Wrestling with the sacred

For quite a while now, I’ve been trying to embed a teeny-weensy sense of the sacred in the life of our family. Whilst she’d probably put it differently, supermum feels the same way. It comes from a sense of unease that we don’t properly appreciate the things we’ve been given and how fortunate we’ve been in life compared to other families.

On the other hand, I’m equally uneasy about the level of moral smugness and superiority that hovers just beyond any formal attempts to express ‘gratitude’. Also, I’m not talking about charity here. We have the direct debit with ‘Save The Children’, buy the Big Issue (which I feel guilty about not liking very much), recycle, sign petitions and go on the occasional protest march. I write to my MP about things that shock me and give money to beggars. All of this is perfectly Richard Dawkins friendly and doesn’t help. What I’m actually talking about is religion.

Now I’ve always seen my parent’s brand of Catholicism as something horrible and oppressive but as I’ve got older, I’ve begun to appreciate the stable centre it gave to lives which would otherwise have been very uncentred indeed. But returning to the church isn’t an option. For one thing, I don’t believe in an ‘interventionist God’ (I quote that line from Nick Cave an awful lot). For another, I don’t accept the bigotry, paedophilia and regressive politics that seems to go with mainstream Christianity. And I’ve zero interest in hair-shirted Presbyterianism. Quakers offer a reasonably attractive form of Christianity but there’s still that barrier of being personally redeemed by Christ. No thank you. Islam suffers from most of the issues that Christianity is dogged by (see bigotry, regressive politics etc) and I really would need a complete cultural refit to deal with Hinduism.

Meanwhile, full-on engagement with other religions that interest me has is complicated by the lack of any real scope for engaging with the family. Zen Buddhism isn’t really kid-focused and Richard and Linda Thomson have probably put me off Sufism for life. Also, supermum doesn’t do religion. It’s one of those blank spots in our relationship. Her family never had any religious involvement and she literally cannot comprehend an inner life as moulded by religion as mine has been. On the other hand, she gardens. She pays attention to the seasons. She wants to acknowledge that life is passing and things happen to us, good and bad.

This, then, leads us towards paganism. Being me, I’ve thrown myself headlong into exploring Anglo-Saxon heathenry. As a family, we’ve been poking gently at Goddess strands of paganism and encountered Starhawk, Diane Baker’s and Anne Hill’s source book for children and goddess traditions, Circle Round, which has many wonderful things in it but a fair leavening of material which makes me cringe. I’ve also been reading the rather more critical Ronald Hutton whose book Triumph of the Moon respectfully but thoroughly debunks much of the ‘ancient’ tradition surrounding Wicca and its ideologies (which has made trying to find anything we can do relating to Easter a bit of of trial, given the lack of substantial historical provenance of the goddess Eostre).

Now hang on a minute, you’re probably saying. If you’re so dead set against religion and don’t believe in God, how on earth can you so easily charge off into a world of irrational pantheism and animism?

Fair point. I suppose it comes down to seeing engaging with the sacred as a creative act. I don’t need the divine to have a concrete, verifiable existence to invite it into my life. As a writer, I do this every day with things that I evidently make up. Examining or reconstructing or recreating older/extinct/modern traditions provides a means of carving a space for stepping outside our everyday place in the world and thinking about it. Making sense of it. Or making sense of the lack of sense. We’re born, we live and we die, and the year round cycle paganism explores offers a way of creatively engaging with the mystery at the heart of this.

Hmm. That’s probably enough for now. Meanwhile, the Korean poet Ko Un notes:

Bitten by a mosquito


Wow, I’m still alive.

Scratch, scratch



About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

8 responses to “Wrestling with the sacred

  • Anne Camille

    I just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World. While she is a Christian (theology professor and Episcopal priest), I think the book may hold something for the non-Christian. It isn’t proscriptive in terms of practices and rituals, but it does discuss finding the sacred in various arenas of ones life: work, meditation, harvesting potatoes, walking, experiencing nature, etc. I often question why I continue to attend worship services at my church -especially when I’m exposed to the politics of the organization, which I’ve extracated myself from mostly in the past year or two. I find reciting some parts of the Creed nearly impossible but I find other parts of worship that I can embrace though I suppose the meaning that I impune to them would give most theologians heartburn. That I belong to a denomination that leans towards progressive thought and is trying to lean towards better social practice helps. Still, I find that my best times of worship, of reverence, of seeking those thin places where one finds more readily the divine, are when I take a solitary walk.

  • P

    Just reading through Bristol’s Festival of Idea’s programme that popped again into my email today just to check I’d not missed any the first email round.

    Two speakers caught my eye and reminded me of your post Diarmaid MacCulloch 19 May and Francis Spufford 13 May. Suspect they wont enable you to find the Goddess presented painted hen’s eggs by a Hare (which are now chocolate of course) and it may, well probably is completely unrelated, but who knows ….. and love the poem.

  • Shannon

    I so much appreciate your thoughtfulness here.

    I’m not sure I have this exactly right, but what I hear is a longing for something to give a more defined shape to your life, or a way of being awake and alive to what is transcendent, and beautiful – perhaps a deep attentiveness to all that is authentically life. .

