Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
―Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
I believe in the grounding, nourishing power of the earth beneath my feet, wherever I may be. My fast and dirty way of grounding and centering involves simply noticing the sensation of my feet touching the ground, breathing deeply, and silently affirming, By breathing deeply and feeling my feet on the ground, I bring myself into a calm and grounded state. The magical practice of grounding works no matter where you are, because the whole world is sacred.
And yet, for as long as humans have been human, we have experienced some places as more sacred than others. The sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church that I attend, the open-air chapel where my husband and I married, and landscapes such as Muir Woods, the Great Sand Dunes, and Big Bend feel sacred to me in a very literal sense of the word. They are set aside, dedicated, in a way that my front yard and the parking lot outside the hospital where I work are not, although I have practiced grounding and centering in each of these places, too. Spiritual experience, the sense of connection with something larger than ourselves, is somehow more accessible at sacred places than it is elsewhere.
What makes a physical place sacred? Are some places inherently more sacred than others? How are new sacred places created? In this essay, I explore the topic of sacred place in two parts. In the first part, I describe the qualities of existing sacred places, in order to understand how they work. In the second part, I suggest practices that will help us wake up to sacred places in our local landscape and reimagine our relationships with them.
Sacred places, which may be landforms, trees, churches, temples, or shrines, have the power to heal, inspire, and enlighten us because they are simultaneously mysterious and familiar. They are set apart, unsettling, and yet they bring us closer to ourselves, because they present us with “new imaginations of our place in the world, and of how that world works” (Dewsbury and Cloke). It is this tension, this juxtaposition, that startles us into deeper awareness and gives rise to a sense of the numinous.
Sacred places lie in liminal space.
Sacred places often lie at liminal points in the landscape, at dramatic boundaries between one space and another: mountains that mark where earth and sky meet, sacred springs and cliffs that formed along fault lines, caves that offer passage to an underground wilderness. Human-built sacred structures such as churches and temples likewise occupy liminal space in our cultural geography. The individual encounters community and culture in the church or temple building. Doorways and hearths, commonly the site of personal and family protective spells, lie at transition points, where the outer literally meets the inner, where our private and public lives overlap.
Sacred places compel us to pay attention.
Mountains, springs, and caves are impossible to ignore, when you encounter them. They compel us to pay attention to the world around us, and they evoke a sense of wonder. When my family and I visited Carlsbad Caverns several years ago, my three-year old daughter gazed around and whispered, “a big, big, big, big, big cave,” and my five-year old son’s face glowed in the darkness as he uttered, “I have never been underground before.” Spontaneous prayers of awe and wonder.
When we experience this kind of fresh wonder, we communicate directly with our Younger Self, or Sticky One, who experiences the world as an enchanted place, alive with the sensuality of light, smell, sound, taste, and touch. And it is Younger Self who connects us with our Deep Self or God Soul (Starhawk 45-46).
Sacred places are storied.
Sacred places are often keys to memory and myth. The stories they keep may be hortatory, as with landmarks used for navigation. The Blossom Rock Navigation Trees in present-day Oakland, California, for example, were used by sailors as a guide to avoid striking their ships against the perilous Blossom Rock, submerged just a few feet below the surface of San Francisco Bay, until the trees were cut down in the nineteenth century (California Office of Historic Preservation).
image by Jesper Jurcenoks via Wikimedia Commons
Or sacred places may be imbued with myth, such as Mt. Olympus, home of the ancient Greek gods, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, where walked the mythical hero Finn McCool, or the Mahabodhi Temple in India, where grows a descendant of the Bodhi Tree, the mythical fig tree under which the Buddha meditated for seven days before achieving enlightenment.
The stories associated with sacred places communicate the wisdom of our ancestors and convey cultural values to new generations. Sacred places are not only the settings for stories, but important characters in their own rights, with background, identity, and agency. Sacred places know things others don’t, as with the cave on Mt. Ida, where Rhea nurtured the infant Zeus in secrecy. They incite imagination and adventure, and they serve as obstacles or aids to the characters in our stories.
Sacred places are sites of repeated ritual.
Prayers and other offerings are made, and generations of births, marriages, and deaths celebrated at sacred places. They are places to which pilgrimages are undertaken, as with Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion. The rituals performed at a particular place build up layers of symbolic meaning over time, transforming it from mundane to sacred, continuously reconsecrating both the physical place and those who visit it.
Significantly, the ritual required to sacralize a place costs us something: our “time, talent, and treasure,” as we say in my Unitarian Universalist congregation. The money necessary to build monuments, restore a historic structure, or protect a natural environment. The time and effort of making a pilgrimage. The flowers, incense, water, wine, or oil for an offering. When we invest in repeated ritual, we invest our sacred places with value, which in turn motivates us to continue investing ourselves there.
Because they are physically or culturally liminal, because their striking appearances compel our attention, and because they are imbued with story and ritual, sacred places have the power to shake us into awareness. They are simultaneously real, familiar physical places and unreal, mysterious places that reflect back to us the quality of our own attention, imagination, and values (cf. Foucault’s heterotopias, unreal, perfect representations of society enacted on real, physical sites). Sacred places are sites where it is easier to communicate with our Deep Self, places where something within us shifts in response to something without.
In Part 2 of this essay, I will describe Pagan practices that can help us wake up to the sacred in our local physical places and reimagine our relationships with them.
California Office of Historic Preservation. “Site of Blossom Rock Navigation Trees.” Listed California Historical Resources, ohp.parks.ca.gov/ListedResources/Detail/962. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
Dewsbury, J.D., and Paul Cloke. “Spiritual Landscapes: Existence, Performance, and Immanence.” Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 10, no. 6, 2009, pp. 695-711. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.1080/14649360903068118. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5, 1984, pp. 46-49. Conférence au Cercle d’études architecturales, 14 Mar 1967, foucault.info/doc/documents/heterotopia/foucault-heterotopia-en-html. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.“
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 20th Anniversary ed., HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.