sacred, profane, neurotic, psychotic

In his chapter on 'the sacramental universe' Gordon Graham draws on Friedrich Schleiermacher and Mircea Eliade's thinking on the distinction between sacred and profane to articulate for us an idea of sacred time and sacred space and of their relation to the quotidian. 'Wisdom', Graham tells us, 'requires us to find some way of relating our finite lives to ... infinity...' But: how?

Many of us have moments in which we stop and think on how, in the scheme 'of things'  (as the idiom has it) we and our concerns are utterly insignificant. The resulting perspective can be positively awesome (the majesty of the vast night skies), simply terrifying (our life utterly contingent and counting for naught), or really rather comforting (looking out at the sea I grasp how, in the scheme 'of things', irrelevant are my anxious preoccupations). Veer too far one way and, lost thus to disproportion we become anxious over details that need not concern us, both since fate will in any case decide them for us and since we are at any rate more resilient than we fear. (We take ourselves to be less resilient than we fear because we have not known, or at least somehow not internalised, enough of that love which is another's faith in us - and so struggle to provide it for ourselves.) Caught up by the desire to assimilate and control, to preserve an existing inner order, we underestimate our own resources for accommodation, and overlook the possibilities inherent in such an accommodation which preserves us more authentically precisely in our adaptation. (Obsessional neurosis.) Veer too far the other way and, lost to the 'view from nowhere' of 'the scheme of things', perhaps even demanding the security of such an ultimate yet unforthcoming scheme, we detach from the admittedly contingent yet nonetheless essentially meaning-providing plots of our lives, lives which now of course seem void of purpose. (Depressive neurosis.)

'So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom' says the Psalmist cited by Graham who also asks 'How, as Schleirmacher puts it, are we "to be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite, and to be eternal in a moment"?' One of the ways that religion achieves this, Graham tells us, is through ritual. A ritual renders sacred through sacramental acts: it instantiates the infinite in the finite and positions the finite within the infinite to give an apt proportion to our lives. Ritual calibrates our relationship with the infinite for us.  Properly understood the ritualistic action is not to be considered instrumental: it does not work to achieve an effect outside of itself. Rather, through our participating in it, we realise and enact our relationship to the infinite and eternal. Caught up in a superstitious religion we may try (p. 156) to 'encompass the infinite within the boundary of everyday life, by including "God" as one being (albeit the greatest) within the collection of all beings, for example, or treating the spiritual dimension of existence as a realm of "magical" power waiting to be harnessed, or replacing the "beauty of holiness" with a "holiness of beauty" in art or nature. [But to think thus is to be] the victim of delusion.'

Consider how ritual may relate profane to sacred temporalities. Profane time is datable, unrecoverable, ineluctable: we can never get back the minutes we spent in yesterday's pursuits. (Think of the first verse of R S Thomas' poem 'Vespers': 'Listen, I have a song / to sing that time will / punish you for listening / to and you will not know it.') By contrast, as Eliade (cited by Graham) says, 'sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.' Graham provides us with the analogy of a musical composition and its performance. The performance of the piece of music takes place in profane time: the concert starts at 7.30pm and the interval arrives at 8.40pm. However the piece of music has its own internal temporal order (introduction, development, finale etc.) and this order 'neither changes nor is exhausted'. Concepts like 'spring', 'summer', 'Christmas', 'Easter', 'Yom Kippur', 'Ramadan', 'Eid' are (159-160) similar: they can if you like be 'realised in' in profane time but they are not themselves spent when that time is gone: they come again every year.  (Similar distinctions between the sacred and the profane can be drawn in relation to space: consecrated space by definition partakes in a unique way of the infinite despite the churchyard still being aptly describable as round the back of Londis on Walton Street.) The sacraments are perhaps the clearest example we have of ritualised enactments of matters eternal in the present. Thus in the eucharist (holy communion) we have participation in the 'body of Christ' (which body presumably is infinite and eternal), a ritual which can be repeated (daily or weekly, say) endlessly.

