Cover image for Sacred America : the emerging spirit of the people
Sacred America : the emerging spirit of the people
Housden, Roger.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [1999]

Physical Description:
270 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
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BL73.H68 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Housden examines burgeoning spirituality in America, its interfaith roots, and its powerful effect on all aspects of society.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Housden leads us on a pilgrimage to discover how people throughout the U.S. are quietly seeking their own deeply personal connections to the divine. The book is not merely a catalog of churches or a dry exposition of differences between various mainstream religions. Rather, it is an inspiring introduction to a grassroots spiritual movement occurring in many traditions--Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, Sufism, and more. Housden portrays this movement by means of the personal stories of the people he met as he traveled from state to state--the likes of Toni Packer, founder of the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry; Eulogio Ortega, a New Mexico man who carves wooden statues of saints; Reb Zalman, the driving force in the Jewish renewal movement; and Sister Pascalene, founder of Osage Monastic Ashram. Writing with a graceful simplicity, Housden pulls together the commonalities of the world's spiritual paths, indicating a unity of faith that is often obscured by the dogma and the politics so often found in mainstream religious organizations. --Bonnie Johnston

Publisher's Weekly Review

Housden, a British author and leader of spiritually oriented tours, here narrates his personal journey through the religious landscape of the United States. His tourÄa clockwise circle from Billings, Mont., to San FranciscoÄdoes not claim to be exhaustive. He does not seek out conservative Christians, Mormons or Hasidic Jews (although he does meet a man expelled from the Lubavitcher rabbinate for promoting LSD). Housden's sacred America embraces instead the mystics, seekers and individualists of American religion. Many are like himself: New Age entrepreneurs making a living through inspirational speaking or corporate retreats. Others have started nonprofit organizations to bring prayer to prisons or introduce troubled youths to Nobel Peace Prize laureates, or have founded meditation retreats along the continuum between Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki. Still others are ordinary people possessed by a passion for Rumi or a conviction that God is working through them. Housden's account is brisk and readable but short on context and analysis. The distinctive qualities of different confessions blend together, although the reader may not be convinced that Housden has observed a single national "spirit." Framed by his very personal response to everything he encounters (at one Midwestern meditation center he weeps for the death of Princess Diana), the book reads like an unedited travel diary of a likable, curious, slightly starry-eyed visitor. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Introduction The America of my (English) imagination was born when I first came to breathe the big open spaces in 1965 on a $99-for-ninety-nine-day Greyhound bus ticket. I was twenty. Somewhere in Texas, a woman sitting next to me, learning that I was from Britain, asked whether we spoke English there. She was hardly typical, of course; yet in that moment I had realized my foreignness; and how, indeed, I spoke a different language to the locals. And as clearly as the plains I could see through my window, that woman's question showed me how large America was; as large as the world in the minds of some of its inhabitants. I traveled all over the country on that ticket, and many subsequent visits have deepened the colors and complexity of the America in me. For more than any other place in the world, America is a country of the imagination. It has lodged itself in the minds of people everywhere as a living symbol of the best, and also the worst, of civilization at the start of the new millennium. This, my most recent journey in the United States of America, really began in India -- if anything begins anywhere. I had been in that wonderful, terrible country for several months in 1995, researching a book on the survival of the sacred in India. As I sat by the Ganges in the holy city of Benares on my last day, the thought suddenly struck me -- one of those thoughts that come from behind, or from beyond the periphery of vision: India, for all its living spiritual wisdom, is not the land that holds the seal of the sacred for the next millennium. That country is America. From that moment on, the desire to explore that intuition for myself would not let me rest until I came here. My traveling instinct is partly due to an inherent caste of character, but also to my having lived a life on that tight-lipped, cultured, crowded, little island called Britain. Its civilized, decent air has always impelled me to explore the wildness of the untamed earth -- in the Sahara, in India, in Africa, and in the American Southwest. Its reserve, its gray light, its intelligent self-consciousness, has led me to seek wilder company; people who would turn their lives, not on the axis