In her sermon titled We Shall Go Forth, Reverend Lo from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene speaks of wanting to build a wall of lamentation, a place to help with “the inlay of compounded fractures and compounded grief in our lives. There’s something about that ritual of writing down one’s prayers or wishes, or even the things one wishes to let go of or release, and placing them in the cracks of a wall. A wall or a structure that may not have a perpetual divine presence.”
Lo acknowledges the inspiration for this idea coming from the Western, or Wailing, Wall. And she does her due diligence to research the Wall so as not to “misappropriate a tradition that’s not ours.” I was surprised at where her research led her:
And that digging led to the discovery that there’s no ancient Jewish tradition that designates the Western Wall as a sacred site. It was actually designated as a site of prayer less than five hundred years ago and it was done so by a Muslim leader. It took more than three centuries for the wall to attract the Jewish masses and it’s only been in the last 150 years that it has become Judaism’s most sacred site.1The history of the Western Wall is also deeply intertwined with politics and power. Like many things from that region, the story varies greatly depending on who is telling it. See From Wailing to Rebirth: The Development of the Western Wall as an Israeli National Symbol After the Six-Day War
It made me wonder what is it that makes a sacred site sacred? If it isn’t the patina of time and attention, what else makes it holy?
As Lo continues her sermon, she focuses on the power of ritual:
…these are times that cry out for ritual. For ritual structure is how we celebrate and how we mourn, how we are supportive to one another, how we can be vulnerable, how we connect. Ritual invites us into a new way of being. It carries within it the ability to take what is broken and transform it. It can shift what is present to what can be. It can be a way of re-membering, of calling our selves home.
Holy Places are holy at least partly because we, humans, treat them as sacred. Every prayer, ever folded piece of paper, every candle lit, is an exchange of belief, of holiness, of the transcendence accorded by ritual. While some sacred sites are ancient and have evolved with humanity,2See Uluru in Australia. others are marked by an event.3See the Mahabodhi Temple, marking the place where Siddharta reached enlightenment and became the Buddha. Some remain sacred even when shrouded in mystery.4Stonehenge, of course.
But sacred space can also be transactional. A cathedral may cease to impart a sense of holiness upon every entrance when it is also your place of employment. By its nature, the sense of the sacred can be challenging to maintain when something becomes interwoven into our daily lives. While intention can convert routine and habits into rituals, a lack of awareness can make the most sacred place ordinary. What is holy may be bound in history but the feeling that it is sacred can only be experienced in each moment.
The entrance to my home is of no religious or historical significance. Most of the time, I cross it with my only thought being to make sure the cats do not follow me in my crossing. Yet there was a time many years ago when my job was particularly soul-sucking and arriving home after work involved a ritual. After turning off the car, I would take a deep breath, close my eyes, and say out loud “the most important part of your day, the part that truly matters, begins when you walk through that door.” I’d take two more deep breaths before getting out of my car and entering the house.
In this way, I could release all of the stress and frustration from my job, from the traffic, from the pedestrian who seemed intent on walking as slowly as possible, and bring my best self to my partner and the friends we lived with. The ritual allowed me, as Rev Lo says, to call myself home. It turned the threshold of my home into a sacred portal.5I recently read of a person who had a similar ritual, although more dramatic and energetic: I pound my feet strongly on the ground several times, I take several deep breaths, and I “shake” my body to remove any negative energies. I do this often before going to work, going into meetings, and at the front door before entering my house after a long day. ~ See Why Rituals Work
Sacred space can range from communal-based sites that are rich in pilgrimages and history to the doorknob of your office door as you whisper a prayer before starting your workday.
Nothing is sacred until we make it so with the eloquence of our attention, the poetry of our patience, the parenting warmth of our hospitality.Toko-Pa Turner, from Belonging
When are the moments you need to call yourself home? When do you need to routinely remember who you are? What space can become sacred and strengthen you on your journey?
Newgrange video still 5of5 flickr photo by Seán Doran shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license