A Sacred Life

Published On: 10 August 2023926 words6.2 min read

Robin Wall Kimmerer* shares in her book Braiding Sweetgrass:


I once gave a lecture titled “Cultures of Gratitude” at a small private college where tuition ran upwards of $40,000 a year. I told a traditional story of the years when the corn harvests were so plentiful that the caches were full.


Several students in my audience yawned. They could not imagine such a thing. The aisles of the grocery store were always well stocked. At a reception afterward the students filled their Styrofoam plates with the usual fare. We exchanged questions and comments while we balanced plastic cups of punch. The students grazed on cheese and crackers, a profusion of cut vegetables, and buckets of dip. There was

enough food to feast a small village. The leftovers were swept into trash bins placed conveniently next to the tables.


A beautiful young girl, dark hair tied up in a headscarf, was hanging back from the discussion, waiting her turn. When nearly everyone had left she approached me, gesturing with an apologetic smile at the wasted remains of the reception.


“I don’t want you to think no one understands what you were saying,” she said. “I do. You sound like my grandmother, back in my village in Turkey. I will tell her she must have a sister here in the United States. The Honorable Harvest is her way, too. In her house, we learned that everything we put in our mouths, everything that allows us to live, is the gift of another life. I remember lying with her at night as she made us thank the rafters of her house and the wool blankets we slept in. My grandma wouldn’t let us forget that these are all gifts, which is why you take care of everything, to show respect for that life. In my grandmother’s house we were taught to kiss the rice. If a single grain fell to the ground, we learned to

pick it up and kiss it, to show we meant no disrespect in wasting it.”


The student told me that, when she came to the United States, the greatest culture shock she experienced was not language or food or technology, but waste. “I’ve never told anyone before,” she said, “but the cafeteria made me sick, because of the way people treated their food. What people throw away here after one lunch would supply my village for days. I could not

speak to anyone of this; no one else would understand to kiss the grain of rice.” I thanked her for her story and she said, “Please, take it as a gift,and give it to someone else.”


I’ve heard it said that sometimes, in return for the gifts of the earth, gratitude is enough. It is our uniquely human gift to express thanks, because we have the awareness and the collective memory to remember that the world could well be otherwise, less generous than it is. But I

think we are called to go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity.

I often wish I still had living grandparents. By the time I had reached my mid-teens they had all but passed away.


In the blood I felt running through my veins and from the pits of me (despite my young age), I knew that there was great irreplaceable wisdom and life experience that was lost with each of my grandparent’s passing.


Grandparents and elders are the keepers of the secrets and wisdoms of our cultures, faiths and traditions. Their memories hold the treasure chests of many of our ancient ancestral stories. Our grandparents are the respected souls tasked with the responsibility to pass down what they know to our parents and eventually to us, whether orally or through their living examples.


When we lose our precious elders, we lose the expanse of their knowledge and experiences, their priceless wisdoms and age-old stories, their qualities, traits, methods and traditions. Ultimately, we lose a part of ourselves and our identities along with their passing. Whatever we have not taken from them becomes a part of ourselves forever lost.


For too long have we severed ourselves from the sacred.


We are severed from the sacredness of the earth, and the minerals and riches we hollow out from it.  We are disconnected from appreciating the fruits, vegetables and grains the fertile land bears and generously shares with us by Allah’s Grace.


We are severed from the sacredness of the beasts of the earth who submissively offer to us their very lives so we may then devour and feast upon their cooked flesh.


Subhanallah. Alhamdulillah.


Most horrifyingly, we are detached from the sacredness of the very lives we have been blessed and entrusted to live. We fail to live in ways that truly honour the blessing of our lives. We fail to live with wholehearted and devout faith, obedience and nobility for the sake of our Lord.


Perhaps we will return in the near future, to proper faithfulness, to wisdom and to acknowledging the sacred. Maybe this return will result in true shukr (gratitude) where we kiss not only the weary and worn hands of our elders as we embrace their traditional wisdom, but also the sacred grain of blessed rice that spills from our plentiful plates.


Calisha Bennett

*Robin Wall Kimmerer is an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology; and Director, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, at the State University of New York.

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