TWH – New psychological research suggests that the experience of sacred moments may have a lasting and positive impact on mental health. Psychotherapists and clergy have both reported the effect, but recent quantitative research has provided empirical support as well.
The term “sacred moments” refers to the experience of a spiritual instance, often with a sense of interaction with divine energy. These moments can have a profound impact on a person and the experience can endure a lifetime.
The characteristics of these moments can include boundlessness (an experience that cannot be understood within space and time), transcendence (an interaction with the extraordinary), immanence (the presence of a powerful spiritual connection), interconnected (the experience of profound understanding and caring), and ultimacy (the experience of an absolute meaning).
Mircea Eliade described the sacred moment in his famous work “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion” as “hierophanies”, those manifestations of the sacred when the divine “erupts” into the profane world.
To underscore his belief in the importance of these moments Eliade wrote,
Man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany. It is a fitting term because it does not imply anything further; it expresses no more than is implicit in its etymological content, i.e., that something sacred shows itself to us. It could be said that the history of religions — from the most primitive to the most highly developed — is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realities.
Eliade suggested that in sacred moments, “One is devoured by Time, not because one lives in Time, but because one believes in its reality, and therefore forgets or despises eternity.”
Psychological researchers agree that those moments and transformative and note that they are accompanied by “spiritual emotions” that include awe, joy, humility, and peace.
Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy, called these the “mysterium,” writing that “The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience.”
Previous research has looked at these moments through the lens of sanctification theory, “a process through which aspects of life are perceived as having divine character and significance.”
But sacred moments can occur for ordinary events or acts of resistance. One individual arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience during an environmental action in the woods reported a sacred moment during an interview. She said during an interview in related research, “What I recall from the experience so clearly is there was a consciousness shift to my belly… surrounded by this amazing, alive, miraculous web of connection of all these other forces. It was a cross between a sense of… just suddenly being immediately present physically in every way and… what felt like a union with those that came before.”
Despite the theoretical, philosophical, and clerical commentary about sacred moments and the impact resulting from experiencing them, relatively little empirical research has been conducted to understand their benefits.
In the current research, scientists examined the impact of sacred moments in a sample of almost 3,000 participants who were extracted from a larger research sample because this subset of individuals had reported a recent sacred experience a few weeks prior to enrollment in the larger research study.
The individuals were asked to complete measures of psychological welfare and then re-assessed after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months after entering the research program. The sample was predominantly white, Christian, cisgender, and heterosexual. Roughly, 60% of the sample was female. While the research findings are limited by the sample, they likely extend to other populations.
The researchers found that participants who had more frequent sacred moments also had higher positive emotions, lower perceived stress, lower perceived distress from anxiety and depression. The effect was lasting also, present through the 6-month time frame of observations.
The measurement of the sacred moment was also interesting. The researcher focused on the idea of sanctified time, periods that are apart from ordinary time such as holidays, like those found in the Wheel of the Year. The researchers even noted the potential benefits from marking seasonal passage with ritual as noted by Gwendolyn Reece in her paper published in the Pagan Studies journal, Pomegranate, in 2015.
But the researchers also note ordinary behaviors can themselves be sanctified by individuals. That noted that individuals could use rituals and practices to produce sacred instances that may also provide psychological benefit.
The researchers did caution that sacred moments also have the potential to be misinterpreted but that their benefits hold therapeutic utility for mental health clinicians and clergy. They noted that validating these moments as having empirical benefit may help mental health providers and clergy leverage their protective effects against anxiety and depression. They noted that “faith communities may benefit from engaging in [religious/spiritual] activities that facilitate the perception of life as sacred and even give special attention to moments that may feel set apart from others due to characteristics of boundlessness, transcendence, interconnectedness, and ultimacy.”