At this time of year when much of the world is observing events steeped in ancient lore and enchantments, what can we say about the settings and places where we perceive something as sacred? What do we even mean by “sacred space?” What qualities must any space reflect to be deemed “sacred?” Who decides what those qualities are?
Years ago, “U.S. News & World Report” ran a lengthy cover story headlined, “Sacred Places.” Its rather exhaustive list of such places contained all the usual suspects, though it was dominated by buildings and monuments.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
The Golden Temple in India.
Stonehenge, Karnak in Egypt, the temple of Confucius, the entire city of Mecca.
Interestingly, there was little said about awe-inspiring natural settings—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest, the Serengeti Plain, the Gret Barrier Reef, and all the other places on Planet Earth that, when we first lay eyes on them, cause a fluttering of our insides and elicit the universal human response of: “Wow!”
Nor did the magazine mention places deemed sacred via tragedy, sacrifice, death. Places where our voices seem to take on, of their own accord, a respectful hush.
The Texas School Book Depository.
The Twin Towers.
On a personal level, it might be the hospital room where our loved one suffers, the patch of earth or ocean or forest where their remains are scattered.
And on the flip side, there is the newborn nursery room where first-time parents almost burst with the inexhaustible wonder and mystery and magic of life itself, made anew.
“U.S. News” invited readers to chime in with their own sacred space nominations, which made for a list that is alternately fun and heart-rending:
“Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah.”
“The hospital ward where I recovered from a bout of severe depression.”
“My mowed labyrinth.”
“The wooded area of the family farm in eastern Iowa.”
“The steamroom of my local JCC fitness center.”
“The chart of the chemical elements.”
“The Eisenhower Chapel in Abeline, Kansas.”
“My son’s bedroom, unaltered since he left home.”
And: “My flannel Wallace tartan shorts. (I’m thinking I had better Google this…)
Finally, this classic: “The marriage bed I share with my wife.” (Mmmh—sacred sheets!)
So let’s take a crack at defining sacred space. What makes a place “sacred?”
It has something to do, I think, with a quality of silent reverence that it causes in us. Sometimes it is reverence mixed with ecstasy or profound contentment.
Sacred space is where the concerns of the everyday world, with all its to-do lists and clamor of needs and wants and desires, of time-boundedness and temporality, fall away.
We cross a threshold at some point—maybe predictably at the door of a cathedral or cemetery, maybe suddenly at a turn in the trail that presents us the full frontal of a magnificent waterfall.
Maybe just in our yard, with the dying light angled just so on a patch of old fence.
Time pauses here. The world takes on added dimension, and we can feel it deep inside ourselves, in a kind of quiet, almost autonomic reverence.
In sacred space, we absorb the stark beauty and wholeness and gravitas of things, in moments of time that point to the timelessness beyond. At the essential sanctity of the things we hold dear: our loved ones, our homes, our churches, our hammocks, our music, our journeys.
Maybe even our offices or garage work benches. (Well, no, maybe not our offices…)
Sacred space is where we inhabit T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.” It’s where depth abides, where we know that the world, in all of its fathomless mystery, is bathed in the forever, even if we are not.
Sacred space may feel more “real” than the “real” world to us because what passes for the real world—our often reactive, semi-conscious busybee pursuits of ephemera—doesn’t take adequate account of, doesn’t note or observe, the depth we know when we enter sacred space.
Often, it takes a specific place, a location designated by acclamation or tradition as sacred, for us to readily grasp it.
This explains the power of churches, synagogues, zendos and mosques to keep us returning to them at an appointed time. Our forebears built these places of worship with the express purpose of making them sacred, of inspiring an immediate change in the consciousness of all those who walk through their doors.
The architecture, the lighting, the windows, the art, the flowers—all of it tends to be suggestive of importance, reverence, depth, timelessness—an homage to beauty and eternity.
This also explains why we feel so repulsed when a sacred space is violated—as when drunken teenagers rampage through a graveyard or a church is bombed. “What is the world coming to?” we ask…
Churches don’t always feel sacred, though. Sometimes a building is just a building. This may be particularly true on weekdays when churches can turn into wholly secular meeting halls and bingo parlors.
The reverse is also true—sometimes quintessentially secular places like big boxy arenas can turn into sacred church space. Ask any attendee at a Bruce Springsteen concert about that phenomenon.
Gatherings in public places also remind us that sacred space often has a social dimension, the flip side of meditating or hiking in favorite woods alone.
Social occasions let us indulge in the time-honored activity of drawing sustenance and inspiration from others in our tribe, of inhabiting sacred space with them. How else to explain meditation groups, and the paradox of conducting such an intensely private internal activity by gathering with scores of others in a large room?
