God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.
– Genesis 1:31 [Emphasis mine]
“In Louisville,” begins the passage from Thomas Merton’s writings that is quoted more often than any other; “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…”
I thought of Merton’s celebrated words this week when I encountered an article in The Atlantic about the strange phenomenon that is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Originally an act of satire, a way of lampooning efforts to teach creationism in schools, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (sometimes shortened to FSM) movement has become oddly serious in the past few years.
The Atlantic article details a series of conflicts in which “believers” (and forgive me if the quotation marks come across as supercilious – my impression is that most FSM adherents would be willing to claim that title only if it came with a heavy dose of irony) have fought for the right to erect state-sponsored roadside signage, to wear colanders on their heads in ID photos, and for FSM to be recognized as an official religion. Perhaps most fascinatingly – and here is evidence of the deep human need for ritual – the FSM Church in Brandenburg, Germany, even holds a weekly worship service that looks for all the world like the Eucharist.
The Atlantic quotes Douglas Cowan, a Canadian religious-studies professor, who explains that the thesis of FSM’s adherents is that, “nothing is inherently sacred; it’s sacred by virtue of the fact that people agree that it’s sacred.” But if Merton and the many mystics who report similar experiences of deep connection are right (think of Hafiz, think of Francis and Clare of Assisi, think of Julian of Norwich), then the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has things just about perfectly reversed; FSM has seen the truth, but it has seen it in a mirror. The reality is not that nothing is inherently sacred. Rather, the reality is that everything is inherently sacred but that human beings, in our brokenness and self-imposed alienation from God, have declared that certain things are profane.
Now to be clear, there is no proving that anything is sacred – there is no reproducible experiment that yields the answer “God.” And there is certainly no proving that the whole world is sacred. No argument or formula or evidence will lead you to the conclusion that the world sings with the numinous. The sacredness of our selves and our neighbors and the very earth beneath our feet is something that we can only come to know through experience.
Thomas Merton knew as much. At the end of his famous passage, he wrote:
“…if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
With practice, with openness, all of are capable of seeing that sacred light. All of us are capable of seeing the shining glory of God as Merton did, as Francis and Clare did, as Hafiz did, as Julian did, as Jesus did: everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.