While researching a question about human nature and metaphysics (you know, as a young man about town is apt to do on a Saturday night), I began to wonder where the sacred lives.
I define the sacred as “that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” (Circles of Meaning, pg. 27). And when I began to wonder where the sacred ‘lives’, I mean, which of our ways of being in the world is the “home” of the sacred?
This is not as weird a question as it sounds. Or as it feels. Or as it looks. Or ‘smells’. I shall explain; although my thoughts here are still very preliminary.
The question occurred to me when I was reading the Upanisads, and I noticed that the names of the gods ended in vowels or soft consonants. And I began to wonder if this was a constant in other bodies of mythology in other languages, too. So I took up my copy of Alexander Murray’s “Who’s Who In Mythology”, which is a handy reference because it lists the gods of Greece, Germanic Europe, India, and Egypt, and prints their names in bold so they’re easy to find. Then I just counted the names of the gods whenever they appeared on the page, and counted how many ended in vowels or soft consonants, and how many ended in hard consonants.
The discovery: almost all the names of the gods end in vowels and soft consonants. Only one that I found ended in a hard consonant, and that was the Scandanavian goddess Frigg.
This observation might appear quite trivial. And admittedly, I flipped through my book here for only twenty minutes so I might have missed something. But to me it seemed very significant. Because vowels and soft consonants are easier to sing. You can draw out the length of the note, you can raise or lower the pitch without entering a new syllable, and you can harmonize with other similar sounds. Hard consonants are like staccato beats: you can use them to establish a rhythm. They are the drumbeats of spoken words. But you can’t draw them out over time or pitch. Try singing a word that ends in a hard consonant. It ends abruptly, immediately, deliberately. Now try singing a word that ends in a vowel. The word ends when you are ready; you can hold the note for as long as you still have breath; you can let the note trail away in its own good time; it ends easily and gently, when you are done with it. Hard consonants end when they are done with you.
Listen to these exemplary pieces of vocal music: Adiemus by Karl Jenkins, and The Host of the Seraphim by Dead Can Dance, and Sæglópur by Sigur Ros. All of these pieces are sung in nonsense phonemes: there are no real words spoken here. They all, in various ways, share with each other the ability to invoke a hard-to-define experience of the sacred: a kind of longing, wishing, loving, despairing, and invoking quality. And the sounds are almost all vowels! (While I’m at it, listen to Meo Blodnasir by Sigur Ros, which creates this feeling using only one phoneme, the long-O sound.)
By contrast, listen to the kind of words we use (in English, anyway) to curse and to insult each other: they are quick, staccato words, often of one syllable, and usually ending in hard phonemes: words like shit, fuck, piss, fart, damn, drat, jerk, asshole, dickhead, knave, cur, villain, wicked, witch (sorry), wastrel, bitch, bastard. With their hard phonemes, these are words to be shouted, spat, and flung like weapons. Hard sounds are not the sounds we use to address friends and loved ones. They are the sounds we use to despise and to hate.
It’s in long sounds and soft sounds that we laugh, we cry, we hope, we plead, we greet our friends, we show love, we say goodbye, we grieve the dead, and we sing. So it is perhaps natural and right that it’s with long sounds and soft sounds that we address the gods by name.
And in English anyway, if not in other languages, the basic words which separate the world-of-things from the world-of-beings also follow this pattern: they are the words “it” and “you”. The word “it”, ending in a hard consonant, is used to speak of objects and things we might use and own and discard; the word “you”, ending in a long vowel, is used to speak to a being who can respond in kind, a being with whom we might have a human relationship. Again, it’s in the long and soft sounds, the sounds that can make music, which we use to invite the relationship.
One might say that the sacred dwells in all our senses: the sight (as when we make paintings, mandalas, symbols, and diagrams); the scent and the taste (as when we make offerings or share sacraments); the touch (as when we dance); the mind (as when we read and write). And I am sure this is true. But I’m beginning to think that sound has a certain special privilege here. It’s possible that the sacred in exemplary images like this portrait of the Buddha, this mandala of Kali or this image of The Great Queen, would be lost on those who don’t know the language of visual symbols presupposed here. But no one, or almost no one, could mistake the overwhelming spiritual power of a piece of “secular” music like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – especially when the choir sings “For God!” three times, loud enough for God to hear. (It’s at 3:18, in case you don’t want to wait.)
Sound lives in its own moment in time; one has to be there to hear it. Sound penetrates surfaces in a way that light does not: think of how we rap upon walls to find where the beams are, or how we use ultrasonic devices to find underground bedrock, or to “look” at the silhouette of an unborn child in her mother’s womb. Sound has a physical presence, as well as a sensory presence: sound can create vibrations, and those vibrations can resonate with harmony or with dissonance. A loud noise is something you can physically feel. And sound can translate into light, as when we reveal the frequency of sound waves in a visual pattern.
My preliminary conclusion: the sacred lives in the hearing. The names of the gods are to be spoken aloud, sung aloud, to come alive in your relationship.