The Sense of the Sacred
“All the idle moments of one’s life can be sanctified, thanks to the rosary. As we walk the streets, we pray with the rosary hidden in our hand or in our pocket; as we are driving an automobile, the little knobs under most steering wheels can serve as counters for the decades. While waiting to be served at a lunchroom, or waiting for a train, or in a store, or while playing dummy at bridge, or when conversation or a lecture lags – all these moments can be sanctified and made to serve inner peace, thanks to a prayer that enables one to pray at all times and under all circumstances.”
-Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
Space and place are important. We are not disembodied spirits, but have material bodies. To be a human person is to have a body. At the same time, we cannot reduce our existence to the material plane. Our bodies have souls that are inseparable from the body. The soul separating from the body is known as death.
Our bodies often take center stage in daily life. We are hungry, so we must eat. Tiredness requires sleep. Coldness requires warmth, and sickness and injury require healing. The majority of people go through their days drifting from bodily need to bodily need. Some of the bodily things people spend the majority of their time seeking are necessary, but more often in our technological age, people are seeking comforts and pleasures for their bodies.
Never has world-wide poverty been lower than in our current time. The efficiencies and technological developments have enabled more people to access their daily needs with greater ease. If the poor live in overall less dire circumstances, the middle classes and wealthy of the world live better than any king lived in centuries past. Surplus wealth has opened vast opportunities for many people to seek the pleasures the world has to offer.
So why is unhappiness growing, average life expectancy decreasing, and mental illness skyrocketing? The answer – we have lost our sense of the sacred. Our spirits have been entombed in the things of the world rather than immersed in the mysteries of God.
Recently I was standing on the corner of two busy streets in my city waiting for the bus to work and praying my morning Rosary. On one corner stood a gas station. Across the street from that gas station there was a nondescript, brick office building. Behind where I stood sat an insurance office converted from a former branch of a bank, drive-thru window still intact. Cars sped by carrying people on their way to work or taking their kids to school. A block away from the bus stop began an older neighborhood well into its decline and decay.
As my fingers moved from one bead to the next, I was having great difficulty maintaining concentration on the mystery I was meditating on. There was nothing around me which served to elevate my mind and heart to the higher things of God. There was only the products of our technological empire to pull me down into the mire and muck of the world.
The bus arrived, I climbed aboard, paid my bus fair, and sat down. As I looked around, every person on the bus was hunched down around the glows of their individual phone screens, blank zombie faces oblivious that another human person had entered their space.
I continued my Rosary as the bus lumbered on down the street, stopping and starting every few blocks to pick up more morning commuters. The ugliness continued as I was met with every franchise and fast food chain the great U-S-of-A has to offer, payday loan shops, and a pay-by-the-hour motel. Within a short time, the bus approached the hospital where I work. I got off and made my way the short distance to the chapel to finish my rosary before I began my day’s labor.
The small chapel in the part of the hospital where I work is not fancy by any means. It is simple – individual wooden kneelers, walls colored in muted earth tones, and a mahogany-stained alter surrounded by marble floor tiles. Atop the alter sits a golden tabernacle emblazoned with an image of the Lamb of God holding a banner. Behind the altar sits a crucifix on a wall of small stone tiles. Each of Jesus’ wounds is vividly noticeable without being excessive or gaudy, and his green crown of thorns stands out against the hues of brown wood and flesh. Flanking the alter are statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph the Worker, replete with carpenter smock and tools in hand.
My meditation on the mysteries of Our Blessed Lord became more focused in this small chapel – an oasis of heaven in the expanse of urban banality.
We are spiritual beings, but we are not pure spirit like angels. We are also bodily beings. Each person’s spiritual soul and material body are inseparable. No duality exists between the two constituent parts. Rather, we are embodied spirits, a composite of flesh and soul united to make one person. Being both matter and spirit means that our spiritual nature can be either elevated to God or drawn down to the earth. Prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve, matter and spirit were in harmony. This side of the Fall, however, a disrupted and divided dichotomy exists.
One of the deficits of our secular culture is the absence of sacred places to properly elevate our spirit to the Lord. In former times, the cathedral was the heart and soul of every city. Every place within the walls of a city could be reached by the sound of the cathedral bells announcing the hour of the day and calling the citizens to lift their minds and hearts to God in praise. Cathedrals themselves employed beauty and magnificence to induce the mind and heart upward to heavenly places.
To simply wish our culture could be this way once again will not make it so. In our homes we have some control over space and place to make them environments of prayer – domestic churches. We have less control over our neighborhoods, although enough like-minded neighbors have the potential to create a sacred ghetto. On the level of city, even a coalition of like-minded people will have only a marginal influence. The idols of the world – wealth, pleasure, power, and honor – pull too strongly on material man. Yet, hope persists.
Despite being distracted from my surroundings at the beginning of my Rosary, it was still very important for me to pray it. In fact, it may be of even greater importance to have the Rosary close at hand and heart when we find ourselves in the midst of the world. It is far too easy to drop our gaze downward to earthly realms and to drown out the still, small voice of the Lord in the bedlam of materialism that surrounds us. Praying the Rosary as we pass through secular and material spaces can serve to sanctify them. Faithfully sowing the seeds of the Incarnation wherever we are will reap a harvest of reverence once again by shifting the spirutual atmosphere in a place, helping the Holy Spirit move upon the consciences of those present. The Rosary also clothes us with the cloak of mystery, preserving our spirits from being drug down into the mire of the world. We may not be able to hold formal liturgies in all the places of the secular world, but we can always take the Rosary with us.
As Venerable Fulton Sheen teaches us in the opening antiphon to this post, “All the idle moments of one’s life can be sanctified, thanks to the rosary….all these moments can be sanctified and made to serve inner peace, thanks to a prayer that enables one to pray at all times and under all circumstances.”
I dream of a day when the world is converted and cities, neighborhoods, and homes are built to adore God and reverence the sacredness of His creation. Until that day – likely long after I have gone to be with the Lord – we have the ark of the Rosary to transport us across the seas of the world into the mysteries of God. Let each of us commit to praying it every single day! Our Lady of Fatima, Pray for us!