Holy places

The Episcopal Café asked for articles in February on holy places. This Ethical Musings post is my contribution to that great website.

I, like a great many people, experience some places as holy places.

However, I do not believe that God created specific holy places. Ongoing, consistent evolutionary processes produced the cosmos as we know it. This presumably precludes God differentiating particular places in ways that those places are inherently holy or “thin,” i.e. places in which God is more easily or frequently encountered.

So what makes a place holy?

When I served for two years as the Head of the Religious Facilities Management Branch in the Office of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I oversaw the design of a dozen chapels and religious support facilities. I wanted Navy religious facilities to offer sailors, Marines, and their families the feeling of being in a holy place. The question of what made a place holy acquired an urgent professional importance that caused me to begin organizing previously fragmentary and occasionally contradictory ideas into more comprehensive, coherent, and cohesive thoughts.

In the years since then, I have refined my answer to that question, but the basic ideas have largely remained unchanged. Places that people deem holy facilitate the human spirit discerning or encountering God in one or more of the following five ways. An essential caveat to all five ways in which a place may become identified as a holy place is that each person will have an individual response to the place, sometimes finding the place holy and sometimes not.

First, some places evoke or encourage an awareness of the transcendent. Magnificent cathedrals with their massive size, soaring towers, and stained glass do this for many visitors, including me. Some of my favorite cathedrals are Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, and the National Cathedral in Washington. I have experienced these, along with other cathedrals, as holy places. Grandeur is no assurance that people will identify a place as holy. I felt the lure of the transcendent when I visited Jesus’ alleged childhood home in Nazareth, a small grotto of stone and dirt, but not while visiting the huge and historic Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Second, some places are catalysts for reflection upon the meaning of life and the quality of one’s own life. Some depictions of saints and biblical scenes in stained glass, sculpture, and paintings invite me to assess ways in which I might deepen my spirituality. Conversely, Cromwellian depredations of churches that destroyed many such works of art and installed tablets with the Ten Commandments warn against idolatry and remind me of the need to keep my spiritualty well-grounded. The austere simplicity of Quaker meeting houses underscore the otherness of the divine.

Third, the beauty of some places – sometimes a beauty created by humans but at least equally often a beauty discerned in nature – imbues a place with a sense of being holy. Such places can infuse lives with hope that evil will not triumph as well as trigger reflections about the transcendent and my awareness of self and God. Illustratively, star gazing at night while underway, with the ship that I was aboard the only visible sign of human existence, was often incredibly beautiful. In those moments, I could see immense numbers of stars and the ocean, which can feel threatening, empty, or overwhelmingly vast, became a holy place for me.

Fourth, the originality or uniqueness of some places can disrupt ordinary perceptions thereby promoting awareness of the holy and a fresh look at one’s self. I found this dynamic especially important in the design of Navy religious ministry facilities. Sadly, limited funds usually precluded installation of art. Additionally, a requirement to construct facilities that welcomed people of all faiths excluded reliance upon art or architecture identified with a particular religious tradition. Architects, however, creatively employed soaring ceilings, abstract colored glass, and other novel techniques in their efforts, often successful, to give people entering the space a sense of being in a holy place.

Finally, some places are holy because of the love people experience in that place. When I have visited places in which people have gathered for hundreds or even thousands of years to pray and to affirm their love for God, I have sometimes sensed that I was in a holy place. I do not know if this feeling had an objective or only a subjective basis, but I don’t think that ultimately matters. The place was holy for me because of my awareness of the love for God associated with the place. Other places feel holy because the loving community that meets there. Illegal immigrants seek sanctuary in churches for this reason. The hungry, homeless, and broken-hearted seek out a church known for being a loving community, finding that congregation’s meeting place a holy place.

Unfortunately, holy places are not timeless. When maintaining a building has become an end in itself, the building is no longer a holy place, i.e., it is no longer a means to an end as a place in which people encounter the holy. The building may be a memorial to a once vibrant community, but God calls us primarily to love our living neighbors rather than to preserve historic memorials. Places can also lose their claim to be holy because of changes in aesthetic sensibilities (I, for one, find Victorian ecclesial structures spiritually unmoving), ecological changes (a fire destroyed a wooded glen that often triggered spiritual reflections), etc. Holy places, like the divine, are not static but are dynamic sources of life.


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