Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

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.

Backyard Wisdom

From where I was sitting, the robin appeared to be asleep. It was an overcast and chilly spring morning, so I had to admit that I was a little envious. Our back yard is divided from the neighboring landlord’s property by a kind of picket fence with square-topped stanchions every ten feet or so. The robin was sleeping on the stanchion closest to an old maple tree. A wiggle of movement caught my eye. Further down the fence, maybe seven or eight pickets back, sat an impatient gray squirrel. It was sitting up on its haunches, and flashing its bushy tail in an obvious attempt to draw attention to itself. The robin sat, implacable. The squirrel looked around like a nervous commuter who will be late for work. It hoped a picket or two closer. Up on its haunches, looked around, jiggled its tail. Still the robin sat. The squirrel turned toward the maple tree and reared back, preparing to jump. It was too far. The squirrel turned back to look at the bird. The robin, flapping its wings a time or two, hopped into the air and landed on a picket two further down beyond the stanchion. The squirrel climbed onto the now vacant spot and leapt into the tree. The robin flew back to its original post.

This little exchange brought home to me once again the intelligence of animals. I don’t know what was going through the minds of these two different species, but they obviously both wanted to be at the same place at the same time. Perhaps some moral imperative passed in unspoken form between them. The squirrel needed to be close enough to make the leap into the tree, and the robin was clearly comfortable where it was sitting. Something had to give. I don’t know if robins peck on squirrels when nobody’s looking, but the rodent, larger than the bird, was obviously cautious. In the end, a compromise was reached and each ended up where they wanted to be.

More than a show of intelligence, I also saw this as a parable. I imagined how differently it might have worked out if the robin were a Christian and the squirrel a Muslim. Would there be any giving way? Any acknowledgement of the need of the other? A few wing flaps, a little leap to the left, and the squirrel found its sanctuary. The robin simply returned to where it was. They both wanted the same sacred space. They didn’t raise voices or argue—the whole exchange was terribly polite. Behavioral biologists often suggest that we can learn much by watching animals. As I watched what must have been only a minor incident in the backyard world of robins and squirrels, I felt as if two of the great teachers of our many religions were enacting a parable for humankind. If only we would pay attention.

IMG_0675

Haunted Pilgrim

No visit to Providence is complete without a tip of the hat to H. P. Lovecraft. As someone who dabbles in the noble art of writing, I have great appreciation for those who somehow made an impact (often only after they’ve died) on the literary world. I discovered Lovecraft only after I left Nashotah House, which was probably a good thing. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate his breadth of vision, populating the earth with ancient gods who emphasize the powerful and heartless side of divinity. His vivid images of Cthulhu pervade popular culture to a level that few of the uninitiated would ever expect. And yet, deep in the depths he lurks. So when I was in Providence over the weekend for my niece’s graduation, I spent an afternoon seeking out some time with H. P.

Place inherently partakes of that we term holiness. Where something happened matters. There is no science to explain it, but it is something people know. It is for this reason that I try to visit the homes and resting places of classic writers. Over the years we’ve visited the haunts of Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edna St Vincent Millay, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and others, as well as H. P. Lovecraft. Simply standing in or near the places they once frequented provides a form of inspiration unavailable in any other way. So it was that I found myself at 598 Angell Street in Providence. It is a house still occupied, with no indication of who once called this building home. Lovecraft lived here from 1904 to 1924. If it weren’t for the Lovecraft walking tour I found on the Internet, I would have never known.

In many ways a provincial man, Lovecraft was born and also died in Providence. Apart from a stint in New York City, he spent his time in his hometown. I walked to 454 Angell Street, the address at which he was born. I knew the building had been razed in the 1960s, but I wanted to see what society deems more important than preserving those places that sequester the holy for haunted pilgrims. Although I couldn’t tell for sure, since house numbers change, I believe his birthplace is now the Starbucks that sits pleasantly in a small commercial district. I wonder how many of the thirsty realize where they’re sitting. Have they read any of Lovecraft’s stories? If so, are they uncomfortable sipping coffee in such a spot? Or perhaps it has become a kind of secular sacrament—a toast to all artists whose pasts have been obliterated.

