Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sacred Places Make Us Human

Sacred places are usually associated with something beyond this world. I see them as portals into this world. One reason is that sacred places seem to be as essential to being human as food, shelter and clothing. Wherever human beings have settled, they established sacred places. Even those who don't believe in the divine have places where they find peace and vitality. A baseball fan friend of mine, once said, "Standing in Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs) is like standing on the banks of the Ganges." The most analytical scientist is moved by the sight of his laboratory.

Here's what I've discovered about the ways sacred places deepen our humanity. Contrary to their image as environments that promote purity and exclude impurities, sacred places invite all impulses into a circles of inclusiveness. The ring of Stonehenge, the dome of St. Peters, the courtyard around the Kaaba in Mecca, the cylinder of the Great Kiva at Chaco Canyon, and countless other places draw welcoming circles in the garden of the world. Here, all the characters in the human drama gather to be revitalized by the currents of energy and wisdom that power and guide existence. The skill of sacred places is that their circles of inclusiveness are not stages for conflict. They are cauldrons where opposing forces stir the pot of creation. Sacred emblems such as the Cross, the Star of David and the Yin/Yang symbol depict how opposing forces come together to ignite the spirit and distill insight. Paintings and sculpture often narrate the detailed accounts of the struggles and breakthroughs that make the journey through life human. 

The rituals performed in sacred places are more about the human beings making offerings than the divine receivers of those offerings. Placing a cup of flowers into the waters of a holy river allows the giver to sense the flow of life through her heart, mind and hands. Baptism and communion do nothing to change the infinite; these acts open the worshipper to the mystery of the infinite.

Here's an outrageus statement. Sacred places have nothing to with religion. They are used by religions to invite people through the doors of their belief systems to what is beyond those belief systems. Temples, churches, mosques and other religious structures are often built on top the sacred structures of the cultures that previously inhabited those spots. As the belief systems changed, they shaped new styles of architecture. These styles spoke in the language of the era and sent out the call in words the people of that time could understand. Once through the gates of the new cathedral, synagogue, or shrine, people encountered the same process of encountering forms that pointed beyond themselves to the transcendent. All the characters of humanity dipped into that soulful pool and went back to their homes and workplaces with their humanity deepened.

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