What makes a place sacred? Is it because someone or some group has said it is sacred? Or is it because there are prayers, rituals, or ceremonies done there to designate the place as sacred? Does it matter if a place is sacred to one person but not to another? Is sacredness subjective or objective? Or is there some standard to measure the sacredness of a location?
For Valentine’s Day, I received an unexpected gift from my beloved. It was a two inch thick hard-bound book entitled, 1000 Sacred Places: The World’s Most Extraordinary Spiritual Sites, by Christoph Engels. The other evening, I sat alone in our living room with our house cat nestled beside me and for two hours I paged through the book. The book is arranged by geography. At first I looked for sacred places in countries from where I know people, like Uzbekistan, Ghana, and Vietnam. I searched for sites in my family’s ancestral homelands: Hungary and Slovakia. I want to pages of places I’ve visited, including Lindisfarne on the northern British coast, the Australian out-back, and Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The sacred places listed in the book represent the wealth of diversity among the great religious and spiritual traditions of the world.
After paging through the book, I began to think more about what makes a place sacred. Our English word, “sacred,” is derived from the Latin verb sacrare meaning to make holy or to set apart. In thinking about the Latin verb sacrare, what strikes me most is that it sacredness is about action: to make holy. I suspect that it’s a common conception that something sacred is something that’s so special that it’s never used but kept in a safe place and not touched, like a rare family heirloom kept in a locked cabinet and prized by family members. Instead, something is sacred because it is made sacred. In other words, it is used by people for something special that is related to their deepest longings.
As I think back to each of the homes I’ve had since I was an adult, there’s always been a place that was sacred to me. Sometimes, it was a separate room that I reserved for prayer, meditation and spiritual reading – like my private chapel. More often, it’s been a particular spot where I sit each morning for meditation. In my present home, that’s a particular corner of my home office. This designation of place at home for prayer is rooted in my Slavic background. Eastern European Christians traditionally have a corner in the home for a special icon or statue as a place of prayer. Once I’ve established a sacred place in my home by sitting for meditation there regularly, it becomes something of a touch-stone: a place where I quickly find myself centered and inwardly focused.
So it is with sacred places throughout the world. Because of their repeated use by people throughout the generations, these places have become sacred places where people encounter the luminous dimension of life. It may be a shrine to which people make pilgrimage. Or perhaps it is a mountain where people have sought for visions to direct their lives. Or a place of a significant event that has spiritual meaning to a group of people. Whatever the location, it is made sacred by its use.
I wonder if others are like me. Have you created a place in your home or your environment that you would consider sacred? How have you used it to make it sacred? Is it a place you can share with others?
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.