In the 17th century, Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, rejected the philosophical traditions of Aristotle and the Scholastics. For Descartes, the very fact that we think is the proof that we exist. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. He rejected the use of his senses as the basis for knowledge. In so doing, he wounded the unity between mind and body found in classical philosophy. Over the course of time, the wound has widened. The spiritual and the material have drifted apart. The sacred and the secular clearly divided.
Besides modern philosophy, other factors have contributed to the separation of the sacred from the secular. The scientific manipulation of human life in test tubes has lessened the respect for life itself. Life is no longer, for some, a sacred gift from God. Likewise, the divorce of human sexuality from procreation, coupled with the continual campaign to redefine marriage has helped to push God out of the intimacies of human life. Marriage is no longer recognized as a sacred institution given by God for a man and woman to join with Him in bringing new life into the world. The sacredness of even the natural order as coming from the hands of an all-wise God is thus lost.
The anti-authoritarian prejudice that we have inherited from the social revolution of the '60’s imprinted on many a deep mistrust not only of government but of Church. Some even reject the very idea of hierarchy (literally, “a sacred origin”) as a spiritual authority established by God. As a result, Church means, for some, simply the assembly of like-minded believers who organize themselves and make their own rules and dogmas. Thus, the Church’s role in the spiritual realm is greatly eclipsed.
On the first day of the new millennium, Prince Charles of England said, "In an age of secularism, I hope, with all my heart, in a new millennium we will rediscover a sense of the sacred in all that surrounds us." He said he hoped this would hold true whether in growing crops, raising livestock, building homes in the countryside, treating disease or educating the young. He recognized by his statement that we have lost a sense of the sacred.
Living in our world, we breathe the toxic air that surrounds us. Even within the most sacred precincts of the Church, we witness a loss of the sense of the sacred. With the enthusiasm that followed the Second Vatican Council, there was a well-intentioned effort to make the liturgy modern. It became commonplace to say that the liturgy had to be relevant to the worshipper. Old songs were jettisoned. The guitar replaced the organ. Some priests even began to walk down the road of liturgical innovation, only to discover it was a dead end. And all the while, the awareness of entering into something sacred that has been given to us from above and draws us out of ourselves and into the mystery of God was gone.
Teaching about the Mass began to emphasize the community. The Mass was seen as a community meal. It was something everyone did together. Lost was the notion of sacrifice. Lost the awesome mystery of the Eucharist as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The priest was no longer seen as specially consecrated. He was no different than the laity. With all of this, a profound loss of the sacred.
Not one factor can account for the decline in Mass attendance, Church marriages, baptisms and funerals in the last years. But most certainly, the loss of the sense of the sacred has had a major impact.
Walk into any church today before Mass and you will notice that the silence that should embrace those who stand in God’s House is gone. Even the Church is no longer a sacred place. Gathering for Mass sometimes becomes as noisy as gathering for any other social event. We may not have the ability to do much about the loss of the sacredness of life in the songs, videos and movies of our day. But, most assuredly, we can do much about helping one another recover the sacredness of God’s Presence in His Church.
On the first day of this millennium, the Prince of Wales struck a strong note of optimism for the recovery of the sacred. Paraphrasing Dante, he remarked: "The strongest desire of everything, and the one first implanted by nature, is to return to its source. And since God is the source of our souls and has made it alike unto Himself, therefore this soul desires above all things to return to Him." There is one place where we can begin to rediscover the sacred.
To be continued…..
This is the first of a series of four articles that will explore the loss and the recovery of the sense of the sacred in Catholic life.