Friday, January 05, 2018

Inner Life | Inner Death: On the Sonic Threshold of the Sacred

The ears of mortals are filled with this sound, but they are unable to hear it.
– Macrobius

The idea of the sacred, rooted in the concept of what is set apart for or marked by the divine, is necessarily a matter of the intersection between presence and absence, revelation and concealment, the visible and the invisible. It is impossible for the divine ray to illumine us unless it is enshrouded by a variety of sacred veils.[1] So the theory of the sacred is traditionally concerned with the order of liminal objects (aura, relic, vestige, shadow, image, etc.), forms that translate between presence and absence, forming their threshold, just as every threshold is sacred.[2] We speak of ‘traces of the sacred’ because the sacred appears universally and fundamentally as trace, that is, as the absent presence and present absence of another reality in the midst of this one—a presence that is no longer distinct in any way from an absenc­­­e.[3] The sacred is the sign under which all things are never only themselves but also signs, inscriptions of something vastly beyond and within them: all creatures in this world of sensible realities . . . are shadows, echoes, and pictures of that first . . . and most perfect Principle.[4]

Here the real mystery of the sacred, the mystery of its mystery, comes into view: not simply that the divine or eternal truth manifests itself, but that its reality becomes apparent without destroying or displacing the actuality which veils it, without consuming its otherwise profane covering. It is impossible to overemphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany . . . By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself[5]—like iron in the fire (a common medieval symbol for mystical union). The truth of the sacred is not the eternal per se, but the ultimate paradox of its sojourn in time and space: In order to arrive at that . . . which is most spiritual and eternal, and above us, it is necessary that we move through the vestiges which are bodily and temporal and outside us.[6] In this sense, the sacred belongs less to the infinite than to the finite, to the hierarchy of mortal beings who somehow manage, as if from some infinitely secret reserve of inner strength, to vibrate with the tremendous power and music of the deathless. The paradox of the sacred is the very divinity of the world: The world—insofar as it is absolutely, irreparably profane—is God.[7] It is the omnipresent threshold of above and below, the zone both of heavenly or transcendent revelation and the unearthing of knowledge too immanent or immediate to admit, to begin with, The horror . . . that we know that we see God in life itself.[8]
The trace embodies the paradox of the sacred, its liminal intimacy with the profane, in the sense of being something left behind—a footprint, a sandal, a corpse. A trace is decidedly not the being of which it is the trace, and yet one cannot erase the presence of the thing in it. The logic of the trace explains the mutual potentiality of the sacred and the profane. As trace, an object is potentially worthy of being thrown away or used. As trace, an object is potentially worthy of being preserved or set apart from use. Contradictions of the cadaver. We do not cry over the loss of our shit, our former precious food. Then why on earth should we shed tears and weep and wail when the body, which is merely food for the soul, is cast off at death?[9] Thus the capital error to avoid vis-à-vis the sacred is to forget or deny what Bataille defines as its ‘subjective identity’ with the excremental: The notion of the (heterogeneous) foreign body permits one to note the elementary subjective identity between types of excrement . . . and everything that can be seen as sacred, divine, or marvelous: a half-decomposed cadaver fleeing through the night in a luminous shroud can be seen as characteristic of this unity.[10] The danger of ignoring the sacred/profane threshold, the line of the trace which both separates and joins them, is beautifully illustrated in an anecdote from 1929 about a disciple who refused to wear Meher Baba’s sandals: 

“Master, I could never wear your holy sandals.” Thereupon, Baba bitterly remarked to the others present, “How unlucky Vishnu is! When I give him my sandals to wear, he just touches his forehead to them and puts them back. This type of worship and reverence pains me. It is not worship; it is punishment. By disobeying me, Vishnu does not worship me he punishes me. And the sad part is that he thinks he is revering me. Not to keep my word and to worship one’s own sentiments is sheer disobedience. Vishnu does not revere me. He reveres his own emotions, and to him, they are apparently superior to my orders. Such things deeply pain me.” Disturbed, Chhagan asked, “Are we not to consider your sandals as sacred?” “Every belonging of mine is sacred,” replied Baba, “and to have a feeling of reverence for them is good. But they are not more important that I am . . .” Baba’s mood changed and he then asked those present, “Have you ever examined what I defecate?” Some replied, “Yes,” and some said, “No.” But none could give a description which satisfied Baba. So he himself explained: “You have no idea what my feces contain. In the beginning of creation, I defecated, and all the suns, moons, stars and universes came out. They are all my excrement! But just imagine! When this dirty thing is so beautiful, how can you ever imagine my real splendor? You will lose your senses if you ever see even a glimpse of it.”

Refusing to wear the Master’s sandals is tantamount to losing the truth of the sacred as trace and veil of itself, as something whose sacredness cannot be severed or set apart from its fitness to be sacrificed for its own essence. Not wanting to step upon the holy, to place it between one’s feet and the earth, one loses its meaning as threshold of the divine, its being another veil or step in the ladder of vestiges leading beyond oneself. The order of the sacred, of the divine infinity of the trace, commands one simultaneously to disregard the world as waste and revere it as holy. As a sacrifice is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice,[11] so the expanding wasteful expenditure of the visible universe is but the trace of a Reality we fail to glimpse. Failure to touch and hold open this threshold produces two opposite and intersecting artificial worlds: 1) a world where the sacred is everything and thus nothing is sacred (all things prone to being exploited, violated, destroyed); and 2) a world where the sacred is nothing and thus everything is sacred (all things prone to being overvalued, protected, preserved). Lost to both is the supreme naturalness and spontaneity of life, what John of Ruusbroec calls the “outflowing generous commonness of the divine nature.”[12]

In order to abandon both of these spheres, ambivalently religious and secular, let us trace the sacred less in terms of what happens than in terms of what does not, less as an event to be sought than something more exciting and overwhelming than any occurrence: the direct, trembling evidence of that infinite existence and eternal present in which nothing has ever happened and nothing ever will—where all is happening NOW. In the midst of life’s non-stop plenitude of sense and sensation, the sacred summons our aptitude for the fundamentally unknown yet deeply felt, at least by the selected few, who scattered amongst the crowd, silently and unostentatiously surrender their all. [13] Guided by Riminaldi’s painting of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia, the patron of music, I will listen for the sacred as the unheard filling our ears, taking up along the way the crucial question of what it calls one to sacrifice.

[1] “[I]mpossibile est nobis aliter lucere divinum radium, nisi varietate sacrorum velaminum circumvelatum” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.1.9,, citing Pseudo-Dionysius.
[2] Porphyry
[3] Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, 5.
[4] Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind into God, 77.
[5] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 12.
[6] Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind into God, 47.
[7] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, 89.
[8] Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., 154.
[9] Meher Baba, Tiffin Lectures, 272.
[10] Georges Bataille, “The Use Value of D.A.F. De Sade,” in Visions of Excess, 94.
[11] Augustine, City of God, 10.5.
[12] Ruusbroec, Spiritual Espousals, quoted in A Companion to John of Ruusbroec, 145.
[13] Meher Baba, quoted in C. B. Purdom, The God-Man, 212. 

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