An Interview with Carolyn Toben

What is your definition of “a sense of the sacred”?

Well, to “define” means to “set a limit,” to “describe exactly,” to “state the meaning of.” When you speak of “a sense of the sacred,” you cannot specifically “define” it. At best you can only indicate a feeling, an inner knowing of the presence of the Divine that accompanies all our life experiences and gives them meaning if we are open to it. Thomas Berry gave us the understanding that the universe is both spiritual as well as physical and that we are integral with it. In acknowledging a sense of the sacred, we are acknowledging this spiritual dimension in all living things, including ourselves.

How does one develop a sense of the sacred?

The basic law of perception is that we find what we are looking for. It must also be said that we find what we are looking with. If we are looking at the natural world with our conditioned minds for only what we have been taught to see with our physical eyes, we can identify and analyze and interpret. But if we are seeking a sense of the sacred and consciously searching with our hearts to see the world with new eyes, we will begin to see all living things with wonder, as Thomas Berry did. He did not teach us what to see, but that we could learn to see differently from the inner depths of our intuition and soul. We learn to see the miracles of life through “soft eyes”; we begin to understand what he meant when he said, “Love is an inner presence to all things.”

When you go out into the natural world, how does a sense of the sacred reveal itself to you?

It reveals itself in infinite ways … through the movements of clouds, through the sound of a mourning dove, through the way a droplet of water holds to the underside of a leaf, through the demonstrated patience of the trees who teach endurance, through the myriad forms of life which teach us transformation, through the devotion of creatures to their young, through the flowers whose colors speak of celebration—all are expressions of the sacred emanating from the same Source of life that gives us life.

When I walk out of my kitchen door, I am immediately aware of the quality of air around me, the position of the sun in the sky that day, the sounds of the earth at that moment, the stateliness of the pine trees surrounding the house, the passing of ravens overhead, the vein of a leaf before me, the movement of deer in the field. These are not a collection of objects to be used, but a “communion of subjects” to which we belong. I am aware, as Thomas put it, that we are connected as one earth community that lives or dies together.

How does one start to develop a sense of the sacred if they’ve never done it before?

First of all, by wanting to. Thomas Berry said that everyone has this capacity but “it must be cultivated,” as he put it. And I believe that everyone has experienced this sense of the sacred at some moment in their lives, some moment of deep meaning in which the soul awakens to a feeling of something beyond the ordinary: a feeling of presence—the word itself means “before the essence.” Most forget, but for some, that feeling, that experience, is so powerful that their lives are changed forever, and they want to continue to live in that awareness. They become seekers of a deep inner truth. They look for it in all things, in all circumstances. They practice by opening their minds and hearts to possibilities beyond what they have previously learned, and become aware of a spiritual quality present in all of life … within every living thing and within themselves. They learn to go within, past the distractions of modern life, past the conditioned mind with its incessant dictates, past the personality level with its sympathies and antipathies, to that inner place where Love resides. When they return to their daily lives consciously carrying Love with them, a sense of the sacred becomes “affixed” in their minds and hearts, as Thomas would say.  They are changed and bring a loving attention to their lives, which affects all around them.  We are seeing growing evidence of this today.

What are the benefits of developing a sense of the sacred?

The “benefits,” first of all, have to do with our protection and care of the earth itself, which is where everything must begin. Thomas Berry said, “We will only save that which we love and we will only love that which we regard as sacred.” We will not ravage or assault that which has deep sacred meaning for us. So as we begin to “see” the world through the eyes of the heart, we actually bring Love into the world. We “see” that we are in a “mutually-enhancing” relationship with the Earth as we receive from it our sustenance, our imaginations, our very lives, and then we give to it our gratitude and care. As we receive and then give in return, we harmonize our lives with the world we live in and participate in our own healing and in the healing of the human-earth relationship. We reconnect with our own souls, the natural world, the universe and the Divine.