Acknowledging and Honouring the Sacred

We gaze up at the night sky, miles away from the artificial lights of the civilized world, and we cast our eyes toward the distant heavens and the realm of unimaginable space and unlimited possibilities. We stare up at the expanse of an infinite universe with countless stars suspended in the void, and we are connected to Time and Hope, like junctures of light in the deep dark ocean of space.

The great star we call our sun holds us in his influence as we float along on Mother Earth, spinning in cycles within this black celestial sea of nothingness. In all this we feel our own sense of place, surprisingly secure, cradled between her and the all-covering Father Sky. Our physical realities dwell here, limited and confined to these human forms, with the exception of that part of ourselves that draws sustenance from moments like this, when we gaze upon the heavens and suddenly become aware of the part of ourselves that connects us, as with the silken strands of a spider's web, to all things, great and small, and provides us the gift of potential we have within to expand and explore.

Infinity and eternity are abstractions beyond the intellectual limitations of humankind. In a universe wide as daylight, immense as darkness, there are no boundaries. There are no limitations. These come only when we attempt to define what we cannot. In a universe beyond our comprehension, the potential for our spiritual growth is restricted only by the physical forms we occupy and by the way we allow ourselves to think -- but the Great Mystery, regardless, remains forever unending and eternal.

We share life simultaneously with all things in a Totality without beginning and without end -- this is a humbling notion, but the humility we experience when we realize it helps us transcend into a greater sense of Place and Purpose, and into a sacred responsibility for being alive, and a part of it

In the beginning it flowed through the primordial bloodstream of humankind. And long ago, whether through ceremony or through simply gazing at the night sky, the First People became consciously aware of their place in the Wheel of Life. They recognized their connection to the vast subconscious, and to various dimensions of Time and Space and Spirit and Mystery, through the power of their conscious awareness, and through the urgings of their Original Instruction.

Long ago they sat together in a circle, passing sacred objects from hand to hand, or they stood alone and turned their thoughts toward the rising sun. They traced the natural movement of the sun across the sky, setting into motion a harmonic flow or movement within the ceremonial circles they had formed, and within their own lives as well. Long ago they knew the circle they created with others, and the sunwise movement they imitated, and everything else in Ceremony presents something, and draws special powers for specific purposes. Long ago they became consciously aware that every song expresses certain feelings, and entreats certain elements to come into the world.

Every prayer is a seed planted in the Mystery. Each one addresses some aspect of our needs and urgings, and prepares the world in a mysterious way, as if it were a garden, for its fulfillment.

Long ago they knew every color has a meaning; every feather, every bone, every beaded or quilled design has a unique power and significance. They knew their instruments were special, each one made out of a desire to re-create the music of nature, each with a vibration and sound that was unique to itself and that drew attention to and from those troublesome or benevolent spirits and incorporeal beings that inhabited their world.

Long ago all of these elements of ceremony intertwined and became one with their intentions and purpose. Each one commanded their respect and appreciation. And so their seeds of prayer gestated, were born, and were made ready for fruition within the sacred awareness of Ceremony.

Times have changed, but certain elements of the human condition have not. No matter how civilized we humans have become, certain needs still flow through our primordial blood. And many are now seeking to satisfy their need for ceremony once again. But can we reconcile our sacred relationship to all things with the way we have chosen to live?

Anyone who chooses can learn to conduct aspects of ceremony. Anyone who chooses can purchase a Native American pipe. Anyone who chooses can buy a braid of sweetgrass, a bag of sage, or a stick of cedar. Anyone who chooses can gather feathers and collect fetishes. Anyone who chooses can learn to sing a traditional song, use a traditional instrument, or listen to traditional melodies of the flute on the latest digital disc. Anyone who chooses can learn words of prayer and supplication.

Chain bookstores display how-to books that teach anyone who chooses how to make things once handed down in more personal ways. They show you how to make "your own spirit mask." They show how to make a drum, how to make dream catchers. They sell kits to make your own flute.

Specially priced trips to temples and pyramids and other "power places" and "holy places" all over the world beckon from the Internet. Advertisements for guided and supervised "vision quest weekends" are scattered throughout the pages of New Age magazines.

