e-mail us

Starting Point

What is sacred calls us to the unknown


We store our bonsai pots in what was once a dairy barn. That it was a dairy barn is obvious, for there are still two troughs that run the length of the barn. We built the shelves for the pots over them. The transition from cows to pots was a long and complicated one.

One recent day, a wholesale customer came to buy pots. She was from India. She came with her husband, who was very quiet and stayed more or less in the background as I showed them the pots and discussed prices and shipping costs. She wore a colorful Indian dress and had a small red dot on her forehead, which intrigued me. I had read about its meaning but could not recall what it was. And I did not venture to ask. She was very business-like, and I figured it best to stick to the pots.

She asked what the barn was once used for. I told her it was a dairy barn. As I was telling her that, I remembered how in India, among some Hindu groups, cows are considered sacred. I could not read the expression on her face as I told her about the cows that were once there. But I wondered if she felt any sense of desecration. What she may have considered sacred we did not. Cows hold no sense of the divine for most Westerners. They are bought and sold, milked and slaughtered without a thought as to their embodying a divine status in other parts of the world.

She may have been a lapsed, fallen-away Hindu for whom bovine sacredness had been blown away by the winds of secularity. Or she may have been a very devout Hindu who felt a sense of violation and disrespect on my part. I do no know. We stuck to business that day.

I wonder how I would feel if an object of such similar sacredness to Western sensibilities was treated with indifference in another country. Say, if the cross was sold as a trinket or a souvenir in some faraway land. I suppose I would respect the currents and trends of that imaginary country and stick to whatever business I was there for, remaining silent.

That Indian woman embodied a universe of meaning so different from my own. Here she was in a Trappist monastery -- a bastion of Roman Catholic tradition and memory, all of which did not seem to have carried any religious weight for her. We spoke from a purely secular context. We tuned in to what the situation demanded.

Christianity has been rightly accused of steamrolling many a long-standing religious tradition. Many things held highly sacred were ignored by those who encroached upon lands and beliefs in the name of Christ. I often wonder how Christianity would have evolved had it not done so fueled by one secular power after another. As an institution, it has been a long time since Christianity has known itself as the lowlands of history. It has had a privileged history. It has long been the big boy on the block.

My sister Mary is very involved in her parish. Recently she went to a parish meeting on evangelization. Someone at the meeting voiced a need for the parish to do what it can to convert non-Catholics -- to woo them to Catholicism. Mary wanted to know why. The person who raised the question looked at her as if she had just killed a sacred, uh, cow.

Perhaps we are at a time in history when a good part of evangelization means learning how to listen -- and listen not for “the truth” or some revelation. Just listen and learn. Perhaps we are at a time in history when evangelization means taking a look at ourselves and our neighbors in new ways, ways that deepen our awareness of our own prejudices, biases and judgment calls. Perhaps we are at a time when a religious commitment embraces one in a poverty of not knowing. Innocence might be another way of putting it. A way of knowing that we are aware of how little we really knew in the past, and yet how such terrible things were done in the name of what we thought we knew.

To be human is to hold something or someone sacred. The sacred may not be what we say or think it is. It may be that which leads one to risk being open to the new, to the sometimes painful, the always truthful, the always generous, the never once-and-for-all “settled.”

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000