Disputed Territory

Revisiting a childhood home can be a bittersweet experience. As my wife reflects on the first house she remembers going up for sale, we are glad that we spent the holidays there one last time a few months back. In my case sentiment is a little harder to find. The three residences I recall from a fractured childhood all bear the same distinction: they were torn down after we left. All that remains of my youth is three parking lots. Things are a lot more level now than they were back then. Whenever I visit the area, however, I still slow down the car and remember. Memory, whether singular or collective, makes a geographic location a sacred space. We rented when I was growing up, so those spaces that I think of as mine were occupied by others before and after us. (The razing did not take place immediately after we closed the door for the last time.) Whether those others—strangers to me—consider the place special I have no way of knowing.

Holy, holy, holy?

In other cases the sacral nature of a place is hallowed by tradition. Say “the Holy Land” and most people will know that you’re referring to what is now Israel/Palestine. I only traveled there once, but was privileged to stay for about six weeks. Working on an archaeological dig is a rite of passage for young biblical scholars (for such I was at the time), and weekends were spent visiting the places I’d read about since I could first remember. One of the most jarring aspects of the holiness was the evidence of violence. Cars burning by the roadside. Bombs going off in a post office in Jerusalem. Sounds of heavy artillery lobbing explosives through a blue sky during the sunny afternoon. A place so sacred as to be continually baptized in blood. Humans, human memory, are what make a place sacred.

All of this comes to mind with the political posturing of New Jersey governor Chris Christie visiting Israel. God knows New Jersey has enough problems of its own, but it is a relief not to have him hanging around for a while. Nevertheless, what has Trenton to do with Jerusalem? One thing the Middle East doesn’t need is one more bully. Pushing, shoving, crusading, shooting, and bombing haven’t worked for that elusive peace. What value can our dauntless leader add to this unholy mess? Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I thought governors were supposed to take care of their own problems at home and leave international schmoozing until they got to the big offices. Maybe the race for a GOP nomination isn’t over yet. The most sacred space in this country is a white house that gets sold to the highest bidder every four years. At times there is more wisdom to be found in a parking lot.

Alternate Reality

Recall a time when you did something bad. We have all done it now and again. Even the memory possesses the power to churn the stomach and lower the brow. I just finished reading Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, edited by Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins. The essays in this volume are about Native Americans by Native Americans. Many of us are taught to believe that the United States government had found some way to deal peacefully, after some bloody battles, with those hostile to the arrival of Europeans, but the truth is much sadder and more sordid. While some may say the essays in this book dismiss academic standards, I have been on the receiving end of academic standards enough to know that even highly educated people can sometimes only cower and the reality is how you feel. That is what comes through every page of this book: what it feels like to be misrepresented, demonized, caricatured, forgotten. European colonizers stole what they could in the name of Christianity and left a legacy of tears.

I nevertheless learned a great deal from this book. Here, I came to understand, not everyone agrees with the standards that Euro-Americans use to measure the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Native American critique of science. Those of us trained in this method feel a knee-jerk reaction when it is questioned, but those willing to consider, to ponder, will realize that a scientific worldview is a culturally conditioned form of interpretation. Other forms exist, although they have frequently been silenced. There is more than one way of knowing. In many Native American religious traditions the land itself is sacred. Being removed from tribal lands was tantamount to being separated from tribal divinity. We might be better able to dismiss it all as ancient history were it not for the fact that the oppression continues to this day.

Comparison with another oppressed religion came to mind. Ancient Israel is understood only imperfectly, but we know that the land was crucial to Israel’s sense of identity. We should, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, be sympathetic to Indigenous American sensitivity to the bond between land and religion. In the former case, the United States supported the re-formation of Israel in the 1940s. We still keep our own indigenous people out of sight and use their land with impunity. Reading Native Voices raises some very troubling specters indeed. The colonizing religion here was Christianity, a religion that says it is more blessed to give, but is more than willing to take. And to invent a tortured theological justification for the action; it’s manifest destiny—whatcha gonna do? It is time we confront what was done to the people who were here first. I have no solution, but reading Native Voices is an appropriate way to start the discussion.

Sacred Philadelphia

What makes a space sacred? There is no agreement on that issue, but it is clear that considering a specific location numinous, holy, or just special is something that even the most secular do. We trek to the places where something happened, maybe hoping for a personal epiphany or enlightenment. So yesterday I found myself in Philadelphia on the trail of Edgar Allan Poe. Like some other famous figures of the past, Poe was essentially homeless—no place claimed him (though now many do). Several years of his short life were spent in Philadelphia, and only one of his residences still survives there. On a pleasant Saturday it was clear that many others were drawn to this sacred space on pilgrimages motivated by diverse needs and curiosities. My family has gone on literary trips for many years, visiting the places of writers—for, at the end of the day, every piece of sacred writ has a writer.