Now: does sanctity exist independent of us? Awe-inspiring as our natural wonders can be, one sunrise to the next piercing trees and leaving us with mouths agape, when there’s no one around, is a tree just a tree?
And what about when nature turns on us, maybe still leaving us in awe, but the awe rooted in terror rather than adulation?
After all, the same tree that enchants our imagination one moment can blithely fall and kill us the next, or be sent hurling into our homes via a tornado.
In those instances, we see that nature simply exists of its own accord, here before we were, here after we will cease to be, pitilessly indifferent to our fate as mortal humans. Sometimes, a tree is just a tree, its self-sufficiency a self-evident fact.
Which begets an additional question: Is sacred only about the good and inspirational stuff, the sunshine part of God? Or must we also, if we are going to allow the whole kit & caboodle of existence into this discussion, also recognize and bow our heads to the dark dimension of God, and call it sacred, too?
We might consider the saga of Job here as support for that point of view, along with the seeming heresy that Lucifer and every other human rendering of the devil is simply God in another guise, rounding out the story of creation.
In the end, I see sanctity as a human construct, an experience in the depths of the psyche. It is there—in the human capacity to think religiously, to concoct a sacred scenario—that a tree becomes so much more—if we have but eyes to see.
And what about the time dimension of sacred space? Though time seems to stop and point to the eternal when we inhabit sacred space, we eventually return to the time-bound world, do we not?
Whether it’s the Buddha standing up again under his Bo tree, Christ returning from 40 days in the desert, us emerging from the sacred choral concert or climbing down from Mt. Shasta, finally, our occupation of sacred space—of that particular sacred space—has to end; we have to move on.
Oh, we try to capture it, seize, contain, preserve and extend it—that is the basis of photography, after all. (And of staying too long at a rollicking good party—I know a little something about that…)
But eventually, we leave our perch, our window for that moment into the sacred, and we move on into the next moment, the next space. Will that space be sacred, too, or just the same ol’ same ol’?
What happens when we emerge from the darkened church and its heavenly song, into the noonday sun with traffic and blaring horns and a car that won’t start?
Truly, that is the great challenge of the spiritual life, is it not? To no longer pick and choose and separate the sacred from the profane, but to so animate the world that all space, all time, is made sacred. Which is to say, worthy of our full acceptance and attention. (And gratitude.)
Because it’s not just about sheer beauty, is it? It’s not just about, in William Blake’s words, “seeing the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower.” It’s also about creating the sacred out of the ruins of the Twin Towers, the spilled blood on Iwo Jima, the hanging trees in Mississippi, the suffering of our loved ones, and ourselves.
It’s about staring even atrocity in the face and proclaiming our commitment to all that is loving and good, to make all things anew with our intention of peace and fellowship. Not denial, but renewal.
I’ve recounted before in this space my experience as a Hospice volunteer, when a raucous party atmosphere met me when I was called to tend to a man suffering from ALS who had ended all food and water intake and was in his death throes, barely conscious in his bed in the middle of a large room.
The gathering was well-intentioned enough, but it was aping a kind of Irish wake gone terribly wrong, wholly inappropriate to the circumstance. A man was suffering and deserved a measure of dignity that no jovial chatter and hoisting of beers could afford him.
All I could do—what I had to do—was pull my chair up to his bed and let him know I was there, truly there, holding his hand, sitting quietly with him and carving out our own sacred space amidst the din.
A few moments later, a woman unknown to me sat down on the opposite side of the bed and took hold of his other hand.
In the end, sacred space reduced to its essentials is a beautiful human construct celebrating beauty itself, including the beauty in the depths and longings and sufferings of the human heart, the stirrings of the imagination, the infinite backdrop of all time-bound phenomena.
And I would add one more thing: that sacred space is not only about the imagination and intention, but also recognition. Something inside us—some predisposition, some openness to depth and the transcendent dimension of life—recognizes sacred space in potentia and marries up with it—in its physicality, its availability in a place, a moment, a person.
Sacred space waits for us, invites us, and when we are ready, with eyes to see, ears to hear, and skin to tingle, it speaks to us, often, but not always, in hushed tones, saying:
“Be still, for something important abides here.”
“Be watchful, for here is the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring.”
“Be of gratitude for the wonders—and even the sufferings— of your joyful and tender heart.”
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Reading this reminds me of being at the bedside of my friend, originally my chiropractor, with his wife in near hysterics, while his two young sons batted balloons around and across his bed. Each time a balloon would hit my friend’s face, the little four-year old would shout out “Have a good time in heaven Daddy.”
All these years later, I still do not know if that moment in time — that space — that scene — imprinted into my mind and heart —- was horrific or beautiful.
Thank you for this very thoughtful and beautiful piece.
