Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 2, 2007
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College in New York tells us that there are three kinds of sacred spaces:
"First,” he writes, “there are sites of inherent sacredness, like the Grand Canyon, or just a forest or stream, field or mountain, as in Native American religion, Moses' burning bush and Jacob's dream place-- biblical examples-- are likewise holy because God already dwells there. As Jacob says when he awakens, 'Surely God is in this place, and I didn't know it.'"
Second, Rabbi Hoffman points out, there are places of historical sacredness: he cites the original Stations of the Cross, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. These are otherwise ordinary places that have become sacred by the presence of Jesus or Mohammed or some other prophetic figure.
The third kind of sacred space which Rabbi Hoffman points out is "our own churches, synagogues, ashrams, or mosques. This kind of sacred site," he continues, "is connected neither with the history of a place nor with its own inherent sacredness. These are our own dedicated creations that just happen to be built in one place rather than another, but which then make a place holy by virtue of their being there." Rabbi Hoffman cites the example of Solomon's Temple: There was nothing holy about the spot on which the Temple was built, he says, until Solomon dedicated it to God, and it began to be used for religious purposes. The day of the dedication of the Temple was the day God "moved in”, so to speak. That was the day on which the Temple of Jerusalem came to be considered “holy”. Before that, it was just a building.
There are three kinds of sacred spaces, three kinds of holy places, Rabbi Hoffman tells us: the inherently holy; the historically sacred; and our own spaces that we dedicate to holiness or to God, or the Spirit, or whatever.
I think there might be a couple of other kinds of holy lands, as well:
Our human attraction to specific “holy” places goes back even before recorded history. To the ancient Greeks, there was Mt. Olympus; to the ancient Jews, there was Mt. Zion—both of these mountains, it seems, were considered sacred by peoples of those cultures for as long as anyone can remember; long before there was any established religious tradition among these different peoples. No one can say how long the Ganges has been sacred to the people of India. The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Central Mexico-- more than 200 feet high; more than 1300 feet long on each side-- was built over the ruins of four previous pyramids and temples. One culture after another, would choose to erect a pyramid on that very same spot. (Today, interestingly, there is a Catholic Church on top, erected after the final subjugation of the native peoples of central Mexico in the 16th century.)
During my sabbatical in Mexico in 1992, we spent a night in Cholula, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. We also spent several nights at the archeological site at Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City. For centuries, Teotihuacan was considered a holy spot by generations of different Mesoamerican cultures. Indeed, the name "Teotihuacan" means "the place of the gods". (While we were there, there was a massive thunder storm in the middle of the night. With lightning flashing and thunder shaking the windows and lights flickering and finally going out, we learned firsthand how such a place could be seen as the dwelling place of the holy-- the mighty and powerful.)
Similarly, in late February, 1978, while laying cables under the Zocalo, or main square, in Mexico City, workmen discovered ancient carvings on old stones. This launched a huge excavation effort which ultimately yielded the ruins of the Templo Major-- the main temple of the ancient Aztecs-- built directly adjacent to (and even under) the spot where Mexico City's cathedral was erected in 1573. So, one culture simply confiscated the holy ground of another, and erected its own sacred dwellings right over those of the earlier culture. (If this ground was holy enough for the Aztecs, the Spanish Catholic hierarchs must have thought, it's good enough for us...)
Indeed, there is often something about such ancient holy places that still pulls at us, haunts us, or even still inspires us.
One of the favorite pastimes that both Elizabeth and I share is our love for visiting old churches-- and the older the better. (This gets to be kind of a mania with the two of us sometimes, I'm afraid, which our children suffered through mercilessly on just about every vacation trip we ever took. Other families go to Disney World; we went to old churches. I remember once on a visit to Quebec, the kids even had a contest to see how many churches they would be dragged through in the five or six days we were there. They predicted that the number of churches would be somewhere between, like, 17 or 20. It ended up being 22 or 23, I think.)
Still, I don't know about you, but I know I feel transported whenever I step inside a really old house of worship. The beauty of the stained glass windows, the ceiling reaching up toward the sky, the wonderful echoes, the vastness of the enclosed space, the sense of history-- all of this creates within me a sense of being in a place that’s somehow someplace other than this earthly coil.
It probably has very little to do with the particular theology or the way religion is practiced in that space, but it nevertheless can stir up within me a sense of transcendence, a sense of swirling history of epic proportions, a sense of connection between past and present, between this transient world and the world of the eternal that lies beyond.
Every time we visit a church or a temple, we are making a mini-pilgrimage out of this mundane world and toward a greater realm of the Spirit. We are moving from secular to sacred, from everyday to eternal. When we enter sacred space, the things of this world (power, position, wealth, class) mean nothing any longer. They are the baubles and trappings of life, which the world can give or take away. On holy ground, we are stripped down to our bare humanity as we stand before the Holy.
"What does it mean to have a sacred place?" Bill Moyers once asked Joseph Campbell.
