Miyajima Torii. Image courtesy of Rog01 via Flickr.

What makes a place sacred?

  1. Is it sacred because of a sacred EVENT, like the appearance of an angel or a burning bush?
  2. Is it sacred because it’s a SOLITARY PLACE for meditation and communion with the Divine: where heaven and earth meet, like the top of a mountain or where water approaches land?
  3. Is it sacred because it has been SANCTIFIED by the worship and good works that happen there; like a synagogue, an abbey, a shelter, or even a home?

St. Peter Cupola + Baldachin.
Image courtesy of Allie_Caulfield via Flickr
I guess it can be all of these reasons and probably more that I haven’t thought of.

In Sacred Places, James Swan argues that many sacred spaces are characterized by an abundance of negative ions, reducing fatigue, invigorating us, and improving our respiratory system, making us less susceptible to colds & infections [Sacred Places: How the Living Earth Seeks Our Friendship, page 153].

So do we just physically feel fabulous in these places and interpret the feeling to be communication from heaven?  Or does God work within His own set of physical laws, using our hearts, minds and bodies to get our attention?  Feng Shui theory discusses chi (usually translated as “energy”) in terms of seeing, feeling, and sensing, so maybe we're not far off.

I’m Workin’ on a Building for My Lord

So if you’re going to build at a place that is already sacred, how do you go about it?   How do you dare impose what is manmade on what is Sacred without making it profane?  Of course, it has been done, and to great effect!  The toriis in Japan, the dome of the rock, the Acropolis in Athens, the original shrine at St. Peter’s tomb, enlarged so many times (into a basilica, a compound, a city, a country).

Mount Sinai. Image courtesy of Jesper Särnesjö via Flickr.
And if we are to build, shouldn’t we build in places where there is a good sacred energy/chi?  Of course, you’d want to do this without destroying the feeling of the place: wouldn’t it be nice if that were just a universal assumption?
I think of lovely sites that are built on with great sensitivity, responding to what is already there.  Some of these are later encroached upon by the invasion of sprawl; and, the environmental character that the newcomers hoped to share in is lost.

To the Lord Let Praises Be

according to the description from the Bible via Wikimedia.
Alternately, if you’re going to build a place that is to become sacred once it is in use, like a temple (again, I assert, even a home!), how do you go about it?
We have the biblical record of how Solomon was instructed to build his temple: the best materials from the best sources (sparing no expense), the best craftsmanship (presumably some of which was tithed), massive proportions.  A temple to impress the believers and the nonbelievers by its size and expense.  That’s the way they did it back then.

Holiness to the Lord

In a time of worldwide religions building in far-flung locations, is the approach the same?  Should it be?

Acropolis, Greece.
Image courtesy of VasenkaPhotography via Flickr.
Today, current architectural theory promotes using local materials, local craftsmen, and local vernacular.   Are gold and cedar appropriate to bedeck a sacred room in a location where these materials are unknown?  Or does this tell the worshippers that the path to God does not belong to them?
Even more complex, how do you build in the architectural language of an established religion while using the same architecture to invite cultures who are new to it.  I suppose it’s the perennial problem of missionary work, architectural or not, modern or ancient.

Mission San Juan Bautista. Image courtesy of HarshLight via Flickr.

A final set of questions:

  • Do you have a sacred place in or outside of your home where you like to meditate or pray?  
  • Is there a specific place you feel closest to God?  
  • What are the characteristics of that place (or are they impossible to define)?

Additional reading: 

Zessn Pinterest Board: Temples & Sacred Places
Wikipedia Article: Sacred Architecture
SacredArchitecture.Org: The Significance of the Church Building

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