    At the same time, the available options seem lacking.

    What I’m learning is that rarely do we truly choose a shape; rather, a shape chooses us. I don’t know if that will ring true with what you’re feeling, but I think perhaps one has its sights set on you.

    If you were asking for some sort of response (which I’m not terribly sure you are, but just if…), I would say go with the longing. That you long, that you are wrestling, that you are stirring or being stirred either by memory of upbringing or what of your life you are already awake to, is already a transcendent and beautiful move. Maybe for now, until you find a fit, let the longing be your religion.

    All good to you as you seek…

  • karencranfillauthor

    Hi Gabriel,
    I think you are looking for something more. The bible says, God has put eternity in the hearts of men. I think that’s what you are feeling. I feel like that might be love, being loved by the One who created you. I call it a Father’s love and we all need it. What would happen if you asked God to show you the Father’s great love for you? I read the 4 gospels in the New testament. You have to read them for yourself to find that there is not religion, law or rules, but there is a lovely word called grace-God giving us what we could never earn or deserve. It is just a wonderfully beautiful gift. and especially the gift of being loved and cared about, unconditionally. I hesitate to do this and it is more of an added thought, but just check out this truth that God is a good God and as you are yearning He is yearning even more for you, just to hang out with you, just to let you know He knows all about you….. check it out —-ibethel.org….
    and good luck to you. I wish you the best in your quest.

    • Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

      I think what you’re feeling is what’s known in medicine as the placebo effect. I’m a big fan of placebos, mind.

      • karencranfillauthor

        Gabriel, I am returning to wordpress after finishing a school term. I would just like to say it’s nice that you identify yourself as ‘The Writing Dad”. I like what you are writing- YA fantasy. That is actually what I am working on this summer, hoping to finish a book. I hope it becomes a movie, as well. Ah yes dreaming. I, too, was a Catholic and went to Catholic school through the 6th grade. I found something that superseded that; although I will always be grateful to the Catholic church that into my young heart came the understanding that there is a God. I guess what I am really trying to say is that there is a relationship to be sought after. I know that I am known by Someone. In other words, He knows that when I was 19 yrs old I loved jade necklaces. He also knows that I love the ocean-deeply. He knows that writing is important in being true to who He created me to be. Without it I perish. I am saying that it is life-giving to me to be able to write, creatively, and have fun looking at what I penned. He knows that about me. It’s not business, it’s personal with Him. When the men were out fishing and it was early morning, He cooked fish and had bread for them, because He knew they would be tired, and even discouraged. They had fished all night and caught nothing. “Throw your net on the other side of the boat and you will find success!” So they did. A boat load of fish. He knew that when I gave birth to my daughter, April Hannah, I would be apprehensive, because the first 3 births were so difficult and came out posterior (head up), which was painful. I didn’t do medication intervention. In those days we didn’t do sonograms that told the sex ahead of time, yet He told me that this baby would be named Hannah (a girl)-which means full of grace and mercy. Just as certain as the sun comes up, I gave birth to, yes, a little girl. The birth was not posterior, but normal. 20 min. after I got to the hospital she was born-very fast and very pain free. It was just as He had promised-full of grace and mercy. Grace means favor. We know what mercy is. I had both. Earlier, In 1972 it was not customary for the father to join the mother in the delivery room. And it was not my doctor’s practice, at all. When I was a few weeks away from having my first baby, I was emotional, as could be expected. I also was crying that my husband wouldn’t be with me. I distinctly heard God’s voice at that moment-He said—“Dan will be there.” (He knew my husband’s name) When labor was long and difficult (24hrs) with lots of pain, the doctor relented from keeping my husband out of the delivery room. He granted my request. Perhaps he was worried. I only know that it was just as God had spoken to me, because He cares. And when my husband was to leave this world in 2009, I asked the Lord to please let me be there when he went. At 1am, due to a fluke, I was out in the living room at his bedside when he breathed his last. It’s all about personal. It’s all about the relationship. He is there in the most important times and He is there in the everyday, fun times too. I have even had Him suggest a movie I might watch and sure enough when I watched the movie I found just the answer to something I needed. He’s that close. He’s that real. Wish that for you, too.

  • J

    I love the thoughtful comments you’re getting on your very thoughtful post.

    I wonder if some people find ‘God’, or peace, or a connection, so much in nature, gardening, walking in the woods, because if you believe in God, you know He created these things. Church was created by man, as was religion. Those of us who are atheists also believe that God was created by humans. I do like the search for an inner self, for a quiet stillness that resonates. I’m with Supermum….I wasn’t raised with religion, so I don’t really understand the gifts that it can give a person, so much as I understand the community that can come from finding a church that resonates with you. I see a lot of bad that happens in the world in the name of religion and God, so I see no personal reason to look there for meaning. To me, the meaning in life is in our family, our friends, in those quiet moments that bring us joy. And a large part of joy, as you so rightly stated, is in appreciating the gifts that we’ve been given. Also in giving of ourselves when we can, whether that is a donation to a charity that touches us, volunteering to help a worthy cause, or maybe just lending an ear to a friend or even stranger in need.

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