"This is an absolute necessity for anybody today," Campbell replied. "You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation..."
But even after we have taken our pilgrimages to our holy lands, there has to be a return from the pilgrimage, a coming home from the sacred, a re-entry back into the world. There has to be a two-way street between this world and that beyond, between secular and sacred, or what’s the use? A pilgrimage with no return is not a pilgrimage; it's an escape from life. Any religion worth its salt can't be founded on escape. It has to engage the world, and commune with it, and seek in its own way to transform reality and change the world.
The only reason we go away to sacred places is to gain a new way of seeing things that we can carry back with us into the real world. Otherwise, we're not pilgrims, we’re just tourists; we’re not on pilgrimage, we're simply on a junket, an excursion-- which might be fine, but not if we want to call ourselves religious men and women.
Sometimes, we have to travel far to find out what's really near. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we first started
And to know that place for the first time.
Ancient cathedrals and mammoth temples and pyramids can stir our sense of the sacred. But so can places much closer to home. Maybe, first of all, we have to look upon our own homes as holy places.
The Japanese take off their shoes before entering their homes so the dirt of the world can't enter. (Interestingly, Czechs do pretty much the same thing, and every Czech home has several extra pairs of slippers, called pantofel, for visitors who might happen to stop by.)
In his book, Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard suggests that our houses help to heighten our sense of the sacred because they shelter us in three ways:
First, they protect our solitude and provide us with a place where can dream;
Second, they protect our intimacy with others;
And finally, they "give our memories a home".
By protecting us against the harshness of the world (both the natural world and the world of society), our homes connect us with our memories and with our dreams and with those who mean the most to us in life. Home-- that place where we belong-- that place where "everybody knows our name"-- is the central holy land from which our journeys of wholeness and discovery begin.
Of course, in affirming our belief in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are part, we declare, as a religious people, that all the earth is holy ground, and that every spot on earth is potentially sacred.
But to find that sacredness in life, we have to let go of the narrow things of the world; we have to open our hearts, and be receptive to the way the spirit is moving within us.
Our churches can help provide that kind of sacred space in our lives; they can be holy launching pads for dynamic journeys of the spirit.
This little church of ours may not be as grand as some great European cathedral (though it does have its own simple beauty). But in the spirit of a church at work, there is more life-giving power than in the grandest architectural masterpiece turned museum. A couple of summers ago, Elizabeth and I visited the cathedral at Chartres in France—perhaps Europe’s finest example of Christian architecture. As a museum, or as a monument to human creativity, Chartres is magnificent. But as a church—as a place for worship, or as a place where people engage to transform the world—it’s just about dead. There’s a lot more real spiritual work going on here in this little church in Stoughton than there is in Chartres.
Of course, really being a holy place isn’t about the building or the particular spot of land. A true holy land-- a place that stirs wellsprings of holiness in our hearts, and get us out of our seats and dancing and moving and working on the earth needs to be a true nexus where heaven and earth meet, where the sacred communes with the secular, and transforms it in its holy image.
A truly holy land is a place where we are made especially aware of who we truly are, and are reminded time and time again that we are part of something greater than ourselves (however we might define that something greater).
Scott Peck reminds us that the English root of the word "holy" is the word "whole". Holy places help to make us whole; they are not destinations unto themselves, but are, rather, way stops on our journeys toward wholeness.
Our outward holy places serve to awaken stirrings of wholeness and holiness within us. They open our hearts to the mysteries and wonders of the spiritual life. If they don't do that, they're not cathedrals of the spirit; they're only fortresses of fear.
What amazing journeys we all take through these lives of ours! How many holy lands we have all visited, and dwelt within-- how many sacred places have touched our own lives, and have brought us to this day, and have kept us going.
There are so many formative places and spaces abiding within any of us. Even though we've probably forgotten many of them, they abide still within our souls. They have rendered their blessings (or even their curses) unto us, and are now a part of us, eternally. As Angus MacLean once said: "I deeply cherish the memory of that little bit of earth where I began to have my being."
I know that whenever I visit Woonsocket, the city where I was born and where I grew to consciousness—an unremarkable, somewhat decrepit old city if there was one—I have a deep sense of belonging that I experience nowhere else in the entire world. That old mill town is sacred to me; it is my premier holy land, for it was there that I was first granted the sacred gift of life. When we commune with the soul of a particular place, we see more clearly into our own souls.
Our own sacred places connect us with our journeys, and with our own histories. That, in turn, connects us with the great human story upon this earth.
A holy land is a place which speaks to us of continuity and community. It keeps us rooted in who we truly are. As Roberta Nelson has written:
“Here are our loved ones; here is where our heart abides. In these places, we grow up and [grow] old. Here parents die, children leave… friendships crystallize. Here we huddle against darkness and despair. Here we can make life and love happen.”
There in that space where two souls-- two individual beings-- people like you and me-- share our lives of hard-won wisdom and devastating irony together-- there, beyond any doubt, is the most holy land-- the most sacred place-- of all.