"Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again."
JOSEPH CAMBELL writer, mythologist,
“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
WENDELL BERRY writer, farmer
“To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest centre of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tower or Canyon de Chelly or the Cahokia Mounds, you touch the pulse of the living planet; you feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spirit that pervades geologic time and space.”
N SCOTT MOMADAY writer, Pueblo nation
“When you see something, your mind rushes to put labels on it: table, chair, good, bad etc. Sacred space is a space where your mind doesn't feel need to label anything. It relaxes, allowing you to go inward. That space can be seashore, forest, mountain, beloved's arms or a temple. For awakened ones, every inch is sacred.”
“There is no less holiness at this time- as you are reading this- than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the 30th year, in the 4th month, on the 5th day of the month as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Cheban, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment
under the tree at the end of your street than there was under Buddha’s bo tree…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in trees.”
ANNIE DILLARD writer
In my first tentative steps to proceed with this webzone I called it SACRED, changing the name after a few weeks to SACRED SPACE. I was aware from the beginning that the word sacred carries quite a heavy weight, implying the too precious to be touched or an unassailable truth. I do not believe in unassailable truths. Even scientists change their minds. In fact, you could define science and rational thought in general as a process of perpetual mind-changing. I have now opted for the more neutral and open name of amaze - with an emphasis on the labyrinthine rather than the startling. That is a reference to the structure and form of the intended site rather than its content and intention.
Yet I have no intention to bury the idea. I have long been drawn to the concept of the sacred as a key resource for living and feeling and caring. Elsewhere in this webzone (DARKNESS & LIGHT / First Light) I have started to write about my first encounters with the sacred, as a child, and my subsequent seeking out of the sacred as a much-travelled journalist, filmmaker and artist. For me it is a capacious idea, including the holy and divine yet reaching far beyond these into all aspects of life - arising in places, objects, events, experiences and thoughts that seem to emit a certain power, that engage us more deeply than the mundane and everyday, that imply something beyond the moment, something of special value.
That could be a temple complex at dawn in a mountainous rainforest or it could be a child taking her first steps. It could be a musician reaching a moment of perfection or someone courageously challenging abusive and corrosive authority. Whatever else it proves to be, this webzone is dedicated to people, at their most inspiring and most appalling - and the many stages in between. It is also intended as an expression of love and respect and mourning for the world we humans have valued as sacred, from the beginning of our existence as a sentient species. Paradoxically, almost blindly, we are at last beginning to acknowledge that we have exploited and trashed our home planet to the very edge of our own extinction, and the extinction of species beyond number - species we don't even know exist.
May we step back from this brink.
Although many people, especially those who have the confidence to rely entirely upon the rational and the measurable, may dismiss the sacred as irrelevant -a meaningless distraction- billions of people continue to associate it with some of the things they most value, an encounter with the very meaning of life, perhaps even its purpose. So what exactly is the word sacred referring to? Put simply, what does the word actually mean? In English, unadorned dictionary definitions cannot get us close to the richness of the word and the wealth of its manifestations. The two bare definitions I find in the Oxford dictionary appear, at first, so pared down that they almost contradict each other.
1 connected with God or a god; considered to be holy
a sacred image/shrine/temple
Cows are sacred to Hindus.
2 very important and treated with great respect
Human life must always be sacred.
For journalists nothing is sacred (= they can write about anything).
Some companies offer five-year plans but there is nothing sacred
about this length of time (= it can be changed).
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
"To theology only what it holds sacred is true, whereas to philosophy, only what holds true is sacred.”
LUDWIG FEUERBACH philosopher
“When you reflect on the infinite number of happenstances that coalesced to produce you, then you understand how unique, how precious, how sacred you really are. Your task is to cultivate that precious, sacred nature and help it to flower.”
ROBERT AITKEN Zen Buddhist teacher
These parallel definitions provoke the question: is the word sacred eternally tied to the concept of religion or is it not? The dictionary goes on to tell us that the original Latin word sacer translates into English as "holy" or "purified", as in a religious ritual. Yet, when we dig deeper, we find that the root of the word translates as "set apart" or "restricted". Perhaps we can extend this to the highly valued, the exceptional, the vital. Even in an age when religion is so often contested or rejected, the word sacred retains its power and purpose, through its persistent inference to some of the things that profoundly matter, to most people in most societies around the world.
