Sunday, January 4, 2009


Allison asked me to write about sacred space. These days, it's an elusive subject. Holy lands can be the sites of unholy bloodshed. A piece of toast with a splotch of melted butter resembling the Madonna can become a holy relic. 

Since the old definitions don't fit, I set out five years ago to discover what sacred place is now. Over 18 months, I traveled to sacred places in the American Southwest, Europe, the Middle East and India. I found sacred places everywhere, from tiny niches in backstreet walls of 3rd world slums to glorious temples rising from pristine mountaintops. I saw people worshiping in front of video screens and making offerings to the sky. 

To say that sacred space is impossible to define is both true and a copout. To say that is personal is too easy. After countless miles of travel, meditations is all sorts of places, drawings, diagrams, discussions, etc. I've come to this—sacred space is a physical structure that opens to what is beyond the physical. It is a defined boundary that opens to what cannot be defined. 

A primal example of this is the Pantheon in Rome. The basic diagram is a dome with a circular opening at the top. On sunny days, a shaft of sunlight explodes through the opening. During thunder storm, rain pours in. What could be simpler? Yet, the precise shape of dome and circular opening break through the limits of conventional experience. Mundane perception is transcended. The intangible shimmers into the tangible. 

Pictured at the beginning of this post is the new Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California. It's a modern sacred space that draws on timeless design forms to point to the formless. What was your response when you first looked at this image? Did you wonder what it was? Were you drawn to go there?

In future posts, I'll talk about this masterpiece of modern design and about specific techniques for making, perceiving and inhabiting sacred space. Tell me what you think.


  1. I love the new cathedral and your ideas on sacred space. I look forward to your new book.

  2. So nicely said Tony. I have admired the new Cathedral of Christ the Light from the exterior and now I am inspired to see it from the inside! I think that I am drawn to the play of light and believe that the use of light plays a huge role in uplifting architecture. I look forward to reading your comments, Colleen

  3. I like Alison’s topic of request. For me, the Cathedral of Christ photo creates a feeling of connection between the earth, humans and the heavens. The space is contained, yet the light from the heavens filter into the space, reaching the humans. The dome (metal element) shape supports and guides humans into a quiet, inner connection with themselves and the heavens. The high ceilings bring hope and opportunities are limitless.