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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

3: The sacred defined

But what precisely is meant by the term sacred? The word itself derives from the past participle of the Middle English verb sacren, meaning "to consecrate", which in turn stems from the Latin sancire, to make sacred.[4] The first definition given reflects this sense of the sacred as a quality which must be imparted to things, rather than one which they might intrinsically possess: "dedicated or set apart for the worship or service of a deity." Dolores LaChappelle correctly notes, in her Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: The Rapture of the Deep, that this is a human-centred definition; the emphasis is on the (human) act of making sacred.[5]

But the dictionary does go on to list other, less anthropocentric definitions of the sacred, such as "worthy of religious veneration" and "entitled to reverence and respect". These definitions, while still implying human involvement, shift the locus of control to the sacred itself. Sacred things, here, are not merely whatever humans happen to have defined as sacred, but things which are possessed of an innate sacredness and demand recognition of that quality by humans. The distinction may appear subtle, but it is an important one.

LaChappelle makes a different distinction: between what she terms "sacred-as-substance," and "sacred-as-relationship," a more fluid definition which situates sacredness in the interaction between human and nonhuman. She quotes Derham Giuliani on the idea of "sacred" as similar to (but deeper than) "meaningful":

A state that, when activated, gives a special type of meaning to an event. It is a kind of awareness, not obtained by any act of will or logic, of patterns running through everything around us. Each 'meaningful' occurrence becomes part of a person's behavior so that one's life is changed as these accumulate, one's life enters a pattern guided by that of everything else.[6]

Here, sacredness is not a matter of human definition, but of human perception or awareness; an act of opening, rather than of controlling. Giuliani's understanding of the sacred makes clear not only LaChappelle's notion of sacred-as-relationship, but also its key relevance from an activist perspective: that a true encounter with the sacred is a transformative experience.



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