“If anyone wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries,” says G. K.Chesterton in his book Heretics, “he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.” Why?
According to Chesterton — himself a convert to Roman Catholicism — everything from from science to the French Revolution is “of Christian origin.” However, he says, “there is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity” — or, rather, Christian ritual and aesthetics.
It isn’t important whether we accept Chesterton’s thesis that Christianity is the sole, and true, representative of a tradition that stretches back into the pre-Christian cultures. However, we should take his suggestion that ancient tradition, consciousness, or the Mysteries, are lived out in apparently ordinary rituals and ordinary things that we might take for grants — flowers, food, etc.
Except in rare circumstances, embodying an authentically ancient or primitive consciousness is probably not possible for us today. We do not face the elements in the same way as ancient man. We do not need to hunt for food, and, indeed, food is always available to us. And few of us live surrounded by nature, days from the nearest city.
Nor, generally, do we have a tribe, or even an extended family. A sense of the sacred is often lacking. Celebrations and seasonal rituals are commercialized and made all about consuming, sales, and overindulgence.
To fill the emptiness in our lives, all sorts of strange religious cults and political movements have sprung up. Their symbolism is often dramatic, alluring, and absolutely in contrast to the ordinary world that we find ourselves in. Often, if these movements re-sacralize the world, it is only through imposing an ideology or symbolic way of understanding it. No matter how encompassing they can be (drawing in material from most world cultures, in some cases), everything is boiled down so that everything represents the same thing.
It is, I believe, essential for us to recover the spirituality of the ordinary; to not impose symbolism on everything, but to allow meaning to arise out of the world and our encounters with it. For many, Christmas or “the Holidays” are about gifts. For others, it’s about religious imagery — Christian, pagan, etc. But what is beyond the imagery? What ordinary things were mythologized and, in a sense, lost to us as sacred experiences in the ordinary world?
Chesterton suggests that the ancient, the sacred, the pagan — perhaps even whatever was before paganism — has been passed down in ordinary things and experiences, e.g., in coming together to eat a meal. This doesn’t sound special. We’ve all eaten around other people that we had little interest in, making small talk to kill the time or just to be polite. Unfortunately, even family events can feel like that.
But we make the experience sacred when we honor the lives of those present — respecting their struggles and achievements — and when we honor the act of coming together as something both ordinary and out of the ordinary — a moment in time that is unique and that will not come again; the meeting of people on different paths, some of whom will one day be known to us only in memories and reflection. We discover the sacred in the ordinary when we become conscious of the vastness of time and honor, as a moment of the vastness, what is here and now.