Two weeks ago, we launched this year’s autumn special issue of Dark Mountain. SANCTUM is a themed issue which takes as its focus ‘the sacred’. Here on the blog, we’ve been introducing different aspects of the book – and today we continue that series with a conversation with one of the book’s contributors, Elizabeth Slade.
In her essay, ‘The God-Shaped Hole’, Elizabeth writes about her journey as a rationalist atheist, with a background in science communication and healthcare, who developed a suspicion that something important might have gone missing when people stopped going to church. Today on the blog, she talks to one of the book’s editors, Dougald Hine – but we start with an extract from the essay itself.
We sit on cushions in a circle, about 25 of us surrounding one lit candle. Each of us is invited to place a personal object in the middle. Some put jewellery, a hat, a piece of quartz. I stay still, very conscious of being in a minority: not wearing yoga pants, not barefoot, no piercings or tattoos. I’m wearing a top from Whistles, for fuck’s sake.
I feel the stiffening in my shoulders as a wave of discomfort passes over me. My cheeks flush with embarrassment – what would the me of just a few years ago have made of this situation?
Now, I’m able to notice the discomfort, let it go (mostly), or just be OK with noticing it. I know that through the discomfort the good stuff lies. I notice my desire to stay in a safe, practical, intellectual, rigid, mask-wearing state, and I gently try to put these elements down.
The work involves sharing meaningful personal stories with each other. Gazing into the eyes of strangers. Exploring political issues that we care deeply about and retelling them from different personal angles. We’re firmly in the emotional and out of the intellectual.
This is London, days after the Grenfell Tower fire. Everyone has a lot of pain.
And when the workshop is over, back in the circle around the candle and altar of objects, we all feel connected. It’s like our hearts are bigger than they were at the start. There is an undeniable connection between all people, all life. Afterwards, it occurs to me that this is the third role of the sacred: between the sky of possibility and the ground of being held, to encourage the felt knowledge of connection.
When big events come, a hunger for connection breaks the surface of our current way of living. I remember the 7/7 bombings in London back in 2005, long before I had any interest in the sacred. That sunny day, after news of what happened spread, everyone left work early to slowly make their way home and it was inarguably apparent that we’d all go to the pub. I look at something I wrote back then: ‘In earlier days (or in America), people would have gathered their families together and prayed. In London, we got our mates together and drank.’ It was a kind of communion, I guess.
Last November, on the day we learnt that Donald Trump was going to be president, my minister opened the church for the evening. About fifteen of us sat in candlelight and shared how we felt, and a violinist played exactly the right music, and we wept. Brits, Americans, people in their twenties and their eighties, all feeling the need to be together.
On days like that, people recognise the need to be close to others, to gather together while they’re hurting or scared, for their emotions to be held in the right way, whether oiled by beer, or by candlelight and violin and the work of an experienced minister. It feels like a very basic human thing, so I assume we had the words for it long before the language of church.
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DH: What you’re saying in the piece is that, until the last fifty or sixty years, in our part of the world, it was very normal that lots of people were part of a local church. That was part of the fabric of society, and it went away pretty quickly. And maybe we haven’t got the measure of some of what was lost, things that aren’t necessarily to do with your big cosmic beliefs about the Universe, but about some basic human needs. You draw on your own experiences with new kinds of non-religious gathering spaces like Sunday Assembly, as well as your local Unitarian church, where the minister is an atheist who used to be a scientist at MIT – but you’re also looking at it from the perspective of the work you’ve done with public health?
ES: Absolutely. So some of the work that I’ve done has been around the limitations of the health care system. You know, if you’ve broken a leg or something, it’s really well geared-up to treat you. But doctors have known for a long time that so much of what makes us healthy happens outside of biomedical health. It’s more to do with how we live – and that’s so much more than just, take more exercise, stop smoking, don’t eat as many doughnuts! We can live in ways that create health and that has a lot to do with how we live in our communities and the sense of purpose that we have in our lives. All those things that are not well provided for either by the state or the market. And right now, we can’t see what we’re missing, because there’s been this sort of generational gap there. There’s not a lot of common language to talk about these aspects of our lives.
DH: You’ve been thinking about the role of serving a community that might have been played once upon a time by somebody who wore a strange collar and stood up in front of a building full of people on a Sunday morning. And it’s not necessarily a desire to herd everybody back into churches that you’re talking about, but a sense that there is a role there that we need in other ways and haven’t necessarily got good at recovering?
