Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Understanding the Senseless Destruction of the Sacred

I was saddened last week by the news that vandals hacked apart the 2,000-year-old Holy Thorn Tree in Glastonbury, England.

According to legend, Saint Joseph travelled to the spot after Christ was crucified, taking with him the Holy Grail of Arthurian folklore.

He is said to have stuck his wooden staff – which had belonged to Jesus – into the ground on Wearyall Hill before he went to sleep. When he awoke it had sprouted into a thorn tree, which became a natural shrine for Christians across Europe.

To add to its sacred status, the tree ‘miraculously’ flowered twice a year – once at Christmas and once at Easter.

Read more.


It doesn't matter to me whether or not the legend of the Holy Thorn Tree is literally true, for objects and sites like this are hallowed by tradition and the prayers of untold thousands of pilgrims down through the centuries. As T. S. Eliot wrote in "Little Gidding":

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

And so I couldn't help but feel angry over this senseless act of destruction. Why in the world would anybody do something like this?

In the meantime, I've come across a very interesting article by Joseph Laycock that helps make sense out of the otherwise senseless destruction of holy objects and sites. It's entitled, "Why Did Vandals Try to Destroy a Holy Tree? Senseless Destruction and the Search for Lost Intimacy." Citing other similar incidents, Laycock writes:

Individually each of these acts might be an anomaly, but together they form a pattern. One might call them, “crimes against creation.” Unlike normal environmental damage they are motivated not by greed but by sadism. The apparent goal is to spite humanity by destroying something that can never be replaced. Natural wonders also possess sacred significance and, because of they are completely irreplaceable, their destruction is the closest a single person can come to attacking God.

Even if the perpetrators were caught it’s unlikely that they’d be able to articulate their motivations to anyone’s satisfaction. In the absence of a rational motive, it is often said that these vandals were driven by “evil.” This label may be valid, but it has no explanatory power. However misguided, the perpetrators of these crimes were people, not demons, and the feelings that motivated them were human feelings. It may be unpleasant to contemplate but the occasional desire to destroy creation and spite humanity is not reserved for the criminally insane. One recalls the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, “I was in the mood to destroy something beautiful.”

Terry Eagleton argues that evil originates in a twisted yearning for the transcendent. Evildoers, he argues, are motivated by an ideal of perfection compared to which the mundane world seems not only worthless but also intolerable. In Eagleton’s words, “Evil is a kind of cosmic sulking.” Because destroying the world is not possible, the evildoer attempts to spread their malaise by making the rest of us as miserable as they are.

This relationship between destruction and transcendence is further explored in the work of Georges Bataille. Bataille described human experience as divided between “the order of intimacy” and “the order of things.” The order of intimacy, which he identified with the sacred, is an experience of primal oneness where individuals and objects simply exist without differentiation. Civilization, however, has given rise to the order of things, a profane world defined by discontinuity and individuation into subject and object. The order of things is inherently unsatisfying because nothing is allowed to simply exist; everything is dissected and reduced to its social or monetary value.

For Bataille, religion is “a search for lost intimacy,” an attempt to commune with a transcendent otherness that defies the distinctions of ordinary reality. In fact, this search for lost intimacy is precisely what makes the targets of these attacks—ancient trees and rock formations—precious in the first place. They have no purpose or intrinsic value, they simply are. This imbues them with a kind of sacrality. They are precious in part because they remind us that another reality exists beyond the one constructed by man.

Read it all.

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