359: Where can we find sacred places? How can we make use of them?
Day 359: Wednesday, March 10th 2021:
A Chapel in Your Backyard
Where can we find sacred places? How can we make use of them?
For centuries poets have been comparing life to a rose, a beautiful flower, but with thorns on the branch. I think of all the tall church steeples I have seen around the world in small villages of working-class people.
Many paintings show men and women in the fields stopping their labors and gazing toward that steeple. It is a reminder that there is more to life than sweat and tears. We need sacred places, but for many people those spaces are not only in churches and temples.
Long ago ancestors would sometimes mark a sacred spot with stones. Often these stones were knocked away, yet the soul of the place remained. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem's great Temple in 70 CE leaving only the Western Wall. It is a retaining wall that supports the hill on which the temple was built. Centuries later this is still a very sacred spot for Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
When I enter a church today I am aware of several parallel worlds. There is the world you can read about in the church bulletin. There is also the unseen, but palpable, world that is the convergence of so many journeys. Countless people, myself included, have found a quiet spiritual oasis in a church for a few moments. Thousands have hopped along religious stepping stones: christenings, communions, marriages, funerals. Even those of us who may have walked out, disgusted, at some point, can often find comfort within the walls of a nearly empty church.
A child's intuitive sense of the sacred also may help us understand spiritual fundamentals. When my daughter, Holly, was almost 7, a very ill infant came into our lives. We all knew the little girl would die, but it was a shock when it happened. Holly and I were not at Starcross when I had to tell her. She said we had to do something before we could go on. “We have to go to a place where people pray.” I walked with her to a nearby Catholic Church where a mass was in progress and asked if this would do. “No,” she said. “We have to wait ‘til the priest leaves.” In the after service silence of that space, Holly somehow came to terms with the death. I think she also said good-bye. After a while Holly told me,
“We can light a candle and leave now.”
While walking up the steps of an impressive, yet ignored, city church, I have sometimes thought of Hermann Hesse's (1877-1962) reflection. He came upon a small chapel while hiking in the Italian-Swiss region and wrote,
Oh, beloved, intimate chapels of this country! You have the signs and inscriptions of a god who is not mine. Your believers utter words I do not know. And yet I can still pray in you just as well as in the oak forest or in the mountain meadow.
Those meadows and forests bring us to the wisdom of Wendell Berry (1934-), the poet and Kentucky farmer. He is a devout Christian but when the bell rings in town calling people to church on Sunday, he walks into the woods:
I am a bad-weather churchgoer. When the weather is good, sometimes when it is only tolerable, I am drawn to the woods on the local hillsides or along streams. In such places, on the best of these Sabbath days, I experience a lovely freedom from expectations – other people’s and also my own. I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am willing to call inspiration.
My favorite Japanese haiku poet, Issa (1763-1828) was a poor man who lived a simple life. In his village there was an elaborate annual religious festival. People dressed in fancy clothes and made pilgrimages to seven Temples throughout the evening. This was beyond Issa’s means or inclination. Instead, on those evenings he visited a post in his backyard seven times and meditated there. Perhaps it was on one of his visits to the post that he wrote this haiku, translated by our friend Cliff Edwards.
A simple straw mat
And here in my cooking pot
Is the Milky Way.
We can all benefit from visiting a sacred space, be it in an empty church, the woods, or reflections in a cooking pot in our backyard.