That last sentence is a bold one to write, based as it is on my own speculation. Yet my extensive travels as a journalist, filmmaker and artis have led me to conclude that many of people I encounter, in all kinds and at all levels of society, have within them some sense of the sacred, whether formalised through religion or shaped within a secular framework. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to find data to back up my assumption, but the Washington-based Pew Research Centre does say this, in a report from 2018:
"The vast majority of people around the world claim a religious identity, such as Christian, Muslim or Hindu. But there is a clear age gap: Out of 106 countries surveyed, young adults (18 - 40) are significantly less likely to be affiliated with a religious group in 41 countries. In only two countries are young adults more likely to identify with a religion, while there is no significant difference in 63 countries."
The survey also finds that poorer countries have a more extensive attachment to religion than richer ones. Even so, the evidence suggests that religious belief of some kind continues to influence the majority of people in the world. And, with no well-founded facts to back me up but a lot of direct and personal experience to influence my intuitions, I contend that the sacred can still have meaning for the many people who are post-religious and even anti-religious. I call upon here the support of someone who seemed to believe that a balance between intuition and evidence is not only possible but to be recommended:
"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift."
ALBERT EINSTEIN theoretical physicist
This webzone is less about definitions than descriptions - what people do, and why, as well as what they believe and say. I do not intend to foreground religion nor to dismiss its significance but to deal with it, in this context, as but one manifestation of the urge people have to make their lives both meaningful and purposeful. In my own life, I have become aware of just how much intensity and passion people commit to their sense of the sacred, and how much inventiveness. I have become convinced that the sacred can act as a bright mirror for looking back at ourselves, in all our amazing diversity, and all our vulnerability. I am using this site as an attempt to construct a mosaic mirror of my own, to share with you, whoever and wherever you are.
I have chosen the image of Narcissus - from the Greek myth - to introduce the idea of the mirror, to make a point that I think is especially relevant in this time of rising, unprecedented crisis. Narcissus was the young man who fell in love with his own reflection. As painted by the Italian master Caravaggio, I feel he represents all of us, all of humanity, staring into the mirror of our own brilliance and achievement or, to put it more critically, our own self-regard. We have told ourselves for far too long (against prevailing evidence) how great we are, and how appropriate it is that we should conquer the world and use it primarily for own pleasure and advancement, and damn the consequences. But, as with Narcissus, our vanity is destroying us. And, unlike Narcissus, who did little harm to anyone but himself, apart from hurting some feelings, we are destroying everything around us. Because Caravaggio so convincingly creates people we can recognise, and feel close to, he makes us weep for ourselves along with the tears of the beautiful young man. Narcissus seems to asks himself: "Who am I? Why am I so alone? Is my beauty really a curse?" And there final and open-ended, "What is my fate?"
In my frequent experience of the sacred as life-affirming I have encountered great beauty, and humanity at its most kind and most profound. Yet I have also witness the sacred being used in support of some of the ugliest and most dangerous ideas and actions imaginable - many of them close to the unthinkable. This webzone will not avoid the darker side. The sacred is a resource not an excuse.
I have had the enormous privilege to experience the sacred in countless contexts - not least, I admit, because I have so often sought it out. Wherever and whenever I encounter the sacred it seems to coincide with an intensity of feeling and a concentration of thought that demands my full attention. It can become a rewarding and memorable encounter even when I cannot really understand what is going on. Experiencing a ritual outside my own belief system can still provoke strong feelings, encouraging empathy towards the participants and often a sense of engagement, and always excitement. Entering an unfamiliar sacred space can also move me to stillness, silence and awe, anywhere in the world. Whatever is happening before my eyes and whatever is affecting my other senses, there seems to be a reference to something beyond the particular moment, object, place or sensation. I feel that I am being drawn toward a deeper meaning, or perhaps toward a mystery, the unknown or the unknowable.
I conceive this project to be open-ended, seeking no conclusion. It is also a creative experiment: I wish to see how far I can develop the website form as a creative medium, maybe even a sacred one. I am fascinated by the way that the digital realm enables us to slip so smoothly between constructed narratives and blocks of data, and how image and word, sound and silence, stillness and movement can be almost instantly brought together in productive juxtaposition. I am also interested in the way a website can become a democratic tool, by enhancing the autonomy of the reader/viewer/listener/user. It can enable them to connect, disconnect and reconnect the material that is presented to them, in ways that match their own priorities and interests, rather than those of the web producer or individual contributor. To repeat myself, I invite you to join in.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
The lynching of Reuben Stacey, Broward County, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (1935)