Poe's house on Spring Garden

I can’t recall a time, after I began to read, when I did not favor Poe. Like some other inspirational figures he lived a short life, frequently rejected by his peers. Sad circumstances haunted him and he expressed them so well. His was a rare gift. Standing in his Philadelphia house, I guess I might have been hoping that, on some level, he might know that his life had touched mine. We all seem to leave an intangible part of ourselves in places we have been. Even the hardest skeptic of the “paranormal” will travel countless miles to come to some location of significance. There is no logical reason to do so. It is perhaps the most human of religious impulses. I saw no specters, heard no ghostly voices. But I saw and listened and wondered.

Writing is among the canon of sacred activities. It is taking what is hidden safely inside the confines of our minds and offering the opportunity to others to read it. Frequently it is ignored, lost in the noise. Life is too busy to sit down and read unless some teacher or professor assigns a task with grade consequences. We miss, however, so many opportunities to explore the legacy bequeathed to us by great minds. Our lives are driven by economics, not enlightenment. Poe died poor and largely unmourned in Baltimore after having called many locations home. Those locations are now shrines. I suspect he may have been very surprised to learn that over a century and a half later some people would attempt to follow in his footsteps for what can only be described as religious reasons.

Sanctuary

Sanctuaries are often difficult to get to, but are often even more difficult to leave. Various religions make use of the concept—a sanctuary is a safe place, somewhere away from the normal world. Perhaps this is one of the reasons humans devised religion to begin with; the world feels heartless and threatening much of the time, and a place where the unseen parent will keep us safe is a desideratum anxiously quested. The problem with sanctuaries is that too much safety inhibits growth. As history repeatedly demonstrates, sequestered religions grow stagnant and antiquated—frequently hindering more than helping.

The concept of a sanctuary is of a piece with the amorphous idea of sacred space. The idea that some places are different, special, or spiritually vibrant is one that admits of no testing or verification. Nevertheless pilgrims will seek out such places in order to recover a sense of balance or peace. Even scientists know the feeling, although it is frequently consigned to the psychologist’s couch. Finding that spot that gives momentary tranquility is big business, as any travel agent knows. While we may invest our sanctuaries with divine trappings, the practice is, at its roots, very human.

The world was not created for us. Congealing from a rapidly spinning mass of superheated rock and dust, it took a few billion years before life might even manage to float atop the cosmic embers. As part of this fascinating development called life, we have learned its hard lessons. Nature is beautiful and dangerous. We are its masters and its slaves. Some of us take great pains to escape to it and when it is time to leave we are ripped from it like a crying babe from its mother’s arms. Sanctuary is a human concept with divine implications.

A sanctuary

Clothes Make the God

What is it with gods and clothes? Today’s news announces that Rob Halford, the Metal God, vocalist of Judas Priest, has just revealed his own Metal God Apparel line. Now, I try to be equitable, but isn’t metal all about sticking it to the establishment? Isn’t designing your own line of clothing the most establishment-worthy enterprise ever? Where have the rebels gone?

Whip not included

Whip not included

No sooner are people getting the hang of things in Eden than God marks designer clothes first on their list of accessories. Gods seem to be impressed with dressing the part. The Bible details what priests, and especially the high priest, will wear in the temple/tabernacle. Such location-specific wear indicates a very deep awareness of sacred space that pervades most religions. More than that, however, the clothes themselves are highly symbolic. Although modern readers may not be able to come to any consensus on the “symbology” (oh that word!) of each and every ephod and tinkling bell, we can be assured that nothing about the priestly garb was accidental. Indeed, Exodus informs us that God selected the fabrics himself.

Judas Priest, meet High Priest

Judas Priest, meet High Priest

So I’m not so shocked that the Metal God has made his preference known in the line of apparel appropriate to wear to the worship of this particular deity. As I watched a motorcycle club in their well-worn leather roar past me in my timid mini-van this weekend, I was reminded of the power of clothes. We may not be born with the body we want, but if we dress it up right, others might be made to believe that we’re gods too.