Sacred Spaces: Without and Within
“To have a sacred space is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.” ~Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
One of my closest friends, Natalie, a dark-haired, soulful poet, wrote about contemplative spaces as a Masters student at the University of York, U.K. while we were both graduate students there. She wrote about depictions of contemplative space in texts of the past, and she considered how more secular versions are arising that harken back to these religious spaces. As both Natalie and I were runners, we regularly set out together across the peaceful, varied landscape that skirted a golf course just outside the university campus, past a stately wall of populars, along muddy fields, winding through a lovely copse of trees, discussing our writing for that week. I remember, as I listened to her describe some meaningful contemplative spaces in her own life, I felt a profound resonance and kinship with Natalie. I had been awed speechless by the mysterious majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City while visiting as a teenager. Years later, on a college campus, I was invited into a tiny, spare, white-washed private chapel with a single stained glass window, where I experienced a strange, indeterminate longing almost like homesickness: a sense that this kind of still, holy and simple space was a missing, fundamental need in my life. Entering limestone cloisters and grand cathedral spaces at Oxford always caused me to feel more connected to spirit: a response intended by their design. Yet, for all my exposure to, and reverence for, contemplative and sacred spaces, I had never spent much time considering why they felt so transportive to me: transportive into the realm of spirit, out of the temporary and trivial, and into the transcendent. Later that year at York, after many runs together, I had the privilege of reading Natalie’s work in which she elucidated how a contemplative space, while sometimes soaring, palatial, and ornate like a cathedral, could just as easily be a sparse, white room with only a chair and a solitary window. Both types of space are nourishing, and we need both.
Sometimes we benefit from the opulent cathedral, mosque, or stately temple when our souls crave the lofty and sublime. The cathedral is like taking in an exquisite work of fine art: being rendered breathless by a symphony or handling a precious medieval manuscript, extravagantly illuminated with gold and lapis lazuli. While it is common for people to question the need for high brow art, and to mock it, honing in on its potential to be exclusive and elitist, there remains the solid argument that fine art elevates the human spirit, showing us what is possible, giving us something beyond the ordinary to strive for; it ennobles us. Entering a cathedral functions like this. A cathedral’s proportions and exquisite craftsmanship are humbling to our finite, limited selves. We are primed to feel reverence as we stand diminutive within the magnificence and vastness of such a space. A cathedral’s vaulted ceilings and its turrets to the sky call us upwards, directing our gaze beyond and above ourselves, to that which is outside of our earthly understanding. It is good for our souls to be reminded that we have not and could not make all this beauty and grandeur, that there is that which lies beyond. Being within a cathedral is also often an exultant experience as music or recited prayer echo off each mighty chamber, and our whole being becomes filled with the vibration, our senses enraptured, immersed in glory and sound.
As much as I hunger after cathedral experiences, I would never want to stay there permanently, within those towering walls because I also crave intimacy. When I’m feeling particularly world-weary and overstimulated, I want to seek out someplace spare and modest, lovely in its simplicity. I desire a space like a monastic room. I want to feel that all else has been stripped away and that it is just me and my higher power meeting together, with all the complications of this world and its posturing gestures outside our line of vision.
I remember, in my early twenties, reading the writings of Julian of Norwich, a medieval English anchoress and mystic, and feeling surprised at how compelling her life and her insights were to me. If you have not encountered Julian of Norwich, I recommend learning about her and reading her Revelations of Divine Love. As an anchoress, Julian chose to be sealed within the walls of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich so that she could devote her life to prayer and closeness to God. If ever a woman dwelt in a simplicity of purpose and soul, it was she. She wrote, “My, how busy we become when we lose sight of how God loves us.” When I feel too fragmented, too scattered by activity and the cares of life, I yearn for a still, bare space where I can reconnect with spirit, with essence. We need quiet, unadorned spaces to reunite intimately with what really matters. Unlike the triumphant quality of a cathedral experience, a plain monastic space is more sobering, more likely to remind us that we can get by on fewer physical comforts and certainly on less stimulation. Even that realization is heartening. If we can settle ourselves down long enough in this barren room, we can begin to perceive that we already have all that we need.
Recently, I began reading Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage, by Episcopal bishop Steven Charleston who, as a member of the Choctaw Nation, is a respected spokesperson for Indigenous communities as well as an environmental activist and champion of spiritual regeneration in North America. Bishop Charleston introduced me to the concept of a “kiva” as another hallowed space for spiritual contemplation. The kiva is commonly found among Native American peoples in the Southwest. In Charleston’s words:
“The kiva is a square or circular underground chamber, covered by a roof of wooden beams with an opening in the center. You enter a kiva the same way you enter a submarine: by descending the ladder. Once inside the packed earth chamber of a kiva, you are in darkness. Without a fire in the kiva, the only light comes from above you. To reach it, you have to ascend the ladder” (1).
Bishop Charleston likens being inside the kiva to being within a womb, the womb of earth from which we all originate. It is easy to see how this perspective predisposes an individual to prize and protect the earth. He explains that the kiva “serves the same function as a cathedral, as a place of worship. Yet while a cathedral’s soaring arches or mosque’s great domes are designed to point us upward, the kiva is intended to point us downward. The spiritual focal point is not above us, but below. We are not to look up, but down. What we seek is not in the sky, but in the earth” (1).
