Surprised by the Sacred

Driving on a road not far from my home last summer, I saw an injured snake, hit by a car, stuck by its open wound to the pavement. It was curling and writhing, struggling to free itself. I stopped, thinking to move it from the hot, bare road into the shade of the ditch, where it would suffer less.

As I reached the snake, lying on its back, twisted around its wound, it took one very sharp, deep breath, a gasp so deep I could see its rib cage rise beneath the ivory scales along its upper body, and, in that moment, it died. I was struck in that moment by an awareness of order and union: the snake at my fingertips had been a living creature, drawing breath as I draw breath, taking air into its body. Living–the word was suddenly expanded for me in meaning, in impact.

The elements composing this moment–the struggling snake, the unrelenting summer sun, the steady buzz and burr of the insects in the weeds around us, the fragrance of dry grasses–all these elements suddenly felt holy to me.

A similar moment of enlightenment, also involving a snake, is described in a poem by D.H. Lawrence. On a hot summer day the speaker comes upon a snake drinking at a water trough.

He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slacklong body,
Silently . . .
He lifted his head from his
drinking, as
cattle do . . .
And flickered his two-forked
tongue from
his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more.

The watching narrator believes that the snake is poisonous and that he should kill it.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like
a guest
in quiet, to drink at my
water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified,
and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

The underlying unity of life is revealed in that moment. All life–beautiful or reprehensible, dangerous or benign–takes sustenance from the earth. The surprise of encountering unusual juxtapositions brings awareness of the sacred circus of life that surrounds us.

Out from the hollow
of the Great Buddha’s nose–
comes a swallow.
–Issa

Once, in a muddy, ill-smelling chicken yard noisy with cackling hens, I held in my hand one half of a fertilized chicken egg accidentally broken. In the center of that half shell filled with golden yolk, a small dot of bright blood pulsed steadily, spreading red webs so small and fine they were hardly visible. Heart and its pathway

For a moment I was lifted out of that scene. Everything around me disappeared, and nothing existed except that vibrant red instant of complex life proceeding, though doomed, with astonishing trust. The miracle of it. Who could think otherwise?.

“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”. I’ve often experienced a moment of deep happiness watching someone sleeping and wondered why. When the human body is sleeping we can see clearly, without interference or confusion, that the body is indeed holy. If there is sin, it resides elsewhere.

I believe the world provides every physical image and sensation we will ever need in order to experience the sacred, to declare the holy. If we could only learn to recognize it, if we could only hone and refine our sense of the divine, just as we come to identify the sounds we hear–the voices of our children, the creak of the floor at a lover’s footstep, the call of a finch unseen in the top of a pine–just as we can detect and name the scent of cedar or sage, wild strawberries or river mud and rotting logs.

We move through the sacred constantly yet remain oblivious to its presence except during those rare, unexpected moments when we are suddenly shocked and shaken awake, compelled to perceive and acknowledge. During those brief moments, we know with bone-centered conviction who we are; with breath-and-pulse clarity where we have come from; and with earth-solid certainty to what it is we owe all our allegiance, all our heart, all our soul, all our love.

Pattiann Rogers has published 10 books, most recently Song of the World Becoming: New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001 (Milkweed Editions). She lives in Colorado with her husband. From Mountain Record (Spring 2002). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (4 issues) from Box 156, Mt. Tremper, NY 12457. This essay originally appeared in Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation (Milkweed Editions, 1999).

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