It was long believed, and still is by many, that religious temples and the cultural structures that go with such complex architecture and societal relationships only developed after human beings had learned agriculture and created settled societies. Stonehenge, for example, is the result of a highly developed society rather than hunter-gathers as the reasoning goes.
But what if ‘sacred space’ was the source of agrarian and settled society?
Gobekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by six thousand years and is in fact, the chicken that came before the egg. Researchers believe this may be the first massive cathedral built by humans, eleven thousand years ago and one thousand years ahead of the agricultural society that grew up around it. In other words, the sacred place was first, and then over time, human beings had to figure out an alternative to hunting and gathering in order to develop and sustain it.
But either way, a sacred place is an essential ingredient of a spiritual practice.
In the abundance of rural Vermont where I live now, finding a sacred place is as easy as walking outside. The mountains that surround me, and the lake spread out before me, not to mention the night sky above, sing the presence of the holy. Living in an urban or suburban environment can require some extra effort.
In one city where I lived, I discovered a small chapel inside a nearby hospital that remained open twenty-four hours a day. Bathed in subdued lighting the desperate prayers and gushing gratitude of unknown patients and families echoed off the plain white walls and soft blue carpet. In Buffalo, NY a small rundown urban park along the torrential and frothing Niagara River was as dramatic and stunning in winter as in summer. I can think of numerous cemeteries that create a peculiar yet fortunate rendering of life and death evoking the presence of the holy.
Then there are established sacred sites, temples and mosques and churches built for the purpose: set-aside places designed to conjure up transcendence. Some people, with space to spare, set up such a space in their own home – a room outfitted for the purpose of escape and repose.
Whatever and wherever, a place set aside (the actual meaning of sacred) for the purpose of opening oneself to the presence of God in our midst is essential for sustaining and nurturing a spiritual practice.
It needs to be easily accessible, feel safe and private even if quite public, and pull us upward and outward from ourselves – lift us to an awareness of life and love outside ourselves even when we have migrated to a place of meditation within ourselves. No place does that perfectly a hundred percent of the time, but there are certain spaces that have the power to open us up and move us both beyond and within. We need such a place to include in our ordinary routine.