You have put your finger exactly on the nub of it, Jamie. The many-sidedness and closeness of pretty much every damn and glorious thing. Thanks for sharing this lovely story.
Indeed Andrew, that is the point, isn’t it?
“Pretty much every damn and glorious thing”, yes, but even that seems too limiting. That something may be glorious is in the eye, or mind, or heart, or deep in the soul of the beholder. And what may trigger such intense feelings can be anything our senses perceive. ANYplace or ANYthing or ANY moment in time can be sacred, if we just slow down enough to appreciate the wonder of…..it all. Merry Christmas to you, old friend.
Really great to hear from you, Jeffrey, and yep, that is the point! I’m tempted to capitalize your “All” there, because it seems so representative of what my minister used to call “The Great Big Thing,” i.e. God by another name of the “9 Billion Names…” that we discussed here not long ago with the Arthur C. Clarke short story. In the end, as Jamie says, the horrific and the beautiful and every place between and outside of those is there for us, ripe for our veneration…and terror…and appreciation. (Truly, Job makes more and more sense to me with each turn of the year.)
All best to you in ’22!
The concept of “sacred space” is so subjective. I can look at the Grand Canyon and see nothing but the wondrous mix of color and shadows rising over a meandering Colorado River. A real estate developer may look beyond its splendor and see only another El Tovar hotel. President Teddy Roosevelt wrote of the Grand Canyon, “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur.” However, his predecessor, William McKinley said, “We cannot gamble with anything so sacred as money.” I see Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as a brilliant, fantastical work of art while others will never appreciate it because of its macabre, understandably blasphemous imagery. For me, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a hauntingly beautiful song but not singularly sacred. For my wife, it’s tear evoking. It will always be a sacred reminder of her son who passed away eleven years ago following an unsuccessful pancreatic transplant; it was his favorite song. Is “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5)” anymore sacred than “We need never be ashamed of our tears (“Great Expectations”)? The beauty of “sacred space” is its possession of both universality and individuality.
Yes indeed, Robert, these are age-old human inclinations and I daresay, “needs” at play with sacred space. Atheist astronomers agog at the cosmos are exhibiting no less of that need than are monks on Christmas Eve. The universal undergirds every particular, and thank goodness those particulars are as rich and varied as they are. Makes for a much more interesting world.
As for “Hallelujah,” I’m not sure when “hauntingly beautiful” crosses over into “singularly sacred,” but that song is both of those for me, every time I hear it!
Hello old friend, and merry day after Christmas! I moved away from Minnesota where we raised our children about 17 years ago. A few years ago I returned on a business trip, rented a car and took a side trip to the “old neighborhood”. I drove past our house, meandered about for awhile and finally stopped at the Little League field where my son played and I served as his coach. It was a cold, gray day and no one else was there as I left the car and walked up to the backstop, sat on the bench and gazed at the quiet, empty ball field. Try as I might here I can’t avoid the cliche – the memories came flooding back! Not just my son digging in at the plate in a tight game, but also the tedium of pregame fielding practice and the time-worn chatter (“Good eye, son!) that is the soundtrack of the game. The years have passed – my son is in his 30s now. I’m not sure he understands it yet, but that patch of dirt and green and the signs on the outfield fence advertising “Midnight Market” and “Dale Feste Auto Repair” is truly sacred space. Thank you, Andrew, for bringing that time and place to my mind tonight.
This puts a grin on my face, David, because of how familiar and true to my own experience and sensibilities it feels. The sanctity of playing fields and the basketball gyms of my own life, oh yes! So much sweat & toil, blood & broken bones and fellowship out there; it is nothing short of hallowed ground in my own memory.
Was listening to a podcast yesterday discussing the famous Christmas truce between German and British troops in 1914, when they sang songs together in No Man’s Land and then got soccer balls out and started kicking them around with each other. “But of course!” I am prompted to say…
Very glad you had the presence of mind to rent that car and linger a while, letting the experience wash fully over you, and for sharing the story of it here. Let’s make sure we continue to take time out from the trenches in ’22!
Your musings always send me down that rabbit hole, the www. This time to the old church Xavier Varnus purchased in Brooklyn Nova Scotia, installing a huge pipe organ, for his own pleasure, and not having to deal with priests, nuns, etc. in order to play in a church. Great story.
I was hoping someone would mention Mr. Varnus and that body-stirring organ, Barbara, thank you! Really liked what I saw of him on his website; seemed like the consummate dedicated artist, but wow—buying his own church so he could get everything exactly right? I can hear Mozart, Beethoven & such—beholden to benefactors and church politics a good part of their lives—clawing at their graves, wanting to come back for another go-round! I’ll look forward to reading that story.
Andrew, beautiful job as always. Merry Christmas my dear friend who I miss.
