I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the seemingly secular things that I’ve come to hold sacred, whether they be songs, books, films, works of art, or even places. My spiritual regard for these things is often rooted in my own experience, yet, I also believe that I’ve come to appreciate many of them in a spiritual sense because they broach truth in their own right. Brigham Young once said “The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this church” (JD 11:375). That’s a pretty remarkable insight that I think, at times, is lost on us in the Church today. Sometimes we as members seem more focused on identifying the ‘bad’ in the things of the world than the ‘good’ that beacons to us. Perhaps that’s because there is a lot of bad out there, but I also think, for me at least, that it might say something about our attitudes.
I guess that’s why I’ve never really liked the “brownie” analogy that got kicked around in during my years in seminary. A lot of variations on it exist, but the gist of it is this. You wouldn’t eat a brownie, pie, or cookie if the person baking it had slipped manure (or anything else similarly revolting) into the batter, so you should likewise avoid entertainment, literature, etc. that the creators have slipped ‘manure’ into. My problem with the analogy is thisâ€¦ with my obsessive compulsive tendencies, I’m someone that can find ‘bad’ in pretty much anything if I try.
Now I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t seek to avoid corrosive things. It’s just that I came to the realization years ago that I’m a much happier person if I focus on looking for the ‘good’ in things instead of the ‘bad’â€¦ which leads me back to my ruminations on the secular as sacred. I’ve noticed in my life that there are a lot of non-Mormon and sometimes seemingly non-religious things that I, for one reason or another, have come to hold sacred. While others may not be touched in the same way by the things which move me – in fact, they may not find them spiritual at all – I don’t think this really lessens their claim as truth for me. I’m not convinced the Lord even meant for us to always hold the very same things sacred. On this note, I thought it might prove interesting to share a few of my ‘sacred seculars’ and see if anyone else had a few of their own kicking around I might have overlooked or missed.
(1) Several years ago, I faced a very difficult challenge, one that seemed so daunting to me that, in spite of all of my prayers, I doubted my ability to navigate my way though it. In the midst of this ordeal, I sat one night listening to a live version of the Fleetwood Mac song Landslide. I remember pausing as I heard Stevie Nicks’ croon during the second verse “Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?” After which she softly whispers “Mmm mmm, I don’t know.” I had listened to this song often in the previous weeks and months and the uncertainty of this verse always struck at me at my core. It could just as well have been me singing it. On this particular night, however, I distinctly remember a calm reassurance wash over me as I heard the familiar lyrics. I was literally overcome with the impression that I was going to be able to sail through my changing ocean tides, and that, all of my apprehension aside, I was up to handling the seasons of my life. At that moment, somehow I just knew everything was going to work itself out. That in spite of all my fears, my worries, and my inadequaciesâ€¦ my future was going to be full and rich with meaning. It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve had. So powerful, in fact, that I still get overwhelmed when I hear any version of the song, whether I’m in my car, at the dentist’s office, or in line at the supermarket.
(2) I’m not sure if it says more about me or the entertainment industry, but movies rarely impact me deeply enough that I could say they’ve changed me as a person or affected my outlook on life. The film Dead Man Walking is one of the glorious exceptions. For me, it’s one of the most profoundly spiritual films I’ve seen in my life. For those who haven’t seen it [warning: spoilers ahead], it’s the true story of a Catholic nun who ministers to a convicted murderer awaiting his execution on death row. She works to help this young man acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes he denies committing and take responsibility for his actions before he is put to death.
In reaching out to both this man and his family, the nun ends up angering the families of his victims, who perceive her efforts as ‘siding’ with the man who had brutally turned their lives upside down. (It also didn’t help matters any that, as a Catholic, she opposed his execution). Heartbroken, the nun struggles to somehow find a way to succor everyone: the families coping with the vicious murders, the young man who has committed the terrible deeds, as well as the young man’s family, who in a very real sense are victims themselves. The film is very even-handed, but still manages to delve meaningfully, and without superficiality, into heavy issues like love, forgiveness, the rippling consequences of sin, and our continuing search for peace in this life. The closing scene, in my mind, is a poignant work of art; it’s understated, but that adds to its impact.
After the execution and funeral of the young killer, the father of one of the victims confides in the nun that he is struggling with a great deal of hate. The murder not only had deprived him of his child, but it tore apart his marriage, and has left him increasingly bitter. Before parting ways with the nun, the father says that he wishes he had the nun’s faith. She responds that it’s not that easy, that it’s not just faith, that finding a way out of the hate takes work. He tells her that he doesn’t know if he can do it. The movie then cuts to a shot of them, through the warbled glass of a Church window, kneeling in prayer at some later point in time. It’s a tough film to be sure, but I can think of few other movies that have so vividly crystallized gospel principles for me. In a very real sense, it helped to shape my view of forgiveness. No matter how justified we might feel we are in our anger and hatred toward others, we still have to forgive. Retribution and justice, though they may be called for, won’t bring us peace… only forgiveness can do that. And often, the only way we’re going to find that ability to forgive — or that peace — is by working on our knees.
(3) The last one I thought I’d share is a place I would escape to occasionally during my first year of law school. My campus was literally just blocks from the National Mall and, sometimes, when I’d just about had it with the Erie Doctrine, promissory estoppel, or the reasonable person standard, I’d slip away and wander around the monuments. Now the whole Mall area is sacred in my view, I love gazing out over the reflecting pool from the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial or meandering around the Cherry Blossom trees that surround the tidal basin (whether in bloom or not), but my favorite monument is tucked away in a grove of trees just north of the Vietnam Memorial. It’s a larger than life statue of Einstein, sprawled out lazily on a series of steps that overlook a dais which showcases constellations and astronomical objects. Because it’s a lesser known monument and is somewhat secluded, during the day it’s nearly always deserted. I used to love having it all to myself. You can slip up onto Einstein’s lap, lean back against his famous theorem, and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Perched there, you can almost see into the eternities. Law school has a way of sapping your creative energies, draining the very life from you… but a few minutes in Einstein’s ‘sacred’ grove always seemed to put everything back into perspective for me.