To judge the right or wrong of all this or to criticize anyone does not serve the purpose and intention of this book (The Book of Ceremonies). The heart knows what is true. These things may be good for some people and bad for others, right for some and wrong for others, but one thing cannot be denied: certain elements of ceremony cannot be sold or purchased. The most critical of all these are the elements that emanate from a good heart, from the intentions of the good-hearted people that have been brought into that Time and Space of Ceremony and share a belief in the interrelationship of all things.

And though anyone who chooses can purchase the conduits of ceremony, not everyone can enter into a ceremonial state of consciousness. To do this one must be of good heart, whether that heart is celebratory and joyous or anguished and sad. The purity of the heart and the sincerity of intentions are the master facts; they are essential. They are vital, as is a conscious awareness of one's relationship to all the things within the ceremony – for we enter into a ceremonial state of consciousness out of love and reverence for the sacredness and the beauty and the power of life and life's journey, no matter how grand or small that life may be, or how wonderful or difficult that road is to walk.

We enter into a ceremonial state of consciousness with respect for life, and for the purpose of well-being and balance, not only within our own lives, but for the Earth, our Mother, as well. A ceremony, even of one, then becomes an expression of gratitude and an acknowledgment of the sacred. It is a way of addressing and entreating the spirit of benevolence. It is a way of living.

Nearly every animated life form incorporates ritual of some kind. The ceremonial aspect of that ritual embodies that life form's conscious awareness and recognition of the sacred. The sacred emanates from a particular place and moment of mind that, for whatever reason, makes a conscious connection to the Great Mystery that all things share.

There is a remarkable scene in the book Our Kinship with the Animals. Gary Kowolski, a Unitarian minister and animal rights advocate, describes the observations of a zoologist who was caught early one evening by the splendor of an incredible sunset in an African rain forest. While he was appreciating the moment, he saw a lone chimpanzee come into the scene, cradling a papaya close to his body.

The chimp paused at an opening between the trees that provided an especially impressive view. "For a full fifteen minutes, the animal remained spellbound by the spectacle of the changing colors of the dusk and watched them without moving."

Then something wonderful happened, something that could help civilized humans become more aware of their own primal source and that of other life forms as well. The chimp, after his motionless observance of the setting sun, gently placed his papaya on the ground where he stood and left it there, heading back into the thicket, as silent as the evening breeze.

A ceremony? Perhaps. The significance of this and similar incidents among animals has been debated for ages among scientists and theologians. They argue whether or not these are truly occurrences in Time and Space when nonhuman life forms connect with conscious awareness to something sacred.

Some say that the magic of the moment affected the chimp so deeply that he wandered off, forgetting the papaya. Others say the chimp's reaction must have been completely unrelated to the sunset and that he simply lost interest in the papaya and left it on the ground where he had been standing.

But some of us feel that in some way the chimp left the papaya as an offering, a gift to the beauty of the place and to the Mystery of it all. Perhaps he even brought the treasured papaya there with that intention.

Perhaps he truly was honoring and expressing his gratitude for the sacred, and perhaps this is a primal element of our own nature, deeply rooted in our animal DNA. It does appear that the chimp, whether conscious of it or not, was doing something that our elders insist upon: We must never take from the world without expressing our gratitude, and without giving something back.

I don't believe humankind can ever completely surrender our ways of acknowledging and honoring this awareness. If we did, we would become so civilized that we would no longer live with a conscious reverence and respect for our relationship to the greater web of life outside ourselves. We would no longer allow the magic in the Mystery to stir our imaginations and creativity. We would no longer feel our connectedness to life, or our sense of wonder and appreciation for life. We would no longer be challenged to grow further as spiritual beings in these physical forms.

If we surrender our ways of acknowledging and honoring the sacred, then how would we come closer to the understandings and insights that enable us to grow? How would we be able to help ourselves heal and become whole after being hurt and broken?

And if we surrender our ways of acknowledging and honoring the sacred, then what would be the Purpose of our existence? What would be the Purpose for living?

Something sacred and mysterious connects us all, human and nonhuman, corporeal and incorporeal beings alike, and these moments of recognition occur among a great diversity of life forms in Time and Space, moments when that sacred union, that sense of ineffable Oneness, is pronounced and appreciated and realized.

It is natural in these moments to offer something in gratitude.

Excerpted from The Book of Ceremonies, by Gabriel Horn.
(White Deer of Autumn ©2000)