Here is a talk that I gave last month to our local interfaith breakfast group. My theme was sacred places in religious traditions.
A few years ago I wrote this book of Christian devotional theology: You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Upper Room Books, 2006). The subject is the spirituality of the sense of place. I began with the observation that, although I received quite a bit of religious instruction as a kid, attending Sunday school at our small town church in Vandalia, IL, my most ongoing sense of religious feeling that rooted everything else was the physical space of our small church. I wondered about how the sense of place informs our religious feelings.
The title comes from Psalm 18, and my explorations had to do with ways that God creates spiritual place in our lives in the context of specific physical places.
I asked several friends to share places in their lives that they specially associate with religious growth or religious insight, whether or not it was a “big” spiritual experience. One friend talked about her college dorm room being a special place of religious growth and reorientation following her brother’s suicide. Several people recalled family farms and rural places, and several remembered places of particular beauty, like the ocean and the mountains. Another friend even talked about the way she hid under her bed as a child to get away from her loud brothers and began to feel God’s presence in the comfort of that room.
I also talked about difficult places, like accident sites or places associated with some disaster, like battlefields and the like. Cemeteries generally can be sacred places in this informal scene, but of tragedy and comfort.
For this group, I decided to dig a little more into the subject before coming back around to personal sacred places.
There are a number of “big” spiritual places,” which I didn’t really consider in this book but which are part of our religious heritage.
In his article “The Temple Mount as Sacred Space,” Tzi Freeman notes that the Bible contains what he calls “dual systems,” like Heaven and earth, G-d and humans, Creator and created, etc. Sometimes they meet, and these we might call the sacred places beloved in different world religions.
In Judaism, for instance, there is the Temple Mount, said to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, the threshing floor that David purchased from Araunah the Jebusite, and the site of the two Temples. It is the place where where God chose the divine Presence in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Of course, the Temple’s destruction is mourned on Tisha B’Av, and Jews do not walk on the Mount itself. There are also four holy cities associated with different times in Jewish life: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius.
In Christianity, sacred sites include those in Jerusalem and Israel associated with Jesus’ life.
The holiest sites common to all Muslims are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Specific holy places are the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque sites, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also called the Noble Sanctuary and is the Temple Mount in Jewish heritage. The holiest sites in Shia Islam are the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, and the Imam Husayn Shrine with the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala.
The most sacred place in Sikhism is the Sir Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.
For Baha’is, the shrine of Bah’u’llah in Mahji near Acre Israel is the holiest site and the Qiblih, that is, the direction of prayer. The second holiest is the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.
In Neo-Druidism, Stonehenge is a key holy site, and also Glastonbury.
In Hinduism there are tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Benares (Varanasi) is the most famous and sone of several holy towns. There are seven ancient holy towns: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, and Sabarimala, Kerala are said to be the most major Pilgrim cities in Hinduism. Of these, Varanasi (also known as Benares) in Uttar Pradesh is considered the Holiest ancient site and it is considered by many to be the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.
Among Buddhist sacred places are sites associated with Gautama Buddha: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India; Kushinagar, India; Lumbini, Nepal; and Sarnath, India. There are also stupa, a mound-like structure that contains relics like the ashes of a monk. These are places of meditation.
In the LDS Church, there are several sacred places in history: the grove where Joseph Smith experienced the presence of God and Christ; the Hill Cumorah where the sacred records were hidden, locations of other of Smith’s spiritual experiences, and LDS Temples.
Theology about Places
Even though we identify sacred places among reliigous traditions, the theological distinctions about their sanctity differ.
In Judaism, the Tabernacle was a holy place which was safeguarded by limiting access to it, only priests entered it, and after the Temple was built, only the High Priest could enter the innermost place, and only on Yom Kippur.
There is of course no longer a Jerusalem Temple, and synagogues do not replace it. Synagogues are consecrated spaces that can be used only for the purpose of prayer, but a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Worship can be carried out alone or with less than a minyan, and communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However there are certain prayers that are communal prayers and therefore can be recited only by a minyan.
But Judaism also considers Shabbat a sacred place in time, an inherently holy place that does not exist in space.
In Islam, what is called the Bayt al-Ma`mur (the Much-frequented House) is located in the seventh firmament, which is the House around which those in the heavens circumambulate. This heavenly House is directly above the earthly Ka’ba and is the template for the Ka’ba, so that the Ka’ba is in turn a replica of the heavenly house where angels circumambulate, providing an important “axis mundi”. Yet this is not the place of direct communication with God nor the place of only a select few, but is rather the axis mundi and, of course, the qibla for prayer.
In Christianity, although places associated with Jesus’ life are often called holy places, there are not requirements for Christians to visit these, as there is in Islam with the pillar of the hajj. You could say that in Christianity, Jesus himself is the holy “place,” present in the sacraments. For instance, when Catholics have eucharistic adoration, they affirm that Christ is right here and present in this place.
In Hinduism, temples are sacred because human have access to the gods, who are present there. At the center of the temple is the murti, or the physical image of the deity, which in turn is considered to be and treated as the living god who is attended to by worshipers. Believers can thus behold, or take darshan, of the deity, because the diety can be simulaneously and fully present in many and possibly an infinite number of different places.
