Are There “Unsacred Places” In life? How About Mali, West Africa?

Bones placed in Animistic Religious Ritual
Bones placed in Animistic Religious Ritual

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

(Wendell Berry ― Given)

Sure way to kill a blog, eh, talking about religion….

There is much truth to this quote, even in Mali. The average western young person today has not explored their own spirituality much. They arrive in Mali and discover (more often totally oblivious to the fact) that EVERYONE in Mali is deeply religious. Malians are immersed in their respective faiths every day. Not a single minute passes where the spirituality of the Malian people is not seen, heard or visibly demonstrated before us. During every stroll we will pass some building, a fetish charm, a person in prayer to something.

This is why western outsiders, (many of whom have so little faith, or are simply at a considerable loss to articulate it) experience great chagrin when Malians challenge them on their lack of “belief”.  Try this Experiment: Tell some Malians you don’t believe in God…. and see their reaction.

We misinterpret so much about Malian culture, life, and passion when we are unable, or unwilling, to see their life through the eyes of their religious beliefs, practices and customs.

“The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it ” (George Kimble, Africa Today, Lifting the Darkness)

I see this idea of the “Sacred Place” is very rooted in the various religions present in Mali. Let me give you a sketch of the of “Sacred Place” in the major three faiths of Mali.

Muslims, though they pray anywhere and everywhere, tell me that one prayer in the mosque is equal to one hundred prayers offered in another context or location. They have there Hajji to the sacred Mecca, with the most sacred mosque on earth- Al‑Masjid al‑Haram, and the Kaaba in which to circle. Sacred shrines of past Islamic saints are guarded Timbuktu, but if visited and honored…. They have marabous, who read signs, sacrifice chickens for appeasement or protection for a child, pregnant woman, a sick elder, or the entire village and ethnic group. Amulets empowered to protect, or to assure a greater hearing ear, or mercy from Allah.

The Animists have sacred water pools, rivers, swamps, trees, mountains, charms, fetishes, icons, protective bracelets, rings, fish, or necklaces with powers, carved images, and burial sites. Though secret, hidden, and unknown to outsiders, there are canneries filled with hair, sacrificed blood, bones, various animal parts, leaves and plants, buried in the courtyard, fields, or at the entry to the village. Others displayed on a stick, many buried in the ground, or hidden away in a special mud chamber or room of some hut. They have their Fetishers, men or women with power to read the signs, interpret situations, communicate with the ancestors or bush spirits to relieve, warn, or appease, as necessary.

Protestant Christians have their “sanctuaries”, Catholics their Basilica and Rome. Both have the “holy land”. The evangelicals have there “power hour” worship (being present for that one service on Sunday morning is equal to 100 encounters with Jesus or Jesus people in any another locale, right? The larger the crowed, the larger the power, where one goes to get filled up, charged up, worshiped up, in the hopes to endure that world “out there” where God isn’t, or at least can not be encountered or worshiped reliably, especially in small numbers.

The fundamentalists Christians have their Jerusalem and the “signs of the times”, and a longing for the restoration of the nation of Israel, because Jesus is coming again to reign, literally and physically, from the restored temple in Jerusalem, on which, unfortunately, now stands the Muslims sacred “Dome Of The Rock” Mosque…. ooops- see where that leads fundies right? Bottom line; at some point, Palestine and Muslims have to be booted.

Charismatics have their “calling down the Spirit” times/events, and the special anointed people who do so, on command, at the church building, between seven and nine PM, booked months, if not years in advance. There will be miracles, signs, manifestations, possibly a healing by hands who spend alarmingly little time at the hospital doors healing. Not much seems to happened for them outside the sacred places or events. But at the sacred place…… wow …. look out…… Step back and watch, no, feel the glow. When these special people show up in this sacred church place, the place will be “electrified” by the Holy Spirit’s presence: it becomes “Holy Ground” and God or the Spirit will move…. like he obviously isn’t moving at other times in other places. The moment is “palpable”. Just come and plug into the power, let it charge you, wash you, energize you before you go out into the vast empty regions of this community, or earth, that will drain you. No recharging out there… Jesus is not so active out there it seems.

It’s all based on a lie in my mind. The idea that there is a divide between the sacred and secular. Everything is sacred, all of life is sacred, all the earth is “Holy Ground”. The “Holy Land” is the whole earth now. All three of these faiths believe God created and is everywhere. Yet, we all then act as if He went off somewhere and therefore we need to go find him, woo him back from time to time.

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Apostle Paul. Romans 14:5, NIV)

All of life is sacred, everywhere. There are only sacred places, or desecrated places…. Once we truly realize there are not any sacred places, events, or hours, moments, hills, or buildings, and that we live immersed in Gods presence, always (He is already here), everywhere, much of the human invented religious customs become empty and senseless to us. We no longer require a ceremony to call him down, or an event to display his powerful, palpable, “arrival”. We no longer require a sacred tree, or mountain to climb in which to get a little closer to him. We do not need a building to encounter him. Nor a cave, nor a shrine to feel his presence. We do not need to launch out on a long journey to discover Him (as romantic as that idea is), nor a vision to see he’s real.

“The eyes see Him not, but He sees the eyes of man (Sura 6:103)

He is already here, and always will be.

“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord, ’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, NIV)

This is what I share in common with many Malians. I enjoy witnessing Mali’s deep religious customs, culture, the ceremonies of their faith traditions (In the mosques, church buildings, or village animist ceremonies). I understand a little of what drives them religiously. The Invisible Humanitarian was once a minister and trained theologian too, so I think I understand why Malians do some things. Like them, I too lived the sacred secular division for most of my life.

“There are four questions of value in life, Don Octavio. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.” (Lord Byron)

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

But honestly, many of these forms, these shells of religious expression are empty for me; and talking to my Malian friends, much of it is empty for some of them too. Thousands around me admit that they don’t understand why they do these religious ritual things, we just do. They are often afraid of what will result if they stop. What will God, or the spirits do? But the greater fear is the fear of their community; what will they do if I change this? That is palpable in the conversations. Man’s religion is rooted in much fear, and at mans hands we certainly have much to fear.

A wise old Franciscan wrote something that blew me away.

“The rituals that once seemed sacred, now seem like a faint shadow compared to living in his reality every day. He is no longer relegated to certain ‘power’ times, places or events. The people we meet there are great, and we need others. But God is no more powerfully there than any other time and place.
“In the beginning, you tend to think that God really cares about your exact posture, the exact day of the week for public prayer, the authorship and wordings of your prayers, and other such things.
Once your life has become a constant communion, you know that all the techniques, formulas, sacraments, and practices were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing—life itself—which can actually become a constant intentional prayer.”
(Richard Rohr. Falling Upward)

That pesky Jesus said… “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. ’” (Mat 15:9)

I’ve experienced this reality in churches personally. So it’s not unique to Mali’s Islam or Animists.

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (Jn 4:21-23)

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” (Wendell Berry ― Given)

With our stupidity we desecrate so much that is sacred.

I think Wendell Berry is right, what do you think?

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