This is our theme for our inter-faith programme for the coming months and we hope that it will catch your imagination! We will arrange certain events and excursions, and make various suggestions of things you might do, but we particularly want you to contribute your iideas to the study. Please will you send us a paragraph (or two) telling us what kind of places are sacred or special to you. You may remember somewhere from long ago. You may have a picture in your mind's eye. You might want to describe a place that is sacred or special to you now. It could be a religious building, a corner of a cemetery, a garden, a wood or seashore; it could be a room or alcove in your house, an icon or picture; it might be in a book or on a cyber-highway. If there are ways in which others can share the experience, please make suggestions.
We are enclosing some reflections on the topic as an introduction to the process and you may wish to respond to them. We hope that at the end of the year we may have collected enough ideas to form a substantial study pack.
This project is for all age-groups- so please participate in ways which are appropriate to you.
SANCTUARY AND HOSPITALITY
In parts of the ancient world, the stranger and/or fugitive was treated as a sacred guest. The altar of a temple and the hearth of a home were places where people could claim absolute refuge. In classical Greek the same word could denote stranger, friend, guest and host because it was a sacred duty to receive, lodge and protect the helpless stranger, as it was also in ancient Israel and among the Celtic peoples. In contrast among the Romans the original Latin word for stranger came to mean enemy. Both these attitudes exist today.
As we explore the idea of sacred space perhaps we could revisit this concept of sanctuary in this rich sense and consider the terms on which we receive strangers - whether they are welcome into the heart of our homes, our communities, our religious buildings. When we gather together in school or place of work does the newcomer feel welcome? Do we respect and value the person who is different, or do we treat them as strangers and enemies? Is our religious building, our school or work place a sacred place in this sense? (Cynthia Capey)
SACRED SPACES/SPECIAL PLACES - REFLECTIONS
"There an angel of the Lord appeared to him as a fire blazing out from a bush. Although the bush was on fire, it was not being burnt up, and Moses said to himself, "I must go across and see this remarkable sight. Why ever does the bush not burn away?" When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to look, he called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" He answered, "Here I am!" God said, "Do not come near! Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.'
Holy ground, sacred spaces, special places; what are they, who defines them? In this very familiar passage from Exodus, God indicates to Moses that the sacred space he is approaching will be violated if he, a mere mortal, steps upon it. This way of thinking is ingrained in the cultures with roots in the Abrahamic tradition: the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum, the Name that cannot be spoken. To this day a toddler running up the aisle of a small parish church and hiding behind the altar will offend and upset a number of people. Sacred space may conjure up memories of not being allowed to speak, having to wear uncomfortable clothes and look serious, all that is most up-tight and tight-lipped about religion. Dictionary definitions somehow enhance this image of the sacred:
"dedicated to religious use, consecrated; dedicated or dear to a divinity; set apart, reserved or specially appropriated; sanctified by religion, reverence etc.; not to be profaned, inviolable"
Yet surely sacred spaces should be special places, places that speak to the person who is entering them. Places or spaces that transport people from the dailiness of our ordinary lives, encouraging them to leave behind the material and consider the spiritual. Places that make us want to sing, to cry, to be still, to pause and put our lives and thoughts into a bigger context. Or not. Maybe they are places that strip us of our thoughts and make us simply happy to BE, to experience a rare moment of 'connectedness' of feeling a part of a jigsaw that does, despite all the jarring and the clanging of life, still fit.
SIFRE's aim in considering 'Sacred spaces, special places" is to help people/you/us think about what we consider sacred space is for us. We may also want to think about what it should be for our faith community if we belong to one. Do the "official" sacred places manage to retain their integrity despite the inevitable commercialisation that surrounds many of them? If we're honest with ourselves are our sacred spaces in fact places we have found for ourselves: that hillside, this wood, the bend in that river, the garden, the home, that bit of coast. The thing that makes a place sacred can be very subjective, which is why this is such a fascinating project.
