Again, I must let Richard Rohr speak for me today, sharing his observations about the importance of getting beneath the surface of things. He argues that everything is profane…even religion…if you keep on the surface of it. And the profanity is particularly pronounced if it happens in the domain of religion for the sacred is blasphemed even as it is purportedly worshipped. As Shakespeare put it, “With devotion’s visage and pious action we sugar o’er the devil himself” and “When love begins to sicken and decay, it useth an enforced ceremony. There are no tricks in plain and simple faith; but hollow men, like horses hot at hand, make gallant show and promise of their mettle.”
If we just stay on the fearful or superficial side of the religious spectrum, religion is invariably defined by exclusionary purity codes that always separate things into sacred and profane. God is still distant, punitive, and scary. Then our religious job becomes putting ourselves only on the side of “sacred” things (as if you could) and to stay apart from worldly or material things, even though Jesus shows no such preference himself.
After the beginnings of mystical experience (which is just prayer experiences), one finds that what makes something secular or profane is precisely whether one lives on the surface of it. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it—even your sin. To go inside your own mistakenness is to find God. To stay on the surface of very good things, like Bible, sacrament, priesthood, or church, is to often do very unkind and evil things, while calling them good. This important distinction is perfectly illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14).
So the division for the Christian is not between secular and sacred things, but between superficial things and things at their depth. The depths always reveal grace, while staying on the surface allows one to largely miss the point (the major danger of fundamentalism, by the way). Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit, and one of my heroes of Vatican II, loved to call this “the mysticism of ordinary life.