I was lucky enough to travel to Russia in 2013. Having grown up during the latter stages of the “Cold War” between communist Russia and my own country, this was an adventurous dream come true. In Moscow, I visited a royal estate on the outskirts of the city with my tour guide, a young woman from the Moscow Rotary Club. As we toured this grand estate, now run by the Russian government, we decided to visit the church which is onsite there, and which the royal family used for services and special events.
Having been raised Baptist, I had never been in an Orthodox church, to my memory, particularly one involved in a service. My guide, Irina, placed a cover on her head and we entered the church. It was a “Saint’s Day” and so we were among a crowd of people paying homage and respect to icons of the saints long gone. As we respectfully wandered around the incense-filled church that day, we encountered an orthodox priest dressed in black. Suddenly, in Russian, the bearded priest asked me to take my hands out of my pockets! I was shocked. It was cold and I was unaware I had my hands in my pockets but I did what I was told, out of respect. Though I obeyed, my initial reaction, the first few seconds anyway were me thinking to myself “he can’t tell me what to do.”
After we left, I asked Irina why the priest had asked me to remove my hands from my pockets, and she said that the church was a holy and sacred place and that was a sign of respect. So was her putting on the veil. This was an experience which has haunted my memory since. First of all, I am making no argument here for orthodox religion, though I have lately been drawn closer to the faith through an Anglican church. To the contrary, my hopeful argument is much simpler. In our denial of any sort of sacred meaning to life, we are coming unhinged. We are a snake swallowing its own tail. The ring, from The Lord of the Rings, is consuming us and we are destroying ourselves. We the branches are killing the roots of the tree by which we live. Not just with shootings and violence, but with irrational thought, with narcissism, and with a lack of respect for one another or for authority.
Entering into any place regarded as sacred is not something that happens in America. As a matter of fact, nothing in America is sacred at all. Football teams who bow even in a moment of silence are treated with hostility by the angry offended cult of the self. Disregard religion in any organized form completely and consider that simple fact. Other than the boundless individual ego, the unencumbered and unlimited individual, unrestrained by God, gods, or even concepts or ideas or memories of God or gods, nothing remains other than the man and the culture destroying himself.
It struck me that this experience in Russia had bigger meaning. If our lives mean something, anything at all, then our lives are sacred as whole. And if our lives are sacred then our experiences are sacred, no matter how trivial, in that they have some sort of significance. Either my life matters or it doesn’t. I needed then to decide and I need now to decide: Either everything I do matters or nothing does. We cannot logically say that our existence matters and then say the things we do don’t matter. We must say that our lives are sacred, in that they matter. Or else.
Increasingly, all we have left in America are shopping malls, stores, bars, and sporting events- consumer related events. The places we go, the places we learn, the places we sleep, and the relationships we have are all defined for the most part by nothing other than our existence as consumers. Nothing is sacred in a timeless sense. Nothing matters. When people latch on to a radical version of religion and kill people we should not feel surprised. They feel as though they are god. Listen to commercials and this is the mindset: man as god. When a person becomes god, in his own mind, he can do whatever he wants. When people feel they can take human body parts and sell them for “scientific progress”, we should not be surprised. Should we be surprised when people trample one another to death on “Black Friday” to buy a stupid TV? The human being is capable of gross injustice. When people abuse one another, we should not be surprised. Nothing matters anyway and our lives are all a dream, we are gods, or figments of our own imagination, and gods can do whatever they want.
This experience in Russia changed me. Symbols matter. Behavior matters. Words matter. Actions matter. Life matters. This experience of “the sacred” made me realize how nonchalantly I view my own life at times, and my own decisions. We must never forget that the greatest mass murders in history, murderers of 100s of millions of people, took place within regimes who viewed human life as meaningless and who hated the very idea of God. We must never forget either that all people, every single one of us, is capable of evil and capable of wrong. Religion, just like government, is run by people, and people are capable of anything.
My argument is simply that life is sacred. We need to return the experience of the sacred in our mundane and routine daily lives. I am not a theologian, but I have experienced many things. I’ve dined with Muslims in my own house, I’ve worshipped with Roman Catholics, drank beer with Aborigines, clapped along with Pentecostals, dated doubters, and played sports with agnostics and atheists and I can tell you this for sure: we as individuals are not God. I know that for sure. We need to bring back the irreplaceable cultural value that life has meaning outside of our self.
From my own experience, I can without a doubt say that God can heal the human spirit. I’ve felt it happen and I’ve seen it happen in the lives of others- in the lives of inmates, CEOs, parents, abuse victims, and washed out alcoholics. America has denied that life has meaning, that there is eternal virtue, that anything at all is sacred, that we can know anything at all to be true, and now is the time to put a stop to this madness.