I want to turn, now, in this rather recondite and rambling post, to psychosis, in particular to the experience of Morag Coate (which I've been documenting on my 'pain that breaks' blog). In Beyond All Reason (1964) Coate, an author who writes with profound and generous thoughtfulness of her own schizophrenic breakdown, describes the intimate connection between her religious preoccupations and her psychotic experience. The topic is interesting in many ways. For example a romantic Jungian might urge on us the idea that psychosis can result from a failure to bind the powerful energies of the spiritual life with an adequate framework of words and practices, or without an adequate guide (e.g. a psychotherapist qua shaman). A naturalistic Freudian might by contrast urge on us the idea that religion simply is psychosis. Avoiding these discussions for now I want instead to consider what psychotic ritual amounts to. Here is Coate (pp. 36-7):
    On arrival at the distant hospital, my first memories are of struggles and of forcible sedation. Soon afterwards I adapted myself to my new environment and acquired a different personality. My experiences were now filled with religious content, but of a kind quite different from what had occupied my mind over the previous half-year. I was submissive, pious, and at the same time elated. I was not concerned with understanding anything; I had been specially chosen to be a kind of star actress in a celestial mystery play. I accepted this unquestioningly and with delight, while at the same time never completely identifying myself with the role I played. At one time I took the part of the Virgin Mary, at another I was the boy David; sometimes I was an anonymous figure representing a boy and a girl at the same time. Always my point of reference and of distant veneration was the black-robed, sandalled figure who sat motionless for hours at a time at the end of the aisle of a cathedral. The building was long enough to fit in with this interpretation, and the tall windows were suitable, and the flowers were appropriate. The presence of beds there could be conveniently dismissed from mind. The black-robed figure was a priest, the head of a religious order, who represented and at times actually became Christ. At meal times we filed into an adjacent, circular building, the chapter house, in which the ceremony of the Last Supper was recurrently enacted. The priest-figure served out the food which I helped, with due reverence, to carry round. Then, after seating myself at one of the wooden trestle tables, my duty was to see that the salt was passed up and down and especially from one side to the other. This was vitally important, for the two sides were not, as it seemed, a mere arm's length apart. The opposing rows of people seated there were really in far different places and in different centuries as well. Space and time converged here to make a meeting point.
    I awoke one day, as my normal self, to the consciousness that I had recently been mad.
Consider first the sane version of that sacrament described here - i.e. the eucharist (holy communion). In this sacramental context, to engage in the rite of the bread and wine is to partake of divine life - to partake of 'the body of Christ'. The eucharist, which itself takes place in a sacred place,  further births the sacred into the profane; the ritual sanctifies or, if you like, 'dignifies' the wine and wafer, and taking them then dignifies the communicant. There is a sense in which we don't do well to see the wine and wafer as mere symbols of something else since this misses their full enactive potency. And there is something daft about the idea that talking of eating or drinking the literal body or blood of Jesus Christ. Not, I think, because that would mean to talk of cannibalism (since, after all, presumably his physical body went the way of all flesh), but rather because it's really not clear either what it would mean to talk of metaphor here either (and how could we have one without the other). (Sometimes people seem to think that the physical body is the literal body, or even more generally tie talk of literality to talk of physicality. But, well, why on earth would we want to do that? That would be like saying that the genuineness of a bank note was a function of its composition rather than of its origination - in a place 'dignified' as 'the royal mint'.) We're clearly in a spiritual context, so the only relevant philosophical question here is 'what is it here to, what does it mean here to, 'eat the body of Christ'?') A Catholic friend of mine once told me that transubstantiation was like buying a pint in the pub: it changes ownership utterly when you hand over the dosh, but none of its molecules change. (I didn't grasp that at the time but it seems obviously helpful now as an analogy.) Put a wedding ring on before you get married or put it on during the ceremony: it matters when you do it! Putting the ring on enacts the marriage: we don't do well to divorce the meaning of marriage away from the ritual, and say that the ritual merely points beyond itself, that the ring is 'just' a symbol.

Anyway. Here's the idea. The psychotic state obliterates in particular regions of experience the distinction between imaginary and real, between metaphorical and literal, between symbol and symbolised, between ritualistic and instrumental, and also between sacred and profane. Reality contact consists in having a mind which sensitively instantiates such distinctions (and the instantiation manifests itself primarily in praxis rather than in disengaged reflection). Psychosis also obliterates the distinction between eternal and temporal, infinite and bounded, ordained and unordained. Religious psychosis is, one might say, a particularly tragic form of idolatry. Coate delusionally believes that she is carrying the host about the place, that the cafeteria is a sacred space, etc. It is not that she's made any kind of mere mistake about these things, since such an empirical possibility would itself presuppose rather than negate the idea that she enjoys reality contact. It is rather than she has abraded the distinction between sacred and profane. The meaning of the sacred therefore gets debased. She lives deliriously now in mere shadows of meaning. A true ritual would, e.g., help mediate the relation of finite and infinite for us; Coate's pseudo-rituals instead collapse them, just as a symbol and what it symbolises are collapsed in the psychotic mind. She has escaped the terrible mundane but ended up in the void.

The neurotic bends the rules but the psychotic stops playing; she 'loses touch with' 'reality'. Only when one's feet are on the ground is it possible to embed a distinction in one's mind of the imaginary from the real. (This is often written of as 'tell the difference, at some or other juncture, between the imaginary and the real'. But this puts an ontological point in an epistemic mode, and so not only invites us to adopt a criterion of insanity which would diagnose most people as often temporarily insane (since we may often make mistakes without being mad), but also makes it sound like we're supposed to be in the business of standing behind our own minds looking in on what is found within, as it were, and correctly ascertaining where it came from!) My point in this somewhat chaotic post is that this distinction is no less apparent in the domain of the sacred than within the domain of the mundane. Psychiatrists sometimes fret over how to diagnose religious delusions, and may end up settling for a flaccid pragmatism which says 'well if its not interfering with the patient's ability to work and play then it's all fine'. Let's not go there. First off, unless we take for granted an alienated conception of work or a hedonistic conception of play (and why on earth would you want to do that?) it's surely evident that we only really work or truly play when we have reality contact. Working is about thought-in-action; playing is about imagination-in-action. Pass a religious Turing test and so what? To have one's spiritual feet on spiritual ground is rather, I am suggesting, not a matter of being able to do anything, but of having the distinction between sacred and profane embedded in one's mind. To be simply ignorant of it, or to radically lack spiritual sensibility, is of course not to be deluded: it is to have no spiritual beliefs at all, delusional or otherwise. Religious delusions though obtain for those who do have some such a sensibility, but one that is disintegrating.


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