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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 6, 2000

There are three kinds of sacred spaces, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College tells us:
    "First, 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 spaces, Rabbi Hoffman points out, are "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 dedication of the Temple was God's "moving day", so to speak. That was the day on which Yahweh "moved into" the Temple of Jerusalem.

Three kinds of sacred spaces, three kinds of holy places: the inherently holy; the historically sacred; and our own spaces that we dedicate to holiness, that we dedicate to God, or the Spirit, or whatever.

I think there might be a couple of others, too.

Our human attraction to specific holy spots goes back even before recorded history. The ancient cave paintings in southern France go back thousands of years. To the ancient Greeks, there was Mt. Olympus; likewise, Mt. Zion for the Jews-- both, it seems always considered sacred by peoples of those cultures. No one can say how long the Ganges has been sacred to Hindus. 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. (Today, interestingly, there is a Catholic Church on top, erected after the final subjugation of the native peoples.)

During my sabbatical in Mexico in 1992, my spent one 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. Over hundreds of years, 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, an old stone carved on sharp relief. This launched a huge excavation effort which ultimate 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 simple took over the holy ground of another, and erected its own holy 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, many of these ancient holy places still have something that pulls at us, that haunts us, or inspires us, or otherwise speaks to our souls.

Of the ancient cave paintings in France, Joseph Campbell has written:

    "Neither in body nor in mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and life we nevertheless owe the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. [Yet] memories of the animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into the wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of their caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep."

One of the favorite pastimes that both Elizabeth and I share is our love for visiting old churches-- and the more ancient 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. I remember once when we went to Quebec, they 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. Oh, well...)

I don't know about you, but 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 this creates in me a sense of being in sacred space.

I might not want to have much to do with the particular theology or way of doing religion being expressed in that space, but it nevertheless can stir up within me a sense of transcendence, a sense of swirling humanity of epic proportions, a sense of connection between past and present, with future running up quickly to take its place.

Every time we visit a church or temple or cathedral, 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 holy sites, there has to be a return from the pilgrimage, a coming home from the sacred, a re-entry back into the world.

The gate swings both ways, and it has to be a two-way street between heaven and earth, between secular and sacred, or what use is it? A pilgrimage with no return is not a pilgrimage; it's an escape from life. And 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, transform the world.

The only reason we go away top sacred places is to gain perspective that we can carry back into the real world. Otherwise, we're not on pilgrimage, we're 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. We can respect our homes as temples, our 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 for visitors who might happen to stop by.)

In his book, Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard suggests that 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 social world), 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 ministrations of the spirit.

Our churches can help provide that kind of sacred space in our lives-- our churches can be holy launching pads for dynamic journeys of the spirit

This little church of ours is our sacred place. As such, then, it deserves our support, and our reverence, and our care. How do we revere it? It 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.

Of course, truly holy places aren't the building or the particular spot of land. A true holy land-- a place that stir holiness in our hearts, and get us out of our seats, dancing and moving on the earth, reaching out to rebuild human cities on the earth-- needs to be a nexus where heaven and earth meets, where the sacred kisses the secular, and transforms it in its holy image.

A truly sacred space is a place where we are made especially aware of ourselves 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 sacred places and sacred spaces serve only to awaken stirrings of wholeness and holiness within us. If they don't, they're not cathedrals of the spirit; they're only fortresses of fear.

What amazing journeys we all take through these lives of ours! And how many sacred spaces, sacred places we all have-- how many places that have touched us in our own lives-- that have brought us to this day-- that have kept us going and made us who we are.

I don't know if it means anything or not, but I dreamed twice last week of my grandmother's farm in the backwoods of South Carolina, and the house my mother grew up, and which we visited every summer when I was a young boy. It's a place I haven't visited in over 30 years; on the surface of things, I'd never consider it one of the formative places in my personal history. But is there something of deeper significance there that might lie forgotten? I don't know-- but now, I wonder.

There are so many formative places and spaces abiding within any of us. And we've probably forgotten many of them, though at the time they were the center of the universe for us. But those places abide still within us, within our souls, within our beings, in who we are. They have blessed us (or cursed us, perhaps)-- but they are part of us. As Angus MacLean said: "I deeply cherish the memory of that little bit of earth where I began to have my being."

Our own sacred places connect us with our journey, and with our own histories. That, in turn, connects us with the greater epic of all humanity on this earth.

Our own holy lands speak of continuity of places and people. Here are our loved ones; here is where our hearts abide. In these places, we grow up and grow old. Here parents die, children leave, friendships crystallize and fade and perhaps crystallize again. Here we hold one another against darkness and despair, and share our words of hard-won wisdom and devastating wit. Here we continue our journeys, our pilgrimage, through this holy life. Here we can be rooted and restored, inspired to touch the world. Here we make life and love happen.

And there in that space where two souls-- two individual beings-- people like you and me-- share the gift of life and love with one another-- there, beyond any doubt, is the most holy land-- the most sacred place-- of all.

 


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