Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 19, 2011

The Sacred Profane (a prose poem by Mark Nielsen)

The martyrdom of Saint Mark. Très Riches Heure...

The Martyrdom of St. Mark

Even in the most sacred of spaces, there is always a hint of the inescapable profane. Or else– as Browning once said– what’s a heaven for?

Simply by my being here, the profane is here. Without meaning to, still I pollute the well from which we all must drink.

It is a nearly empty sanctuary: one officer in black on my left, one enlisted woman with beads and bifocals on my right, and all of us in gray. (Those in brown and blonde and red too often stay away.)

If a pew is empty, in a chapel in the forest, does anybody hear?

The deacon has arrived. Puts the gifts in order, finds the proper page, turns on the light, and sits to wait.

So where is the profane, then?

In the walls, the very stones which cry out for the authentic and organic, for something alive within them. They wish they had been born bread. Stones which have heard a million prayers but given no answer.

Profanity oozes like sap from the great mahogany beams overhead, who gave their lives so that we might brag of their beauty and cost, even as they inspire us to humility and gratitude for the Architect himself. Profane too, the creaking door behind me, as more supplicants enter. Its groaning breaks the sacred silence and drives away the Spirit, leaving me unarmed to face my awful angels.

This door, this ground, welcomes saint and sinner alike. The sacred body and the profane heart, the freed spirit and the bound hands, the enlightened mind and the dark, sweaty, fertile genitals. We bring our whole unwhole selves here, to fill the hole. The just and unjust sit here each week, side by side, and speak, occasionally, to God — while mostly ignoring each other. We hide in plain sight.

Profane is my pride, for I am convinced I am better than these others gathered here, trapped in their Old World ways. They join each other and uphold each other in rote recitations to the Virgin on her sacred day. Meanwhile, I have the “good sense” to merely nod in her general direction, then proceed in my self-importance to meet her Husband at my inner altar. I sit and wait at the executives’ conference table in my swollen heart. Foolishly, I sit in the chairman’s seat, only to be embarrassed as Moses and Elijah join me to stand on either side. Now the chairman arrives and unseats me. He sends me to fetch coffee for everyone else gathered here: the blue-haired and bleary-eyed, who give reverence to His mother.

I think I’m funny, which is usually profane as well, and not funny at all. I validate myself –or try– by amusing others. I think it’s funny when a phonecall breaks into the sacred space, ringing out high above the holy whispers. But the ringing also angers me, as I hunger for the purely sacred.

Profane is the divine irony, El Shaddai’s holy humor, which mirrors my wide imperfections back upon me as I receive Communion. The chalice is a funhouse mirror, a warped, curved reflection of my ridiculous face in a golden cup. My nose is big, and it smells the sweet life and bitter death that I drink.

I spot a friend, an officer in his civvies, who does not see me. If I call to him across the aisle, is this profane as well? Why can’t we shout in here? It’s supposed to be Party Central, the site of the never-ending celebration! But all we do is whisper and mumble. I do not like being a sheep. I prefer the life of the wolf. I wanna howl!

In my coat pocket, (perhaps most sacredly profane of all) is the Ten of Diamonds, carried as a memento of the wounds I was dealt by my father the King of Clubs, and by my love, the Queen of Spades. I do not lack for mementos. Nor wounds. I am “all in”.

Finally, I have outlasted them all here. Only the worker women remain. Even the officer has gone, mysterious black briefcase in hand, like a spy sneaking out the side door, on a mission to save a world that does not want saving.

The worker woman tells me a funeral is on its way. Ah, yes. I had forgotten for a moment, that I was not the only man in the universe, not the only employee who has business with the chairman. The world spins on as I sit idly by, watching without working.

Yet I want to stay as long as I can. In fact, I want to move in. Or at least I want to be moved, here where it is easy to be moved. I am paralyzed these days, unable to move myself. To those who love and hate me, I may seem immovable. But perhaps I am just resting.

As the mourners arrive, I prepare to leave. My self-pitying grief is misplaced in this sacred space, if only because I mourn a life unlived, or for lives other than the decedent to be honored here.

I rise reluctantly.

Our instructions to “pray without ceasing” are impossible. The best I can do is to not cease living, and pray when I can, even when I don’t want to. (Especially when I don’t want to.) Even in that I will not succeed. But neither will I entirely fail, for I am not alone. The prayers of the blue-haired, and the cries of the rocks, and the creaking of empty pews, will never cease. They will always be heard.

  • Composed Sat. Feb. 19, 2010, I think on the morning of some kind of Marian feast
    Readings: Hebrews 11:1-7 ( “Faith= Evidence of things not seen”) + Mark 9:2-13. (St. Mark’s Transfiguration)
  • Feb. 20: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time — “Lord, Your mercy is my hope, my heart rejoices in your saving power. I will sing to the Lord for His goodness to me.”


  1. Wow. That was *!#%& awesome. Or is it is? That is *!#%& awesome.
    I have little use for the past. . . The Origin of The Book . . . and rarely think about it; however, I would briefly like to tell you how I came to be a spiritual teacher and how the book came into existence.
    Until my thirtieth year, I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression. It feels now as if I am talking about some past lifetime or somebody else’s life.
    One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.
    “I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought the kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
    I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself begin sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.

    • You’re welcome, Mr. or Ms. “thanks”. And thanks too for your own story, of your inner journey to freedom. Grace comes in many forms, and while your story is unique to you, it reminds me of so many others. Especially the “resist nothing” moment. Except that this essential surrender, after the first major one, seemingly still has to happen again and again in lesser ways throughout our lives.

      Your journey and where you’ve landed also makes me think of some writers/teachers I respect a lot: the Christian existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard, past integrationist Catholic theologians like Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton, a spiritual teacher and naturalist named Bill Plotkin (see his book _Soulcraft_ ), Buddhist-leaning philosopher Ken Wilber, the ideas about a Self to rise above my other selves put forward by Eckhart Tolle, and especially the approach to transformation espoused by my mentor Father Richard Rohr, OFM. For particulars on Rohr’s approach and books, see Rohr’s also co-presenting at a men’s conference called “The Stories That Make Us” on April 1-3 in Louisiana. Your story seems cut very much from that cloth, and I’m sure guides others toward a more light-filled, healthier place in your ongoing teaching.

      If you want to continue corresponding, I will try to track you down (or you can click thru to my email at my About/Profile page here) and we can compare notes. -Mark

  2. Not me (except for the first statement). My own thoughts are few and far between. That actually is(was?) the introduction to one of Tolle’s books which is what your post made me think of. Very cool.

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