01.12.2012 Our Earth

A Sacred Balance

Sacred awareness comes with knowing we live on a knife edge with Nature. Story by Adrian Glamorgan

We can imagine so long ago when the ancient tribes of the Middle East spoke of their experience of the Divine, it would often be at night, around the embers of the campfire, when the desert had turned biting cold, and the hobbled camels murmured in the distance. The desert people might have looked to the stars, hushed their children, and recounted nothingness causing oceans out of which came rising firmament, and a multitude of creation that was good. These stories, brought back into the coals of the fire, recalled bounteous beginnings, effortless plenty, and lifelong ease in a paradise or Golden Age.

But it seems each tribe, from the heart of Africa to the valleys of Papua New Guinea, eventually moves on in their storytelling to a 'but' hiding in wait in each creation myth, another variant of a common theme that mournfully describes descent into toil, hard work and death, east of some lost Eden. Long ago, the immensity of nature, the smallness of human capacity and the loss of the sacred went bundled into our dreams.

We know that by day the desert peoples relied on their ingenious ways and means to hunt and grow food in arid lands, fully developing the knack of herding and even irrigating. They could feel their own dominion, but they also knew the fuller strength lay elsewhere. The wise people of the scarce rains may have learned to rely on their own skills but still they expressed gratitude beyond, praying for more feasts and fewer famines. They could beseech a star, like sacred Sirius, to rise over the horizon on its due date, so that soon the waters would wash away the salted earth and give back rich loam to seed new crops again.

Such creation myths rising out of landscape and bare need have led a number of people to claim that God was made in Man's image, not the other way round, and worse, that these tales gave rise and free licence to a patriarchy that has limited human potential and undermined ecological sustainability ever since. There may be a case to answer, as radical writers like Mary Daly (1928-2010) have argued. Whether we find truth in that or not, there is benefit in finding a way to peace through it.

We can be grateful for our thinking, sceptical, enquiring mind. It cuts away cant and superstition. But, equally, we can guess that if it exists, the sacred will always be more immense than the mind, if not the human heart. So we are left with the picture being drawn in sand around the campfire of a snake devouring its own tail: knowing a doubt can easily prick the sacred, and leave us wondering, and yet bereft; but also that the sacred can unexpectedly envelop the doubt, and find us bewildered, yet nourished.

So where might the sacred "live" when it is in the environment? In the built world, in the tessellated designs of the mosque, the tranquillity of the temple, or the stained glass of the cathedral we can find an inner feeling that arouses what might be called the sacred. It is a presence, a stillness, an appreciation, open hands, open questions, a link with a bigger picture. The sacred in this building is the creation of some architect who once drew plans. If these plans evoke such feelings, and these feelings and more come from nature, could not some grand designer or sacred purpose have been behind nature?

Surely, there is no way of knowing. As beguiling as it might be, this is a precarious logic. Humankind might be some mathematically improbable material, sacred-less event, but still capable of discovering awe in nature.

And fear. Nature can be a dangerous place, and it places us in a quandary of respecting it, and defying it. As Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) soberly reminds us, we live in a world where we must eat, knowing we, too, will be ultimately eaten. Because as much as we like to live in harmony with nature, far from the liquid crystal and eftpos world, we also recognise the sharp reality of "Man versus Wild". Eat, or be eaten. Survive against the forces, or surrender to them. At some deeper level, are we at war with our own eventual fate, and because of this, hold the environment to account as the inescapable accomplice that enables our demise?

The answer for some is to keep moving. Be traders across the desert, loading our camels with wares from some far off Eastern silk road, discover slaves cast into dry wells by their hostile brethren, drive onward to some Near East bazaar to sell our wares and prisoners and spend some shekels on a few shiny lamps. The noise of the marketplace drowns out the language of the sacred world hidden in the sand dunes. But the discussions around the campfire are worth waiting for all the more. The searching of the skies, the thin line of a meteor disappearing as soon as it flares, the rising of the moon, the setting of the constellations...the mystery of the universe still speaks to us. The stories in the embers glow again, as the still, small voice of the wind whispers across our landscape.

So into the deserts the prophets come. Possibly. I have met hard bitten European materialists who have gone camping in the bush and retold, much to their own disbelief, experiences they have had with the nature spirits. But this is not something usually shared in polite society, and certainly not round the barbecue.

AD Hope (1907-2000) suggests in his famous poem "Australia" that perhaps our barrenness and remoteness means we can grow something special here. His love of the classics may have meant he overlooked the Aboriginal and Torres Strait legacy. In more modern times, he may well have recognised much is sacred across our continent wherever people can celebrate a tradition tens of thousands of years old: aeon-old wisdom about the workings of nature entwined with an appreciation of the spiritual realm. He knew the Aboriginal sense of the sacred has also changed over time (the Monaro people spoke of a monotheistic Daramalan perhaps a transformation of what they had heard about the Europeans' beliefs, and the Arnhem land people incorporated some of the beliefs of the Macassan traders from Indonesia). Just as shorelines and sand dune systems are shaped by time so, too, the sacred is shaped by the longer cadences.

Away from the usual trade routes, not guided by commerce, you will sometimes see pilgrims. They travel many byways of the world. They are keenly focused until they achieve their spiritual destination, still distracted by the petty nuisances of blistered feet, or petulant beasts of burden, but put the irritations to one side, bringing each step to the greater purpose. We can revel in the beauty of marine and land life, hear birdsong and enjoy, from a safe distance, the drama of a summer storm. But it may be that our civilisation has much to learn about the sacred when it draws closer to the terror and fear.

TS Elliot (1888-1965) imagined three pilgrims, magi, travelling by camel, keen to travel when it is cool and the way is clear. Despite the best of astrological predictions, they were baffled by what they found. Like the puzzles and struggles of the journey, the sacred offers and takes away: a challenge to our survival, and yet a promise of a better and more worthwhile life.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism

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