Legendarily, Ashoka divided the ashes of Siddhartha and distributed them to 84,000 stupas through his realm, so that the land of Buddhism is filled with these holy places. Some believed that the enlightened mind of the person enshrined there continued at that place. Over the years, stupas were themselves ocnsidered manifestations of the sacred world. The Great Temple at Borobudur in Java, Inonesia is a series of stupas, where pilgrims circumambulate.
In the LDS Church, LDS temples are the fullest expression of sacred space, into which only church members in good standing and with a temple recommend may enter. But LDS chapels are also places of saccred ritual, without restriction of entry, and family homes are also places where the Holy Ghost can be present.
Religion as unconnected to a particular place.
As I was working on this talk, I was very intrigued by the thesis of Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that, in a very strong sense that religion is antithetical, to sacred places. (Religion: From Place to Placelessness. Text by Yi-Fu Tuan. Photographs and Essays by Martha A. Strawn. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009.)
One way that religion is antithetical to sacred space, is the prohibition against idolatry, which would include any notion of localizing the presence of God. Certainly a major aspect of the Ka’ba is that the Prophet Muhammad removed all idolatry from the place so that it could be wholly devoted to Allah who is never identified with any earthly thing.
Another sense of religion’s opposition to sacred place is the theological assertion that God encompasses all places. For instance, in Chinese religion, there is specification of levels of heaven and of Pure Lands. But the vastness of the universe in Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions aren’t necessarily plotted. For instance, Tuan notes, in the Comedy of Dante, Hell is geographical but Heaven is not.
In Native spirituality, too, is a belief in balance and mutuality among beings, which includes the sun and moon, meteorological phenomena, and features of the earth. “All these beings are imbued with power; all are alive in some sense.” Many locations can be sacred places, “filled with numinous aura…. alive by virtue of the narratives nad the rituals that may accompany them.” Likewise, common to the Chinese, there is a notion of cardinal points. Chinese, however, have less stress on narrative.
In Europe, however, we do not have this “clear notion of cosmic space demarcated by the cardinal points,” but rather a universe created by God in which God still acts. Thus churches can be built anywhere, because no particular natural places are specifically sacred.
Interestingly, Tuan notes that although Christianity places great stress upon the life story of Jesus, there is less stress than in Native spirituality upon the landscape, since he was always moving around. (Also, one might add, there isn’t necessarily unanimity of conviction about sites. For instance there are two traditional sites of Jesus’ tomb.)
In Christianity, too, worshipers focus not so much on places but upon worshiping “the Father in spirit and truth,” as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John. Thus, the community is broadened to encompass many places—but also to transcend time and space, since the community of Christ includes the dead as well as the living. And, like Jesus, early Christians moved around and were not very localized. Christians were called “pilgrims” in early antiquity, people who were literally or figuratively on the move, dis-placed.” One could draw a comparison with arhats in Theravada Buddhism: monks who are rootless rather than rooted to a specific place.
Judaism of coruse has no place of intrinsic holiness: that was the Temple, destroyed in 70 AD. Now, any clean room that contains Torah scrools and in which a minyan can worship becomes Makom Kadosh, or Holy Space. I began my little book with the observation that the Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as “place” because God is “the place of the world.” A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.
Sacred Space As Many Places
The author Peter Knobel writes, “Sacred Space is where God dwells and hearts are moved.” There is the Holy Place (mikdash) of the Temple where God dwelled, and also there is the holy space in the hearts of people who are moved to zedaqah. He points to ways that Jews can create “a whole space so that God can dwell among us, perhaps in ways that create Jewish identity and community via streaming services and online education, a “synagogue without borders”
Knobel raises a different understanding of sacred space: Holy Place as the site of good deeds. But this understanding verifies Tuan’s thesis that religion is antithetical to place, for (as in Quran 2:177), piety can happen anywhere, not just in specific places, and piety can possibly be anonymous and private, known only to God.
There is also a sense that story-telling facilitates the drive toward placelessness. We may not go to a specific place with intrinsic holiness, but we can retell the story. In important ways that shifts the “location” of sacredness” to time over place, analogous to the Jewish sabbath. In my Upper Room Books study, I discussed how personal locations become “sacred”: our own sacred places become personal locations that are in turn connected to the narratives of our religious traditions. These locations are identifiable in place terms but also temporal terms: for instance, the way I experienced a deep spiritual experience of peace and healing in the summer of 1996 in a particular but very mundane location.
So our contemporary understanding of sacred space/place are complex. (1) There are locations in religious traditions that are very key within the narrative and historical existence of those traditions, and that narrative-historical existence in turn points us to, or intersects with, the spiritual world in ways understood differently in each tradition. And (2) there can be an infinite variety of more personal and communal sacred places, because they are not only connected to the sacred religious narratives but also the personal narrative of each believer’s heart.
(At this point I opened for questions from our group. Several people, reflecting a spectrum of religious traditions, commented on their own understandings of sacred place. The idea of Sabbath as a “place” lead to some interesting discussions. Connected to Knobel’s idea, we also thought about how the internet can create “virtual sacred places” “without borders,” for instance @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter, and others.)
S. R. Burge, “Angels, Ritual and Sacred Space in Islam.” Comparative Islamic Studies 5.2. (209) 221-245. Accessed at equinoxonline.
Peter S. Knobel, “Sacred Space is Where God Dwells and Hearts are Moved.” http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/trumah/sacred-space-where-god-dwells-and-hearts-are-moved