5 December

Sacred Materialism

‘Sacred’ and ‘materialism’ are words that a great many people do not relate to. Furthermore, they seem to be contradictory. And here I am conjoining them. What on earth can I mean by this?

Like the Advent, the ‘sacred’ is generally relinquished to the hazy world behind the altar and above the clouds, domains best left to those rather dubious “professionals” who trade in the interpretation of ancient texts concerned with invisible matters. 

The rest of us busy ourselves with making it through the day and the economy, figuring out the best way to take out the trash, communicate with the children, pay the rent, and reduce our carbon footprints.

‘Materialism’ is associated with grotesque luxury, financially inaccessable and morally irrelevant to most of us.

I believe that both of these are words we need to live a fulfilled and ethical life.

The ‘sacred’ are those things precious and inviolable to each of us. Those things whose absence or languishing is a warning that we have let the activities of life slip out of order. They are those things which define our self-respect and self-expression.

The ‘material’ is the carbon in all its forms that we eat, use, enjoy, and discard. ‘Materialism’ is the regard we show for this material. Wastefulness, excess, asceticism, carelessness, and hoarding are various ways that people express materialism, but there is no amateriality because human beings depend on a throughput of material for survival, work, and pleasure.

‘Sacred materialism’, then, is one of many ways to handle our material. It recognizes the natural resources and the human labor, expertise, and craft that are used to make things. It also recognizes the role of one’s own spirit in choosing and relating to objects. Finally, it is concerned with the destiny of those things who we finally abandon.

Furniture-maker Wendy Neale taught me that sustainability is not only about the inputs, waste, and recyclability of products, but also about sustaining our desire for them, so that we take care of them and repair them, rather than discarding them for new ones. Of course this requires objects worthy of receiving care and repair, which many contemporary products, designed for rapid obsolescence, resist. (A wonderful book on this topic is Giles Slades’ Made to Break.) 

To embrace sacred materialism means engaging yourself fully in acquisition. Patiently searching out and selecting objects that

  1. satisfy your ethics of conservation, fairness, and long-term impacts on the ecology and economy
  2. give you so much aesthetic pleasure that you will be inspired to keep and care for them
  3. are made properly to be durable and repairable

These priorities will lead you to objects that are more expensive in the short-term and less expensive in the long-term.

Sacred materialism also means embracing a role of stewardship regarding the natural materials and human effort embodied in your things. 

Confronted with an inheritance of my mother’s objects, most of which are either hopelessly too large or do not agree with my taste:

  • I decided that some adjustment of my color range and the size of office paper was appropriate to keep her red  leather folios in use. The Hermés and Gucci workmanship had already survived more than 40 years of use, it should be an honor to keep them active.
  • I discovered the sensual pleasure and linguistic enrichment of using a 1923 thesaurus. (If you haven’t tried a very old thesaurus, I won’t spoil it for you, but they not only smell more literary but function differently from modern ones, forcing the writer to reflect more deeply on meaning.)
  • I  adopted a pair of brass lamps corroded by life near the sea, which will require learning about metal restoration. 

Why not these lamps for my future? Why not these objects which need and deserve my care and respect?