Musings On Sacred Spaces

My Experience of Sacred Space

Around 2012, when I started deepening my interest and experience in soul companioning, I began to observe that there was something special about my house and garden. “Bethlehem” as I named it, is nestled in a beautiful location called “Highlands” in a city in the Philippines called Tagaytay with breathtaking views of the mountains. I realized that Bethlehem could be a place where people could encounter God. Indeed that became real as more and more people testified of such encounters after staying at my place.  It did not require much effort from me or my other associates as we all engaged in accompanying them. Their very presence in the house surrounded by the gardens would naturally open them up to hear or sense God in their life. 

I will not forget one exercise my spiritual director gave me during an 8 day silent retreat. She awoke an interest in me, in sacred spaces when she told me: “Go back to the place where you would regularly sit during your retreat and pray in and for that sacred space.  Pray for the person who sat there before you, and ask God to bless his or her life. Then pray for the person who will be sitting there after you, and ask God to give them the graces that they ask for.” Her words were an epiphany to me; this was the first time I was conscious that spaces could be sacred.  

Sacred spaces were key to my rhythm during my retreat:

  • In the basement of the chapel while doing my morning prayers, I would sit on the same seat facing the direction of the electric fan set on no. 2, so I would feel cool. 
  • In the prayer room while gazing at a certain painting, I would rest on a chair with pillows set up in exactly the same position.
  • Then after lunch under the trellis, I would find myself on the bench staring and intently listening to the soothing sound of the fountain with my pad and crayons. 
  • An afternoon nap would follow, where I would linger on the sofa in my bedroom afterwards. 
  • By around 4:00 pm when it was cooler, I would take a long, slow walk down a path for approximately thirty minutes ending in the same swing under the tree. 
  • My routine finished with holy mass at 6:00 pm. 

This ritual repeated for eight days straight. I had no clue why I chose this routine. I remember really liking the places where I would sit because it was there that I felt comfortable and at peace. Those were the places where I would hear God speak in meaningful ways. My director helped me realize that they were my “sacred spaces.”

The Nature Of Sacred Spaces 

Sacred spaces throughout history

Throughout history, there has been an awareness of “sacred spaces” across many traditions and religions. In the ancient Taoist tradition of Feng Shui, there are certain areas where there is good energy, or qi, binding the universe, earth and humanity together.  The ancient pagan Celts who lived in the British isles had similar beliefs. They noticed that in certain places “heaven and earth come closer” labelled by Eric Wiener, as “thin places” in his book Man Seeks God. This desire to memorialize and define these sacred places has occurred across cultures and religious backgrounds. Other examples include Upsala for the vikings, the oracle at Delphi and mount Olympus for the ancient Greeks, while similar places also exist for the Buddhists (Borobhudur), for the Hindus (Varanasi). Shinto shrines are invariably in forests. This concept of “thin spaces”, albeit not explicitly defined, is also acknowledged in monotheistic religions, such as Judiasm (Mount Sinai etc.), Christianity (Lourdes etc.), and Islam (Mecca & Medina). Nearly every religion and belief system is “situated” and either implicity or explicity acknowledges the importance of certain “sacred places” above others.

Sacred spaces are universal

However, sacred spaces are not dependent on one particular religion. In fact, often sacred spaces are universal. Jerusalem is a pilgrimage site for Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Countless Christian churches are built on the previous sites of existing pagan places of worship. Countless mosques and temples are built on previous Christian sites in many places in the world, Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul, being the most famous. Granted this might be due to political or economic factors, but places are often chosen for specific reasons in the beginning, precisely because they are considered to be “thin places”, i.e. they provide an interface between the incarnate and the divine.

The loss of sacred spaces

Unfortunately, as a result of the reformation and Enlightenment, “sacred spaces” have been considered the domain of “mystics” and are not widely considered in western forms of Christianity. Modern Christianity tends to struggle with Jesus’ incarnation, and prefers to view God as primarily spiritual and other-worldly. It treats spirit and matter as completely separate, like oil and water, whereas early Christianity held a more integrated worldview.

Sacred spaces are not just religious places

Not every sacred space is religious. A park or, a city square, an airport or even a bar can be a sacred space. Writing in his classic work “The Sacred and the Profane,” Mircea Eliade observed that “some parts of space are qualitatively different from others” yet they don’t need to be religious.