May 2nd, 2020
There is such a thing as sacred space.
What do I mean by that? I guess I had better define the term.
To me, “sacred space” is anywhere humans allow themselves to come closer to the Other. The “Other” can be Jesus or the Buddha or the Tao or whatever. For my own convenience, I am going define this undefinable thing as “God”. So, a sacred place for me is any place where I open myself up to experience God.
Let me say upfront that I am not necessarily talking about churches or synagogues or mosques or temples. Some of these buildings truly are sacred, but not all of them. A site is not holy simply because a priest or imam or rabbi or shaman blessed it in some arcane ritual. The ceremony might confirm the fact that the spot is already sacred in some way, but a person cannot make a place holy. It doesn’t work like that.
A certain location is not always holy for all individuals. One person can encounter God up close and personal in an ashram. Another person might find the Divine in a Walmart check out line. Who can say? Moses talked to God in the Burning Bush in the desert. Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi Tree. It’s different for everyone. That being said, I think that there are certain locations on the earth where it seems easier to access God.
I’ve been to a few.
San Stefano, Assisi, Italy
The home of St. Francis radiates peace and beauty. Karin and I were there with our kids back in the summer of 1998. We got there by train late in the evening, and had supper at the Ristorante degli Orti just before they closed. Actually, we got to the restaurant after they closed, but they still let us inside. A couple old women in black were sitting at a side table counting up the day’s receipts. They looked at Karin, me, and the three tired children with compassion, and they found somebody to serve us. We were fed well with pasta and love.
The next day we wandered around the town. Assisi is built on the side of a steep hill, so two lane streets turn into one lane streets, which turn into alleys, which turn into staircases. Along one of these winding, twisting side streets was the medieval church of San Stefano. Next to the chapel was an enclosed garden. The garden had a gate, and the gate had a sign. Written on the sign, in several languages, it said:
“If you think it will do you good, come inside.”
We did. Inside the garden was a picnic table, shaded by a large tree. A nun and a laywoman greeted us enthusiastically and offered us glasses of ice water with lemon slices. It was a hot morning, so we all drank deeply. Then we rested in the shade and spoke with the women. They asked us where we were from, and how we were. They were in no hurry, and neither were we.
God was with us in that garden.
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
One might think that Jerusalem is packed full of holy places. Maybe it is. I visited there in December of 1983, and I thought some of the sites were overrated. The one structure that impressed me was the Dome of the Rock. I was in Jerusalem a long time ago, back when things weren’t quite so crazy. In those days, non-Muslims were allowed into the shrine. It was well worth seeing.
I couldn’t stop gazing at the inside of the dome. The interior was covered with an intricate pattern of mosaics. The geometry was such that I had the illusion that the dome was moving upwards and away from me. I felt an involuntary sense of wonder because the dome seemed to ascending to heaven, and I was going along for the ride. It was like being part of the story of the Prophet Muhammed.
Mary House, Catholic Worker, Manhattan, NYC, USA
Mary House is easy to miss. It is a nondescript address on a nondescript street. The windows are covered with a metal grill. We had to press a buzzer to get anybody’s attention from inside the place. A street person came to the door and invited us to enter. The interior of the Catholic Worker House is rough. Every wall could use a coat of paint. We arrived just as lunch was wrapping up. People are busy there. There are always more hungry folks to feed, more of the nearly naked to clothe, and more homeless persons to shelter. That hasn’t changed since Dorothy Day ran the operation many years ago.
However, we were warmly welcomed. Carmen stopped what he was doing to show us around. We saw their small chapel. We saw Dorothy’s old office. We saw where they work and work and work. Love doesn’t take a break at Mary House.
If there is any place on earth where people really try to live the Beatitudes, it’s at Mary House. God bless them all.
Nipponzan Myohoji Dojo, Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA
The Buddhist temple is tiny, built in a Japanese style, and surrounded by massive cedars and Douglas firs. The back of the temple is home of a high altar, covered in scarlet and gold. There is a large portrait of Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of this particular order, prominently displayed among the food offerings and flowers. Of course, the altar contains a variety of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The temple is quiet, except for twice a day, when people come to drum and chant. At all other times the place is cool and dark. It smells from decades of burning incense. It is one of the most peaceful places I have ever experienced. I have always felt at home there. I belong there.
A nameless sweat lodge on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, USA
The sweat lodge was a cloth/skin-covered dome inside of an old garage on the rez. Outside the garage were the frozen Montana plains. Inside the garage it was warm. Inside the sweat lodge it was hot. I was in there with several other men, all of us nearly naked. Almost all of the guys were Native Americans, most of them locals from Fort Belknap. There is no place darker than the inside of a sweat lodge. There are very few places that are steamier. There were only disembodied voices, chanting and speaking in tongues, praying to the Creator. It was like being in a tent with ghosts, or maybe like being in a tent with God. Scary crazy, and totally worth it.
Retreat House in the Chama River Valley near Abiquiu, New Mexico, USA
Vigils (the first morning prayer) start at 4:00 AM at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is a relatively short walk from the retreat house to the church. Karin and I took a flashlight with us. It was a moonless night. We walked along the gravel road that led to the chapel.
I stopped to look at the sky. The river valley and the surrounding mountains were blacker than black. I craned my neck to see the stars. The sky itself was ebony pierced with frozen white flames. The Milky Way flowed across the heavens like a torn, glowing river.
I couldn’t look away, but it hurt to gaze at the sky. It was beautiful in an overwhelming way. I was utterly amazed.
Wonder and awe.
I was there in 1983. I went to see Stonehenge during the day, and I remember flying near it at night in an Army helicopter. Huge monoliths in a circle. It’s a place full of secrets, and those secrets predate history. The site is utterly pagan. It’s a holy place, and mysterious. It is mysterious in the sense that it can’t ever really be understood. It just is.