We are hoping that this pack will help members (and anyone else who's interested) to explore their sacred spaces. Many people find that their most sacred place is in their mind. The suggestions we may make for visits, reading, lectures, and study are obviously only some of the ways to approach the subject. We hope that you will tell us about any particularly strong individual response to a place or thought: other people's perspectives are what fascinates every member of SIFRE, it's why we're here. (Elizabeth Wesley)
PILGRIM OR TOURIST - SACRED SPACE OR SECULAR PLEASUREDOME
I recall there was a time when certain places (churches, cathedrals, valleys, and moorlands) had a special ambience about them. On entering certain of our great cathedrals, I was stopped in my tracks, I was uplifted by the vibrancy that pervaded the space, my spirit soared with the architecture, I just wanted to stand in quiet self-indulgence and breath in the atmosphere of the place. Now, when I return to many of these same cathedrals and when I visit others for the first time, I am struck by the craftsmanship, the artistic, the beauty; I am welcomed by the guides; I can often get a good cup of tea and some fine home made cake from the refectory; BUT I am no longer transported into "seventh heaven" There are still places which can have this effect upon me, but they are now few and far between. Is it me, am I getting hard in my ageing, OR have my special places changed?
Time was, when most, who entered our cathedrals, did so as part of their life's pilgrimage. They were, like me, aware of the numinous quality of these special buildings which have been places of prayer and worship for many centuries.
Now, cash strapped cathedrals have had to move with the time and make themselves visitor (tourists) attractions. Those who go in their thousands and millions are not on a pilgrimage, they are there to see the show, to buy the trinkets and the tea shirts. They enter the buildings with secular intent; they wander round to admire the craft of the craftsmen who laboured to render glory to God. They leave the building having given little or no thought to their own existence and mortality.
I wonder, if the very stones of a building can be infected with the numinous by centuries of worship and prayer, can they similarly be polluted with secularity through the visits of millions of tourists? (David Capey)
A PARABLE OF THE SACRED PLACE
There was once a great desert in which nothing grew. Through the desert ran a long road, along which many wandered. Most of them were tired, thirsty and afraid of all the bandits and demons which, they had been told, inhabited the desert and preyed off the unwary. Yet on they walked.
At one point, beside the road, there bubbled a spring. No one can remember who first discovered the spring. Yet for countless generations travellers stopped to refresh themselves from the sweet waters. Those who did so found that not only was their thirst slaked, but they were healed in body and soul. The waters made the remainder of their journey easier. So it was that this spring came to be called the Waters of Life.
As time went by, some people placed rocks and stones about the spring, with inscriptions of gratitude carved upon them. As the centuries rolled past, what started out as a few boulders became a vast mound of stone, encasing the spring like a great wall. The carvings on the stones became ever more elaborate, till it ceased to be a wall of rocks and became a great fortress or, some said, temple.
Some travellers gave up their wanderings to settle by the spring. They became its guardians and protectors. They developed their own special costumes, their own language and rules. Disagreements broke out as to who was allowed to become a guardian, or who could drink the water, when and how. Some of these disputes grew so violent that wars broke out.
The victors of these wars always added new wings to the fortress-temple, in gratitude for their success. So it became grander still. At some point, no one is sure when, the spring was sealed over. Some travellers complained about this, but the guardians ignored them. The guardians held beautiful ceremonies to remember the marvellous healings that the water had once granted, even while people died at the gates from thirst.
To stop the travellers' incessant complaints, the guardians had different water piped in, at enormous expense and difficulty, from far away. Occasionally some strange wanderer would appear and decry the new water, and demand that the guardians make the original spring available to all once again. Some said these odd people were prophets and mystics. Others said they were insane. Usually they were just ignored, or even executed.
Eventually most of the travellers stopped bothering going to the now near-impregnable fortress-temple. They wandered on as best they could and somehow survived. Many cynics said that the old stories about the spring were just a fantasy, that it had never existed at all. Others, exhausted by their journeys, would occasionally sneak into the fortress-temple late at night, when all was quiet and still. There some of them thought that they could hear, just barely, a sound from somewhere deep within the great building. A tiny, faint sound, almost like running water. And tears would brim in their eyes.
SACRED SPACES, SPECIAL PLACES FOR PAGANS
Different traditions of Paganism would give varied responses to this topic, but most would agree that ALL places are, ultimately, sacred and of value. There are no places which can be dismissed as profane or worthless in the Pagan world-view.
The land itself is alive sentient, feeling, purposeful. Each place has a spirit, the genius loci of Roman lore, which both shapes the humans who live there and is, in turn, shaped by them. Strong emotions leave their residue for future generations to respond to great love, deep peace, joy of learning, intense hatred, utter despair etc.
