It’s natural to think politics and sacred space don’t mix. The political arena roils with power plays, backroom deals and grandiose egos. Sacred space, on the other hand is often viewed as a sanctuary from such earthly turmoil. Yet, visit a temple in Varanasi, a church in Rome, or any one of the other countless holy places around the world and you will encounter profound stillness mixed with all manner of human activity, including politics.
The controversy about Ground Zero and a nearby Islamic community center expresses the modern viewpoint of separating the world into definable categories—spirit/matter, mind/body, human/natural, religion/science. This worldview helps our minds find order within the tides of change. It also causes us to feel isolated and endangered by those different from ourselves. This lens of separateness and peril distorts the world into a battleground of us against them conflicts. It increases fear and shatters hopes for a society that supports individuality while strengthening unity.
Traveling to world sacred places for decades and designing them in my architectural practice has taught me these lessons about how sacred space can heal the divides that wound us:
1. Sacred space is all encompassing. It receives all the impulses of life—creative, destructive and renewing. It invites all the characters in the play of life to gather—heaven & earth; human, animal, plant; the humble & the tyrants and everyone in between.
2. Sacred Space is enlivened by seemingly opposing forces. The gathering of all impulses in sacred space stirs stillness into flows of life that regenerate society.
3. Sacred Space embodies the archetypal human journey. The design and decoration of sacred places depict the questions every thinking person asks: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” Built in the dialect of the era they were crafted, they offer insight about navigating the challenges of this world.
4. Sacred Space points beyond itself to the silent source of all creation. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, kivas and other sacred structures are physical portals that guide attention to the nonphysical realm of the spirit. These structures can be owned by one group or another, but the spirit they access is shared by all.
5. Each generation creates sacred spaces. Wherever human beings have settled they establish sacred places. Each one honors those who have come before and offers life wisdom to those come after.
If Ground Zero is a national sacred place, let’s make it one that embodies these principles of archetypal sacred space. It will transform the site of wounding into a space of 1) all-inclusive compassion, 2) enlivened by diverse faiths and opinions, 3) supporting our individual and collective human journey, 4) pointing us beyond self-centeredness to our shared spirit, and 5) leave an example for future generations of how to live together in this world.