March 06, 2005

Sacred Space in Rite & Worship.

The church that I attended for most of my childhood was a modern building, rather sparsely decorated and otherwise much like my elementary school, complete with "auditorium" and halls of classrooms in the back. In other words, it was nothing special. The idea of sacred space never occurred to me until I started my scholarly study of comparative religions in earnest, reading about some of the practices in other traditions. The beauty of Muslim mosques with their intricate geometric patterns and script, the tranquility of Buddhist monasteries, and the public yet intimate Hindu and Shinto shrines, all fascinated and inspired me. I began to take interest in the sacred spaces of Christianity—-the majestic architecture of Gothic cathedrals, the small churches tucked into busy city blocks, and everything in between. I also grew more aware of the natural places which held meaning for me. Although the local church had never felt like anything special, the park at the end of my block, with its creek running through a small organic garden, had always been a place of refuge as well as play. When I was 13, I spent an entire summer cataloguing all of its plants and local wildlife in a "nature journal." As my spiritual life progressed, it made sense to try to bring my love of nature more fully into my faith, just as I had been bringing it into my poetry for years.

Anyone who has spent a morning walking through a quiet woods, watching light filter peacefully through the canopy of leaves as the sun climbs steadily higher, can appreciate the importance of setting aside space in our busy and cluttered lives. Having a sense of sacredness located within a physical place is one of the fundamental aspects of ritual. All ritual, all religious practice, happens within a physical space because we as living human beings occupy a space that is physical as well as spiritual. We must not demean the physicality of our existence--really, it is something to be celebrated. The very fact that we are alive in these complexly working bodies, against unimaginable odds, is quite literally a miracle. It's important for us to celebrate the physical world and our physical bodies. We do this through acting in the world, understanding our bodies as tools of the Divine, ways in which the Divine can manifest. We can use ritual as a purposeful way of reminding ourselves that we have physical as well as mental aspects of our spiritual lives. And we can set aside sacred space as a way of reminding us of the sacredness of all space.

A sacred space provides us with a place dedicated solely to spiritual practice. When we enter that space, we help ourselves grow more conscious of our work within the Divine. It doesn't mean that this sacred space is "good" and all other space is "dirty" or "bad" or "profane." Setting aside a special space just serves as a reminder of the sacredness of space in general--just like celebrating a birthday doesn't mean we think all other days are unimportant, but it helps to remind us to be thankful and glad for the whole of our lives. Having a sacred space gives us a place of safety, a place we can return to again and again, away from the judgments (and prejudices) of everyday life and culture, a place where we can do whatever we feel moved to do--whether that be singing out of tune, dancing "skyclad" (or, as I like to do, dancing on the coffee table using the remote as a microphone), or just meditating or praying free of distraction, seeking intimacy with God. Sacred space, even that which is temporarily "constructed" by casting a circle, provides us with security, intimacy and openness. If that space is natural (out in a secluded woods, or by a river or ocean, for instance), it reinforces that idea that, within this space, we should be "natural." We are ourselves when conscious of the divine presence, and we respect and celebrate the divinity that is within each of us, naturally, when we are ourselves. Even "man-made" places (indoors or outside) can serve as sacred spaces (obviously, the role of many churches, temples and monasteries). It's up to you and your personal tastes.

There are a couple of ways that we can bring an awareness of sacred space—-in particular, natural places, both wild and cultivated—-into our religious lives. We can explore the world around us: the parks that have been set aside as natural havens in suburbs and cities, the landscapes of rolling farms and countrysides, even the way modern architecture often comes to echo many patterns of the wilderness. We can also make scared space by setting aside a place within our own homes, yards and gardens. In the following sections, I'll talk a little about finding, creating and respecting the sacred spaces in our lives.

5 Comments:

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