This year I was trying too hard to get sacred spaces at Christmas: putting up a wreath, tree, lights, ornaments, cooking meaningful foods, wrapping gifts etc. After the dinner and gifts were over we had a neighbor boy who is 5 who was recently orphaned over to play the Ungame, where if you land on a certain square you are asked to make a comment. He said “My dad died and I miss him”. The honesty of that moment from a child was sacred and created a sacred space among us. Everyone was silent for a few seconds, then compassionate, but more important, the nature of the game changed and shallow answers were replaced with depth and meaning. It became a sacred space when a child iterated the truth.
One of those “from the mouth of babes” moments, Mary. Often times it just takes one truth-teller to change an entire conversation. Kind of feeling we could sure use someone like that now on the national level, but meanwhile, what a touching and profound moment for you all. Thanks for sharing it here and expanding its audience. Happy New Year!
I’ve wrestled mightily since first reading this post yesterday, my friend. I realized this morning that I could not put my finger on sacred. And perhaps at least part of the point is that it is difficult to box-in and precisely identify sacred. Robert writes above that it is highly subjective and I fully agree with him. I also believe that it is influenced by the circumstances of the moment. Last night I learned that a good friend had died yesterday morning, culminating months of suffering. I needed a place to process his death and instinctively sought out a dark and quiet room in our home. The “space” I needed was quiet so that I could reflect upon and feel the love and loss of my friend. Had I been near the ocean, in a church, or beholding a beautiful mountain vista I’m certain that the place would have felt appropriately sacred for my grieving needs. Circumstances kept me home and the space needed was quiet, still, and dark. The sacred, it turns out, came about internally accompanied by breath, stillness, and the capacity to hold the joy of having known this wonderful man and the grief for his passing.
I think you’re completely on it, Jay. Sacred space is like the word “God”—we make of it what we will, create it where and when we want, and reap the benefits that our imaginings can conjure and bring into our lives. And those benefits are real and can be long-lasting, helping transform lives and build transformative communities. Or they can do great damage when those imaginings veer toward cultist beliefs, control and exclusivity (i.e.,”My church is sacred, and yours is of the devil.”) The space you created to grieve your friend in your own time of need is a perfect example of this whole discussion; thanks for contributing it to the conversation.
Thank you for your profound post about “sacred space”. As a Chalice Circle faciitator I will suggest this being one of our topics for UUCLC’s spring 2022 meetings. Your mention of sacred environments reminds me of the demise of a sacred-to-me, vast environment near my hometown in Michigan’s U.P. A miles wide open pit iron mine has totally destroyed a formerly pristine area of pure freshwater lakes and forests that was sparsely settled with a few small farms in the late 1800’s. I grew up going to abandoned fields to pick wild strawberries and blackberries with my family. I learned to swim at a beach on one of the lakes. My hometown drew its water supply from another of the lakes. On trips home over more than half a lifetime, I returned to drive through that environment, sacred to me; and I’m sure to many others. Now it is all gone. There are now mountains of crushed rock and a large lake made out of the mega canyons where iron rock was removed. This was all done in the name of profit for mining companies and jobs for a limited number of locals. It was approved by the State of Michigan. For me this environmental ruin has left a deep hole in my soul that cannot be fixed. I have managed to compensate somewhat in recent years’ visits by spending time in still existing beautiful U.P environments. I mitigate my environmental sorrow for the loss of Cliff’s Drive in other places sacred to me.
Ruth, thank you so very much for this; it highlights a whole other dimension of the topic I had not considered. It’s one thing for teenagers to rampage through a graveyard, but bulldozers descending en masse into a mine pit is a very different kind of violation.
Your pain seeps through every one of your words in this stirring lamentation that reflects so many stark realities of the ever-developing world. Have only toured the UP once many years ago now but I well remember its grandeur, and the imagery of a mammoth mine now defacing that landscape pains me even from this distance. Friends of my age often play the “Remember when?” game of recalling what things were like in the towns of our younger days, and it’s mostly a sad, head-shaking discussion. And though change is the coin of this realm and humans, with all the conveniences and development begat by our massive brains, are part of the natural world too, there is such a thing as tasteful, graceful, human-scaled growth and change. Yet so much of the time we behold tasteless, even monstrous change, in your case, a massive, irredeemable rape of the land that destroys a treasured and pristine natural environment, and our hearts sink.
I’m not sure where this all ends, but it’s certainly an open question whether earth will survive human habitation, or more accurately, whether humans will survive their habitation of earth. And here I am, typing away on a machine that requires various mined materials from around the world. Will we develop better ways in which to flourish that do not require defacing the UPs that give us so much by way of spiritual sustenance? More open question…
All best to you in planning the activities of your own sacred space there in Lake County. I miss it!