Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weaving our own Sacred Canopy

Sacred Canopy
CC Jean Stimmell: Fort Foster, Kittery ME:  March 2014
Watching the movie Melancholia forced me to look death straight in the eye. It explores the existential question of finding meaning in life, even in the face of imminent death.[1]

Justine, the heroine of the movie, who had been, up to this point, overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life, pulls herself together at the end as a rogue planet is about to obliterate earth. She takes charge of her family, showing them how to find meaning in their lives in the face of death by building a magic teepee – a sacred canopy – and seeking refuge inside.

Her brother-in-law, the rational, man-in-charge, placed his trust in science to save the day. When it finally sinks in for him that their situation is hopeless – that science has no answers – he commits suicide, leaving his family members to fend for themselves.

Isn’t this the story of our modern times?

We have been set adrift. When push comes to shove, we can no longer count on organized religion or science to protect us: to provide us with that magic teepee or sacred canopy that our human species has always depended upon when death comes knocking.

In the West, the fabric of the religious sacred canopy began to fray over 500 years ago when Galileo “discovered” that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, ushering in the age of science.  Since then, our society has become increasingly secularized as science emerged as our surrogate, defacto god, the new deity who has mesmerized us with an endless stream of magical inventions, fooling us into believing that with science on our side, we are invincible, able to control our destiny.

But now we are beginning to see through that illusion. Rather than floating effortlessly on the magic carpet of technology, we find ourselves more stressed, anxious, and impoverished than ever.  We are finding science has few real solutions to improve our human condition, just an endless arcade of new products and gizmos.

And most important, when our own death draws near – facing the end of existence as we know it – we are discovering just as Justine’s brother-in-law did in the movies, science is powerless to help.
Magic canopy: Province Town
CC Jean Stimmell

Perhaps that is because, in the cold world of empiricism, scientists can’t grasp that sacred canopies really exist because they can’t be measured or dissected like a laboratory rat. Rather, they agree with social scientists like Peter Berger who concludes in his book about religion entitled The Sacred Canopy, “Religion is to be understood as a human projection, grounded in specific infrastructures of human history.” [2]

However, whether science thinks sacred canopies are really real or not, in terms of mythological and psychological reality, they are an indispensible aspect of what it means to be human. Sacred canopies will vary depending on time and place and may involve symbolic self-transcendence or maybe not.  But the bottom line is, as our final moments approach, we need to be able to validate what is most meaningful in our lives, our human connection to one another. We do that by coming together and being there for each other, seeking refuge together under the symbolic sacred canopy of our choice.

For indigenous people, able to live mindfully in an animate world, their sacred canopy is not a human projection but a seamless part of everyday life, an ever-present reality woven out of their sustainable interdependent relationships with their tribe and the living, breathing earth.

For the rest of us, entangled as we are in the death throws of our materialist, out-of-control world, we must use the one tool we have left, our imagination, to try to recreate that indigenous experience where every moment is alive and sacred, secure in every fiber of our being that we are not alone but cradled in the arms of our living, breathing mother.


[2] The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger. Anchor Books Edition: 1969. Page 180
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