ES: Yeah, definitely. And the language does get in the way and I’m really conscious that I use a lot of church-based language which to a lot of people is either alien or meaningless. But yes, there is a kind of role of ministry. I don’t think there’s an appetite in our culture to have someone who stands up in front and has all the answers – I think there’s something a bit repulsive about that idea – but we can be equipped to support each other, to be each other’s ministers and spiritual guides and help each other through life. And people are doing that, but it’s not yet a role that’s really valued in our culture. It’s not really something that’s seen. So you know, back when I went into the church for the first time, I didn’t feel: oh, I really need some kind of counsel from a minister. I didn’t really know what it was I wanted, I just had a sense of a gap, but it feels like it would be a hugely valuable thing if it was like, oh, I need a bit of guidance – I need to go and speak to someone who is in one of these community leadership roles with certain skills and knowledge. It would be good if we had some understanding, some way of talking about this, as a culture.
DH: It strikes me there are skills that in other times and places would have been regarded as something that you spent twenty years of your life learning how to do, before you were let loose as somebody could practice, where now we think you can go on a few weekend courses and get a certificate that allows you to sell your services – and that’s true whether we’re talking about some of the things that go under the name of ‘hosting’ and ‘facilitation’ these days, or whether we talk about some of the more New Age spiritual services that are on offer. So I wonder, without simply copying and pasting from the way things have been done in the past or in other cultures, how do we home in on a less flimsy way of dealing with these parts of being human?
ES: Thinking about the health care example, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years, reminding nurses and doctors alike, ‘Oh, we should be caring and compassionate.’ And you know a lot of people go into those roles because they are caring and compassionate – but actually, if the culture of the organisation loses its way and focuses on the hard clinical outcomes and the costs and all of that stuff and forgets ‘Oh, we’re here to be caring and compassionate’, then you have to remind people to do it. And so, in this sort of new, post-church spiritual world, there’s a sense of there not being much of an appetite for dogma. You don’t really want to say, ‘Oh yes, we all believe this, we all believe the same thing and these are the rules.’ But there is a danger of exploitation, people using powerful tools and techniques from the world of the sacred for their own gain, or just using them clumsily.
DH: We’ve been talking about how removed our culture has become from the experience of what you’re saying the church, at its best, used to provide. But there’s also a rediscovery going on in lots of places of what you might call the technology of the sacred – ritual, the mountaintop experience, the things that take you to those wild beautiful moments of meaning – which is often drawing on knowledge and practice that has existed within religious or spiritual cultural traditions. Maybe it’s tempting for us, as these things are being rediscovered, to focus on these ecstatic experiences?
ES: Yeah and you can see why, because it feels like that’s where the action’s happening. It’s exciting to be part of a ritual where you enter a different world for a little while and you know that the people around you are also entering that different world, that different mind-set, for a little while. And all of that stuff is hugely valuable – and still I think it’s a very tiny slice of the whole picture and actually the value is much more in the slow, gentle, day-to-day engagement with the sacred. Which can’t be these euphoric experiences, you know. You can’t have Christmas every day.
DH: You can’t live on a mountaintop. You go there to spend four days in retreat and have a powerful experience, but you still come back, hopefully to somewhere more sheltered.
ES: If the thing that you’re looking for is the euphoric experience and you’re looking to find it in a way that fits your everyday life in a sustainable way, I don’t believe that’s possible. So it’s more about accepting the slow and gentle, day-to-day, and having the things in your life that make that sustainable. Rather than just like, oh, if I can just get through to Christmas, then I can get through all of this difficult stuff that I know I’ve got on, but you know, just around the next corner, I’ll be OK. A lot of our culture at the moment is – oh, get through to your next holiday, get through to the weekend. You know, wait till you get home and you can have a glass of wine. And yeah, I guess I was totally in that pattern of living, pre-church, and I’m not entirely not within that pattern of living now, I guess! But I totally see that those bits of cultural infrastructure that you can bring into your day-to-day, just help us cope with this brilliance of being human so much better. Because it feels like we’re missing a lot of the sort of struts and supports that would really help us, I guess, stay level.
DH: Where I’m sitting, it’s also about coping with – or just not cutting ourselves off from – some of the darkness of what it means to be living at this moment. Living with the paradox that our ways of life are tangled up with processes that we’ve set in motion that are making it hard to imagine that we’ll be able to go on living like this – you know, it’s hard to imagine that this is going to be made sustainable. And at the same time, as you describe it, there’s a lot within even the privileged, successful version of that way of life which is not worthy of being sustained. Because living for the weekend, living for the next holiday, that doesn’t seem much like making a good job of being a culture.
ES: Exactly, it’s just deferring, isn’t it? It’s like, we don’t believe in heaven anymore, but we do believe in holidays.
Elizabeth Slade accidentally became an expert in spiritual infrastructure for the non-religious. From a career improving the way health systems work, she now wants to do the same for the spiritual health of communities. She lives in London and after 15 years is still trying to work out how her bumpkin soul can thrive there.
Dougald Hine is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and one of the editors of Issue 12.
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.
You can order a copy of Issue 12 from our online shop for £18.99 – or for a special rate of £9.99, if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.