How do we define sacred space? This article from On Being got me thinking about this question. While the article speaks specifically of built spaces like churches, I began to wonder about the places that exist all around us. What makes a place, especially a place in the natural world, sacred?
We live in a world where the concept of sacred space is misunderstood, and often simply dismissed. The idea that a place could have a sacred, spiritual dimension is thought of as a relic of another time. The very idea strikes hard against our Western way of thinking, with its faith in the empirical and its search for predictable certainty. Oddly enough, this sentiment comes not just from secular corners but from religious ones as well.
Modern religious thought, at least in the Christian tradition that I was brought up in, tends to accept the epistemological conclusions of a dualistic worldview without actually realizing it. It stresses the transcendent nature of God over immanence, and leads to the conclusion that a place can only be sacred if it has been properly set aside as such. Churches and cathedrals might be considered sacred spaces, but they are only sacred in the sense that they provide an escape from the outside world and remind us of our non-material, spiritual nature. Their intent is to turn us away from the world, not to dwell within it. To suggest that the place itself has a depth of sacredness that is inherent in its physicality is considered pagan or worse.
The consequences of such a view are profound. Such theology forces us to become “dis-placed”, to feel that we are not at home no matter where we are. This distancing from the stuff of everyday life means that we also become free to exploit the land on which we live without any further thought. And if we can treat the land like an object to be exploited, what is to stop us from dehumanizing its human occupants as well? Coming from a faith tradition that centers its theology on incarnation, on the physicality of the divine, these consequences seem especially ironic and tragic.
Still, I find myself unsatisfied with the opposite approach, which simply says “all the earth is sacred”, and leaves it at that. I don’t disagree with this statement, but are there certain places that hold a more sacred dimension than others? We certainly find this in more traditional indigenous religious thought. There are certainly sacred groves and places where the proverbial veil is thin, these liminal spaces where the spirits walk more visibly. What makes these places sacred?
I think that the answer can only be found by entering into a relationship with the land that removes any notion of treating the land like an object. The land must be assumed to have a voice and a language, and it is the imperative of the dweller on the land to learn it. Perhaps the definition is personal and individual, but I suspect that it best understood communally. That is the wisdom in religious tradition in the first place: passing on knowledge of the sacred places to preserve them for future generations. Wisdom is ultimately connected to place because it is most clearly manifest in knowing a certain place. Wisdom without connection to place is just disembodied knowledge.
In my last blog, I spoke about the tendency to only equate nature with the pristine. This is relevant here as well. To the extent that we do find spaces in nature sacred, we generally limit this to places that we consider impressive based on our aesthetic sensibilities. I won’t deny that the impressive places I’ve visited, like Mt. Hood or Crater Lake, have a transcendence to them that is apparent. It’s not hard to have a spiritual experience in such a place. But if only these places are sacred, then we find ourselves able to trample our own neighborhoods underfoot without much thought.
A place becomes sacred when it reveals to us, in its own time and manner of speaking, what it truly is. This isn’t some sort of gnostic hidden knowledge. This is the truth hidden in plain sight, the fact of the interrelated nature of all life and the unique way that each organism contributes to the whole. When we can learn this from a place, I think that we can call it a sacred space. The most sacred spaces are the ones that reveal this to us time and time again, often with different nuance each time. And these places also show us our own interdependence, our own place in this complex web of life. Their sacredness comes in the wisdom that they communicate.