of a sensible plan, but on some love song heard in the bones. There is much about England that Americans appreciate -- its roots, of course; its gentility and civic dignity, which still exist even now; its architecture (if you go to the right places); its theater and music; the ancient tenor of the land. Yet England is not, for all its qualities, a praising country. It rarely praises itself, and others even less. Least of all does it celebrate what is beyond the daily round; the wonder and awe of being human. The air is thick with centuries of caution, with vested interests; with jaded symbols and customs, all of which together conspire to foster a vein of cynicism which is skeptical of visions more open to the unseen than the seen; to the future than to the past. America, on the other hand, is still the country of irrepressible and -- for most Englishmen -- infuriating enthusiasm. And its enthusiasm (meaning, literally, filled with the breath of a god) extends not only to making the fastest buck with the least possible effort, but to visions of a deeper, as well as brighter, possible future. Yet what the world sees of America on cable television is only a flicker of the original dream. Those pioneers who were both naive and reckless enough got high on the promise of cheap land and a vote at the ballot box. Freedom for them meant the right to smash and grab, and American capitalism now propagates that same creed across the world, sanctioned by the power brokers in Washington. The glamorization of crime and violence and their sale by Hollywood into the global marketplace is what you'd expect from a culture that prizes getting what you want above all else. This is the American dream that much of the world has bought with so many tragic consequences. The result is a global disdain for the environment, moral relativism, the denial of any reality and value other than the material, a frenzied consumerism, and the dreary standardization of technological civilization. Faced with such a dismal picture for the future of Western civilization, English caution, even its cynicism, is invaluable. "If democracy is to have a universal resonance," said Vaclav Havel in a speech at Stanford University, "it must discover and renew its own transcendental origins. It must renew its respect for that non-material order which is not only above but also in us and among us, and which is the only possible and reliable source of man's respect for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and for the secular order as well." This, however, is the other America that I discovered on leaving India, barely acknowledged in the rest of the world -- yet it has always existed. While some pioneers dreamed of external conquest, others dreamed of a life founded on new values, free of the tired symbols and myths of the Old World. While the wagon trains rolled west in the nineteenth century, others stayed East and traveled farther in their minds than any horse could take them. The aspiration to a better life had an inner as well as an outer direction, and this deeper impulse, founded on the urge for the good and the true, has always been at the heart of what America stands for. America is still one of the most religious countries in the world, with over ninety percent believing in a god of some kind, and this religiosity has always colored the nation's own view of itself. The flag that represents God's Country, and even the symbols on the dollar bill are sacred images of possibility, pointers to the next step toward being more fully human. This is why Americans, even if they do not articulate it in so many words, and in spite of everything that points to the whole experiment going horribly wrong, feel in their bones that there is something sacred about the United States of America. Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman all sang the glory of a beautiful America yet to come. Their dreams are still in the making, but if they were here at the dawn of the twenty-first century they would be as inspired as they would be horrified. They'd be horrified, of course, by the state parks turned theme parks, a lame government, the media mediocrity, the stultifying sameness of Main Street, the dearth of imagination in the arts establishment and in civic life. Yet I believe they would be truly inspired by all the ways that the human spirit of grassroots America is pushing itself up through layers of institutional concrete like so many irrepressible sunflowers. After traveling the length and breadth of the country during one of the last years of the twentieth century, I genuinely believe that People's America is not only alive and well, but despite, or even because of the moral turpitude of Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and city hall, it is taking vigorous steps to redefine what it means to be human, what democracy means, and how a democratic humanity is itself a natural expression of the sacred. When you put the two words Sacred and America together, most people think of the land. And they are right. The land here, its wild reaches, great scale, vast contrasts, still, in many places, restores humanity to its proper, humble scale. Its majesty, beauty, unpredictability, its sheer otherness can strike awe and wonder, even dread, into the receptive heart. Throughout my journeys in what I have called Sacred America, the sheer presence of the land has