The kiva teaches us about the sacredness of darkness, encouraging us to let go of our fear of it and to embrace it as a natural part of our narrative. This is a message for our time, with all the darkness we have seen through the pandemic, the ugliness of racism on full display, and now the war against Ukraine. We urgently need to learn not only how to cope with the darkness but how to embrace it as necessary for our strength. Charleston writes, “The kiva symbolizes…spiritual resilience. It reminds us that we began in darkness — not the stark, ominous darkness we imagine we face today, but the nurturing darkness of the womb; a place of formation and growth” (2). The kiva encourages us not to panic in a time of darkness, telling us, “that if we are in a time of darkness, we need not be afraid of it, because it is only the beginning for us. In other words: we have been down this spiritual road before. The kiva tells us we have been through the process of birth and rebirth more than once. As a people, we have entered into darkness before, only to emerge into light” (3). This message shares similarities with that of Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. It is a message of turning and facing that which threatens to frighten or overwhelm us, of inviting it in and communing with it, until we have been taught by it and are ready to move beyond.
The notion that spirit can be strengthened and nourished by willingly, peacefully going lower, into the dark, and not always by stretching and straining upwards to the light is a fascinating, recent concept for me. I think it first gripped me while skimming Underland: A Deep Time Journey by the brilliant Robert Macfarlane. I should qualify that I skimmed the book not because it isn’t masterfully written and fascinating but simply because I was too busy reading middle grade and young adult books for our middle school book club and for library book talks at the time. I would love to return to this book again. Underland takes us down into the worlds under our feet, awakening awe to that which lies in the dark, hidden beneath us. Macfarlane notes that, across cultures and epochs of history, under the earth is where human beings “have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.” We bury things that we want to remain hidden, but we also bury those we love, that which we wish we could preserve. People instinctively, no matter when or where in history, have recognized a sacredness to the “underland.”
While we all need external sanctuaries to turn to, whether above or below ground, the kiva and Macfarlane’s work remind me of the deep and hidden internal landscape we all carry and need to cultivate. We talk about needing to get “to the core,” or to “the bottom of things.” We strive to “boil things down,” or to “distel things down,” to “unearth” our (or other’s) feelings, memories, or intentions. We use a lot of imagery that involves going lower, sinking downward in order to arrive at revelation or catharsis. This can be no accident. Reading Charleston’s account of the kiva reminded me of a particularly valuable chapter in Glennon Doyle’s popular book Untamed. While I didn’t agree with everything in Doyle’s book, there were a few chapters that have not left me and that I found particularly valuable. Her chapter entitled, “Know,” is one of them. Here’s what she says:
“What I learned (even though I am afraid to say it) is that God lives in this deepness inside me….I now take orders only from my own Knowing. Whether I’m presented with a work, personal, or family decision — a monumental or tiny decision — whenever uncertainty rises, I sink. I sink beneath the swirling surf of words, fears, expectations, conditioning, and advice — and feel for the Knowing. I sink a hundred times a day. I have to, because the Knowing never reveals a five-year plan. It feels to me like a loving, playful guide, like the reason it will only reveal the next right thing is that it wants me to come back again and again, because it wants to do life together. After many years, I’m developing a relationship with this Knowing: We are learning to trust each other… I learned that if I want to rise, I have to sink first. I have to search for and depend upon the voices of inner wisdom instead of voices of outer approval. This saves me from living someone else’s life ” (58,59).
In my own life, I am finding this sinking imagery incredibly helpful. When I sense there is a decision to make, and the way seems unclear, I often now imagine myself sinking inward into the still, quiet place down deep, calling humbly for guidance. It is amazing what is revealed the more I do this and the more patient I am as I wait to receive answers. That inner knowing is a sacred space that any of us can visit on a moment’s notice, at any given time in our day. It is ever available. We need not seek out a cathedral, clear out a room in our homes to resemble a monastic space, or pen revelations by the natural light of a cloister. We don’t have to travel to a kiva. All of these physical spaces help to meet some of our spiritual needs, but it is beautiful when we discover the sacred space within that no outer conditions: no bad weather, no difficult people, no pandemic, can keep us from accessing.
Do you have a favorite sacred space? Take a moment to reflect upon what you gain by inhabiting that space for a while. Can you think of some sacred spaces you could visit more often, or is there a way you could create a sacred space within your own home? Are you well-acquainted with your own, internal, spiritual landscape? When might you practice sinking into that quiet place of peaceful knowing?
Melissa Williams blogs about literature, nature, and transcendence at oftheblueflower.com. The Blue Flower also has a Facebook Group that we hope you will join. There we discuss the topics covered in this blog, share inspiration and photos, and build a community with a mutual appreciation for literature, beauty, art, nature, spirituality, and transcendence. You can also follow The Blue Flower on Twitter @OfTheBlueFlower and on Instagram at of_the_blue_flower.