What is a special place for us, is somewhere which echoes the needs of our soul at a given time. A serene woodland grove calls to the soul hankering for peace; a dusty mausoleum may open its arms to one seeking connection to their ancestors; a bleak, storm-wracked coast may grant a broken heart catharsis.
The Pagan seeks to embrace darkness along with light, for all things have their purpose in the universe. A place of great horror, like Auschwitz, may have as much to say as any cathedral. Being sacred does not automatically mean being serene or happy. Pagan creeds do not necessarily strive to redeem or transform that which is disturbing, ugly, discordant. A dangerous volcano is as special as a peaceful forest glade.
Sometimes the most potent sites for a Pagan are those untouched by human hand of which there are increasingly few left in the world. As we stand at the doorway of the 21st Century, with our scientists and their financiers striving to seize control of the very building blocks of life itself, it is worth reflecting that some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sites are those that remain just as the Gods created them. When humans seek to improve upon, add to, make more convenient, or just plain demolish, what nature has created the results are, all too frequently, disastrous.
Though Pagan civilisations have been as much part of this remodelling as anyone. Many modern Pagans find the vast temples of Egypt, Greece and Rome to be sources of immense wonder and spiritual uplift. Yet, for all the desire that emperors and pharaohs had for imposing themselves upon the landscape, much of the architecture is informed by a love of the natural world. One only has to think of the megalithic stone circles that dot Northern Europe, aligned to the passage of stars, sun and moon with baffling accuracy, to see that so many of these religious sites were means of studying and reflecting nature, rather than dominating or sublimating it.
Suffolk has no grand Pagan temples to speak of, no stone circles, no Hanging Gardens, no Mount Olympus. Yet there are magical places; quiet corners of woodlands, a particular babbling brook, a lonely field where the deer can be seen to run. Secret places where not many people go, and where (so far) no supermarket chain has felt the need to stick yet another ton of concrete and glass. That is how, I feel, they best remain. Secret.(Robin Herne)
The Abrahamic faiths were all founded in desert countries. So perhaps it is natural for them to think of a lone oasis, the precious waters of life, the unrelenting light of God etc.
Druidism was born in rain-drenched Europe, surrounded by fertile forests. Rather than communities huddling around a single precious water-source, there were endless rivers and lakes. And countless Gods, rather than just one solitary one to turn to and depend upon.
How about looking at the places / eco-systems in which various faiths originated, and how the images of landscape affect not just early myths but the whole mind-set, that gets carried by believers where-ever they migrate to?
Do the attitudes of desert-dwelling tribesmen still influence Christians 2000 years later? Do the cold reaches of Scandinavia still exert a pull on the minds of modern Heathens? Does a Sikh living in Hounslow still think / act like a Sikh living in the Punjab?
SACRED SPACES / SACRED PLACES
So we invite you to join in this project and give us the benefit of your perspective. We hope individuals, families, schools and other groups will all become involved. SIFRE's members include Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and Sikhs and they will be sharing their insights too. We should be able to gather a lot of thoughts and experiences.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR PLACES TO VISIT
Bradwell - St Cedd's Chapel
Bury St Edmunds - including Abbey Ruins, Cathedral and Hengrave Hall
Colchester - Synagogue
Ely - Cathedral
Felixstowe - Orthodox Church
Fressingfield - Herod's Temple (world-famous model)
IIpswich - Inter-faith trail: (Jewish cemetery, ruins, Churches, Mosque, Gurdwara)
IIpswich - Medieval Churches trail
London - Central Mosque (Regent's Park) Hindu Mandir (Neasden)
Norwich - Julian Shrine, 2 Cathedrals and synagogue.
Walsingham - Shrines
Forests and sea-shores
Gardens - (spirituality of gardens; gardens for therapy)
Homes as sacred spaces/special places
Hospital and hospice chapels
School and college chapels
Shrines and icons.
SIFRE Course - Religious History of Ipswich
This course is ongoing and runs Tuesday mornings throughout the year. Students can join at the beginning of any term.
SIFRE Resources in preparation
Religious Buildings in Ipswich - a set of large photos for display; also worksheets.
Religions through their Art - a study pack
Pilgrimage - a board game
Available for loan