In the final scene of the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, Emily Webb, age 26, who has just died in childbirth, is given the opportunity to relive just one day of her life. She chooses her 12th birthday. But shortly into it she can’t bear the pain of going through life without appreciating the wonder and majesty of each sacred moment of being alive. The people around her don’t appear to hear or understand her pleas and urgings that their lives are short and frail and to seize the moment. Instead, they just go through the motions of living. Returning to her grave high on a hill she confronts the play’s narrator—the “Stage Manager”—who had granted her wish and says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
He answers, “No,” but then reflects a moment. “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
We’ve all had them—possibly once, twice or many times in our life. That moment when we feel so alive, as big as all outdoors or a small but vital piece of eternity. The moment when we, too, for just a teaspoon of time, become saints and poets.
It could be the first time a mother beholds her newborn, or it could be a mountain sunset, or the girl saying “Yes” when all evidence pointed to “No.” It could be that moment in a house of worship or outside of it when one feels a connection to the Divine Presence.
These are sacred moments. And in a groundbreaking study by Springtide Research Institute, their frequency and type have been tabulated in America’s young people.
Titled “The State of Religion & Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred,” the survey found that over half of the 4,546 people ages 13-25 who participated have experienced a sacred moment—defined by the researchers as “experiences that evoked a sense of wonder, awe, gratitude, deep truth, and/or interconnectedness in your life.”
In the wide view, the survey results put the lie to the notion that Gen Z-ers lack the spirituality of their forebears—that they are more concerned with the material world.
More specifically, a majority of young people—61 percent—consider themselves as both “at least slightly religious and at least slightly spiritual, with 68 percent classifying themselves as “at least slightly religious” and 78 percent identifying as “at least slightly spiritual.”
55 percent of the 4,500-plus have experienced a sacred moment, no matter their religious or spiritual inclination—an indication that sacred moments favor no particular religion or creed.
In fact, larger percentages experienced sacred moments outside a place of worship. With the option of selecting more than one answer, those who had such experiences reported that it happened in nature (69 percent) and in the privacy of their home (68 percent). Those who’d had the feeling in a house of worship came in third at 55 percent.
Such answers, coming as they do at a time when young people are staying away from houses of worship in increasing numbers, is a telling foreshadowing of what the future may be like—a future in which religious leaders will need to reach out to young people in ways that are outside the traditional ones.
Tricia Bruce, director of the Springtide Research Institute, said, “Certainly, we might expect young people to tell us, ‘Yes, I’ve experienced the sacred when I attended a religious service or in prayer,’ and they do, but they also told us ‘I experienced the sacred in nature,’ ‘I experienced the sacred when I got into college,’ ‘I experienced the sacred in a virtual connection.’”
“Creative spaces that we may not think of as sacred themselves, or as religious, or we may not materially construct as such, young people are telling us that, in fact, that’s where the sacred lives for them.”
Illustrative of Bruce’s point is the comment of a 19-year-old survey participant: “I’m often searching for moments of connection to the greater universe. I find them in quiet moments where I’ve been writing poetry or when I’m near the ocean and in the natural world.”
Such moments, according to the survey, heighten emotion and insight, provide direction, purpose and serenity that enhances their lives. The survey answers also indicate that those young people who have experienced a sacred moment report a higher sense of belonging and satisfaction in their lives.
Moreover—and likely the most positive takeaway from the survey—those who have experienced such a moment also experienced a greater sense of social responsibility and are more open to learn, disagree and change.
Though the purpose of the survey was to “give [faith] leaders a new vantage point to design programming and have conversations and cultivate relationships,” according to its principal investigator Dr. Nabil Tueme—for the rest of us it gives a refreshing and hopeful look at the next generation as it prepares to take over the helm.
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