As we near Samhain (see previous post), I want to do some thinking out loud about sacrifice. And that includes moving randomly, and in less than smooth gestures, as thought moves (at least mine does), and leaving some avenues for later reflection. And input from readers, too.
Sacrifice literally means something that makes sacred or holy, though a sacrifice in contemporary usage has come to signify as well a loss or voluntary giving-up, in return for some advantage. Why should the holy link with a giving up? Something good, in exchange for something better. It carries with it associations of unpleasantness or suffering — the difficulty or pain involved in the giving up, even if the advantage is fully worthwhile.
But need the sacrifice always entail giving up? The making sacred of each moment may involve my giving up scattered attention, or a bad mood, but these are not usually things I’ll miss.
I go to my altar during a ceremony or ritual, and give in offering something I have purchased, grown or made — most recently, some home-made incense. It has “objective” value, as far as that can be measured, in dollars or in what dollars can purchase. But it has “subjective” value in terms of what it’s worth to me. I hope it may have value as well to whoever receives the sacrifice. Even more, if it costs me something essential to provide it, people often consider it a more “true” sacrifice. And if it’s a fair exchange, I’ll gain an equivalent for what I give. Well and good. Many sacrifices stop there. But what of sacrifice that gives all and expects nothing?
There is a joy in that kind of giving, if the sacrifice is voluntary. Much was made in ancient cultures of the “sacrifice that goes consenting.” A sacrificial animal delivered a bad omen if it resisted axe or blade, or shied away from the sacrificer. Human offerings, though apparently fairly rare, might have their senses dulled with drugs, so that the pain or apprehension — or defiance — did not taint or diminish the sacrifice. Does this reduce its value? Does the sacrifice still go “consenting”?
So far I’ve looked at this entirely from (my) human point of view. If I make an offering to a god or thought-form or some higher wavelength of consciousness (and these may or may not be the same thing), I change the situation by my actions, even if only in a small way. As a marker in memory, ritual breaks the flow of “profane” time with a division or irruption into consciousness of another kind of act. Actions done consciously, with intention, in formal words and gestures and attitudes of mind and body, are simply different from our daily-life consciousness. They feel different, and we remember them differently. They mark time as altars, chapels, shrines, temples, churches and sanctuaries mark space. Whether “holy” or not, they are different and distinctive for that reason. They don’t fit the pattern. In terms of consciousness, they are marked, while the “ordinary” is un-marked, the default mode of most of our experience.
But what of the view “from the other side”? Apart from whether gods exist, the universe tends towards an equilibrium, at least locally. Extremes don’t last, and we return to “normal.” Almost. The short span of “not normal,” of marked, of ritual time, of sacrificial consciousness, has left things changed, however small the change. Does a god perceive such human action and awareness? If so, how? And does what I’ve called ritual or sacrificial consciousness come across any differently to That Which Watches?
In crude terms, a sacrifice is a claim on another. Roman culture expressed this as do ut des: “I give, so that you may give.” I’ll scratch your back if you will later scratch mine. The initiative in this case comes from me: if I act, you are obliged in some sense to respond. There is trust here, a kind of faith in “how the universe works.” Many moderns might be utterly perplexed at this kind of thinking. All I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
In mainland Chinese culture, everyone is conscious of guanxi, the obligation or connection they have with others. In fact, one way of saying “you’re welcome” is mei guanxi — “no obligation or connection.” You don’t owe me; there’s no need to repay. On the flip side is the the incidence of one Chinese literally chasing another down the street with a gift the first person does not wish to accept. Take the gift and you acknowledge connection, obligation. If the sacrifice is accepted, you’ve built up some credit with Another, with the divine, with Otherworld energies. (Can we make a sacrifice without expecting anything, even if it’s just a sense of satisfaction or wholeness in the act of making the sacrifice?)
But the sense of sacrificial debt or obligation does not stop there. Again in Roman culture, the flip side, the necessary correspondence, is da ut dem: “You give, so that I may give (in the future).” Complete the cycle. Establish reciprocity, build the relationship. We depend on each other, gods on humans as much as humans on gods. Note that the goal isn’t to pay off the debt, or reach a new equilibrium, but to establish a connection through mutual commitment and generosity — to build a history together. In other words, to keep the exchanges going.
Eventually we may begin to see all our actions as ritual and as sacrifice. Whatever we sanctify comes into to our lives through reciprocity, because we are inevitably part of the whole, in relationship with the cosmos. “What you do comes back to you,” for the simple reason that you asked it to, by placing attention on it, by performing the ritual of desire and attention, and often, the dedication of resources, of the holy substance of the living world, to achieve or create or earn or win (or steal) whatever it was you thought you wanted.
But the act of desiring something, of investing energy and consciousness into it, changes us. We all know the old saying: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. When “it” comes, we’ve often moved on to other goals and desires, and no long wish for it, or even recognize it when it arrives. We’re on to the next thing, and the consequences of one of our old wishes or desires may no longer fit us where we are. We may even see it as a kind of obstacle, some piece of bad luck, a bump in the road, not knowing we asked for at some earlier point.
Here magic has its place, not as stage showmanship and illusion, not as Harry-Potter wand-waving, not as Hollywood “spfx” or special effects, but as a way of clarifying our desires and our consciousness, as well as reducing the occasions when we randomly or less than consciously send out desires for things we don’t actually want, or which won’t serve our best interests. Instead, we learn (how slowly and often painfully!) to act with intention, to change consciousness through ritual, discipline, focused psycho-drama, meditation, making ourselves the center of change, which then ripples outward from our own changed awareness into the wider world around us. All things flee from us, or come to us, in accordance with our state of awareness.
As a wise person said, “The only miracle is a changed consciousness.” That is the chief form of the plenitude that comes with true sacrifice — a test for its validity.
OK — now I’ve given myself lots of abstractions to test with specific concrete examples from daily life. Any comments or observations?