The sacred is hard to define. Calling it “holy”is only to pass the buck, and I can’t get beyond the feeling that we need something more up-to-date than Rudolf Otto. Something that takes into account what the religious world looks like in the next century. No matter which direction we turn we run into undefinable words—numinous, heightened, transcendent. Wonderful words that fail to capture the essence of the experience. This has been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about sacred spaces. No matter how secular we may be, we all know such places exist. They may be places significant to large numbers of people, or to a set of one. Perhaps there are many kinds of sacred spaces and many ways that they may be made so.
The place where a significant event in life took place, for good, is recorded in that way our brains have of switching into slow-motion, high-attention mode. Were we not so secular we might say something spiritual was going on. Pilgrimage sites worldwide are often associated with what’s interpreted as a religious event. Those of us who weren’t there at the time feel compelled to visit. To breathe the air of that place. To linger in wonder. Is there something still there? I tried desperately to feel this when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It was difficult with so very many other people there. I went alone and I was thinking maybe something might happen. Like what happened to me at the Church of All Nations next to Gethsemane.
As I was pondering this, many such sites came to mind. The birthplaces or living spaces of great writers have always drawn me into such a reverie. Standing in Poe’s house in Philadelphia, knowing that one of the world’s iconic writers saw these same walls, walked these same floors, but for him it was likely ordinary. For the rest of us it’s something more. Yet I’m no closer to defining it. Thinkers like Otto had professions that included unstructured thinking time. Many of us don’t have that luxury. We feel the urge but the clock for our 925 keeps inexorably ticking, like the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards that make a place sacred. Many of these places are far too personal to write about in a public place. They await someone with the time and inclination to think on these things to give us to words to define them.