Sacred spaces “have the ability
to push the mundane from our thoughts
and lift us to a heightened sense of awareness.”
– Rebecca Hand, Sacred Places –
If life is a journey, sacred places are scenic lookouts for our souls. More often than not, we simply happen upon them, although once we’ve found them, we know what to look for when we need to pull back from life’s “sound and fury,” as Shakespeare said in Macbeth. (The whole phrase is “sound and fury signifying nothing,” which also may be appropriate.)
Sacred spaces are settings that encourage us to sense the spiritual side of life, to rest, if only for a moment, in the Mystery that transcends the mortal world. When I still myself in a sacred space, my spirit feels larger than my physical body, as if my spirit is pushing to escape its boundaries. I feel that if my physical body were to dissolve, my spirit would expand ever wider to embrace transcendent peace, goodness, and beauty. Maybe that’s the feeling we call awe.
The word numinous also seems to fit. Theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto created the word in the early 1900’s. In a summary of Otto’s works in Masterpieces of Christian Literature, editor Frank Magill describes numinous as:
- “the experience of the holy that can be evoked but not defined”
- “a creature-consciousness or creature-feeling, when a person feels himself overwhelmed by and responds to an overpowering might”
- feeling “submerged and as nothing”
- knowing yourself to be “a creature in confrontation with that which is above all creatures”
- “evoked by art and by the sublime; it appears in music . . . and in silence.”
Maybe that’s what A.A. Milne was describing so simply in The House at Pooh Corner when he wrote, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.” One thing religions can do for us is provide places to connect with Poetry and Hum. With the numinous.
Or not. All my life I attended church at least three times a week, but until I sat atop a mountain in Switzerland (see last week’s post), I had never felt a sacred connection, the Poetry and Hum of the Divine. I had always viewed God as a distant, holy accountant entering our good and bad deeds in a ledger; or a teacher with a grade book and red pen in hand, watching and grading us from somewhere high above. It’s a common blind belief of childhood in some faith communities. As the Christmas song says,
You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,
You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why . . .
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake,
He knows when you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
But the view from the mountaintop changed my view of God. Not instantly, but it expanded my vision, and little by little, I came to see that God is not a divine accountant or a holy grade-giver. Nor is God is distant. God is Unconditional Love and Grace, as close as my next breath. Closer actually. I believe that God is within and around us always. If we could turn around fast enough, we might actually see the Divine. If our eyes were structured a bit differently, we might catch a glimpse of God. If our hearing were a bit more acute than a dog’s, we might hear God. None of that would make the Mystery any less mysterious.
The range of a dog’s hearing, the speed of light, the interplay of time and space – so much that was once mysterious has been explained, including many phenomena previously attributed to God’s mysterious ways (which only makes them less mysterious, not less God’s). On the other hand, scientists and researchers are still looking into matters they don’t understand. Like string theory. String theory may someday be proved incorrect, but the possibilities are intriguing. Even more intriguing is the fact that there are possibilities – in every branch of science and research. Every discovery raises more questions. Mystery exists. As long as there are mysteries, there’s room for Poetry and Hum. As for the Sacred, mystery doesn’t make room for God. God makes room for mystery.
I’ll share more thoughts about sacred spaces in next week’s post. Meanwhile, spend some time in a sacred space, and have a wonderful week.
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Text and photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.