Tag Archives: sacred space

Growing Shadows

As summer wends its way slowly toward autumn my reading becomes more gothic.  It feels as natural as the progression of the seasons, I suppose.  While waiting for the turn I’d been holding onto Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Not having read any Zafón before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My copy had been blurbed by Stephen King, and I figured that was pretty high praise.  I found the book through one of my web searches for the most gothic novels and this one takes a while, but I can see why it makes some of those lists.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was intended to be comic or serious, but that combination is an imitation of life itself.  We laugh, we cry, we shudder.

The story slowly builds, and I’ll address this further on Goodreads.  What I want to consider here is the nature of place.  Human beings—and I would argue animals as well—have a sense of place.  Space becomes sacred through events both dramatic and quotidian.  That’s why we make pilgrimages to places where our heroes lived.  Just to be there.  To think about it.  To feel it.  The Shadow of the Wind is a story of Barcelona during a time of war.  There’s no escaping the moody sense of old Europe in this tale.  In that sense religion is quite often casually mentioned.  It’s part of place in a way many Americans overlook.  The church bells I can hear everyday beg to differ, no matter how empty the pews may be.  Zafón wants to share his gothic Barcelona with a story that leads to real shivers.

It would be a stretch to call this a horror novel, but it is in the sense that V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is.  It reminded me at several points of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (my copy of which was destroyed in a flooded garage).  Many lives, I suspect, have quiet gothic elements to them.  I know that mine does.  While there may be a little supernatural at work in The Shadow of the Wind, most of the action is believable.  This is the way people behave.  The way they treat, and mistreat one another.  While the days are still hot around here, the angle of the sun in the sky doesn’t lie.  We’re fast approaching the equinox from which we’ll slide into the long nights of winter.  And reading, the more gothic the better, will help us make it through no matter where we are.

Of Our Being

It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.

A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.

Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.

Keystones

It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.

A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.

These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.

Local Lore

SomersetOne of the true joys of having more than a day off work at a time is the privilege to spend days reading. Although I read on the bus as a matter of course, it is a defined time, and editing isn’t as much reading as most people think it is. While doing research for my Sleepy Hollow paper, the question naturally arose: where did Washington Irving get the idea for the headless horseman? According to Irving’s biographers, the story was not an uncommon one. Headless ghosts are not unique, and he wrote the story while living in Europe as part of the serialized Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. There is no practical way to know where he first heard the story. During my research I heard of a local source: Legends and Lore of Somerset County (New Jersey), by Michael Haynes. In this little compendium of stories of my current county, there is a claim that Irving learned about the story right here in New Jersey, where a traditional headless ghost rides. Again, it is impossible to say where he got the idea, but people like to feel that their local traditions are important enough to engage a major writer’s imagination.

Haynes presents several other regional tales that may rival the Jersey Devil and give ghosts a location just down the road. I suspect most places have tales of ghosts and mysterious beasts. It is always interesting to find out about those lurking in your own neighborhood. Scholars are now beginning to turn their attention to the sanctity of space. Location is very important to mobile beings like ourselves. The place where we find ourselves becomes “our place” and with the patina of time, often a personally sacred space. Tales of what happened here often take on the cast of the supernatural.

Local history has always held a deep fascination for me. Any region that I know, in a sense, intimately, is a region that has become part of my personal history. My region of Pennsylvania, for example, defines me although neither of my parents, or their parents were born in that state. And Massachusetts, Michigan, Scotland, Illinois, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, places I’ve lived, have become somehow alive with history. Legends and Lore of Somerset County contains tales that are not always believable in the workaday world we inhabit, but that’s the beauty of sacred space. Going beyond the mundane is entirely the point. Although Washington Irving may or may not have first heard of the headless horseman here, we have that legend, and there’s only so much that history can do to remove such a claim.

Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

Secular Sacred

IMG_1472On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.

At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.

A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.

The Tower

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. In truth, I’m not even sure what its significance might be. Beyond giving a spectacular view of the Delaware River valley, it is my understanding that it is a memorial built to George Washington and his many activities in this region. It’s not even that old. I have come, however, because of a memory not my own. Many decades ago, my mother visited the tower with her parents. She has pictures but couldn’t remember the name of the tower, or even where it was. As fate and happenstance have it, I live a mere hour away and I’ve undertaken this journey to a tower I’ve never seen to bring a sacred sense of place back to life for someone else. Too bad the park is closed today. It is a sunny Saturday in July, and it seems that everyone is outside. We drove across that impossibly narrow, rickety bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Washington’s Crossing (so named on both sides in both states) to find our way to this quiet park to find a lost past. “Closed” the sign laconically says.

The urge to travel, speaking strictly for me, is the pursuit of sacred space. Over Independence Day weekend we traveled to Boston not only to see fireworks, but to revisit a site of some personal significance. In my three years in that city life took me places I never imagined I might have gone. The memories, mine this time, although hazy, still permeate the air. Boston is a sacred city. Since childhood I have had dreams of Maine. From Boston I pushed further north to the rocky coasts and gray oceans of the stormy north Atlantic. Although neither God nor angel appeared, I knew that I had once again discovered the sacredness of space. Every time I leave, I count the days until I might return.

Many locations are sacred to a person. Some of mine are in the west, and some in the east. And when I’m there I require some time alone, for the sacredness of space is a deeply personal matter. When, many years ago, I was jostled into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher amid ecclesiastical robes too numerous to identify, I knew this was a holy spot for many. The very dust of Jerusalem seems sacred with age. But what had happened to me here? Beyond the endless readings and rereadings of the biblical tales, Jerusalem was someone else’s sacred location. Aside from the dark crusaders’ crypts, there was no place to be alone. I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. Despite driving to Pennsylvania for that sole purpose, it is a place I have yet to see. And when I finally do climb that tower, it should, I hope become clear to me whether anything of the numinous remains in this dusty corner of somebody else’s memory. Sacred space is like that, and it keeps some of us forever on the move.