stalked me everywhere. Yet my emphasis in this book is rather the people who live here: the aspirations, genius, actions, wisdom, and compassion being woven into the social and cultural fabric in such a way as to reinvent what a sense of the sacred means for the contemporary individual. For while almost every American will admit to having some form of belief or even experience of the numinous, neither that nor what might be called sacred is necessarily defined by a religious framework. Rather, in an immigrant's land of experiment, synthesis, and the forging of personal meaning from subjective experience, individuals and groups of individuals are finding for themselves new layers and subtleties of meaning to the term. Retreat centers -- especially Buddhist ones -- are flourishing in America; many churches are thriving, and not just the evangelical or fundamentalist denominations. The old traditions are increasingly willing to learn from each other in the democratic American climate, as well as to rearticulate their wisdom for a contemporary secular culture; I have met monks who have been behind monastery walls for thirty years who are studying to be Reiki masters. Yet this is the world's first unapologetically secular culture, and the sacred, if it is to mean anything, must also be understood within the context of everyday life and activity. If the human spirit is everywhere, so are its deepest values and insights. And being America, it is not surprising that the spirit blows in a highly individual way. I have found it in Hollywood; in Washington; in corporations; in people whose business is money; in a cave in the New Mexico hills; in a one-horse town in Montana; in an educational program; among ex-convicts; in a bus driver as well as behind monastery walls; in churches; and in Native American ceremonies. Countless people who have never been near a retreat center are finding their own deeper meaning spontaneously, through their own revelations, as well as by responding in new and imaginative ways to the social zeitgeist, its opportunities and sufferings. Practicality is central to the American genius. The capacity to apply good ideas (as well as bad ones) and materialize them in a workable way has marked American culture from the start. Like every gift, this one has its shadow, in this case the propensity for turning absolutely everything into a marketable commodity. Spiritual materialism prospers here to a degree that would stagger any European mind. Transformation, or spiritual rebirth itself, through any number of unique methods, has become a major product line, which points to how unhappy people must be with who they are already. Yet among all the marketing ploys, the need to make a buck, the personal aggrandizement, the desperate craving for anything to fill the gap in an empty life, I have found that the practical genius of America is, even so, expressing the deepest aspirations and insights of the human spirit in any number of tangible forms. These forms are determined, not so much by an organization, religious or otherwise, but by the genius of the individual for the common good. What is significant is that no one is in charge. I mean that no one is doing it. This other America is not a cause that you fight for, it is something at work, like a new configuration, in the collective psyche. It is something we participate in, rather than direct or control. As when the Berlin Wall came down by itself, a broader intelligence is at work -- not as some external force acting on us, but from within us as a collective. In that sense, the old ideal of personal spiritual salvation through individual effort no longer holds up in the same way. It never was, anyhow, a full representation of the Christian ideal. It is deeply Christian to recognize that we are all in this together somehow, and the effort of one can only be for the whole; the transformation of the whole, in the end, is what will see us through. It is the soul of the world, the anima mundi, that is being transformed, as much as any one individual soul; and yet that transformation is happening, paradoxically, through us as individuals. "We are preparing the way for a global democracy," said Vaclav Havel, in that same Stanford speech, "but that democracy cannot emerge until there has been a full restoration and recognition of the moral authority of the universe." The moral authority of the universe is what is beginning to make its presence known in countless individual and collective initiatives around this country. There is no manifesto other than the small voice of conscience that the universe -- the soul we all share in -- uses to speak in and through us. This book, then, is an exploration and celebration of this other America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner; the America of the human spirit as it is emerging in its many guises throughout the country today. That spirit can rightfully be called sacred when it is in the service of something greater than itself. Just think, as you are reading these lines now, there is a group of women in Boise, Idaho, unknown to anybody, who are busy at work making their peace quilts. When they are done they send one to a senator. Over fifty senators have slept under one so far. As Brother Lawrence said, "It is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for God." Copyright © 1999 Roger Housden. All rights reserved.