~Lisa Mc Sherry
This article first appeared on Witchvox.com, February 16, 2003.

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