A striking image from the late Renaissance shows a bald human head with a huge eyeball in the center of the skull. Below the image is the phrase “The Eye of Imagination.” It takes this kind of eye, larger and more penetrating than a normal eye, to see the depth of things. I think there is a special eye of the sacred imagination that allows you to see the holy core in everything. It lets you know that every place is sacred, if you look for it.
When we were raising our children, we had a saying from Nicholas of Cusa painted over the doorway of our tiny library: Quocumque me verto ades. “Wherever I turn, you are there.” I don’t think that this great fifteenth-century Christian theologian meant anything sentimental. He meant that wherever you look you may behold the divine or the numinous.
Some places are holy because they hold the mystery of our ancestry and still echo our dead forebears who created a home for us. In the late nineteenth century, my great-grandparents made the risky voyage from Ireland to Upstate New York, and even now we family members can stop at that 125-acre piece of land in the hills among the Finger Lakes and feel our pulses beat as we stand on land that is truly holy. No one had to tell us that this ground is holy; we feel it in our very being.
Formal places of ritual and divine art are also sacred, of course. The cathedrals at Wells, Bath, Coventry, Exeter, and Westminster are my favorites in England. I also consider Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond a small-scale cathedral in his small-scale religion.
Recently, an Episcopal Church on Cape Cod hosted me, and I walked up the steep steps to the high pulpit, looked over the full church, and found a strong voice to deliver my teaching. For an hour or so that pulpit was a remarkable sacred space, full of power and, for me, revelations about my life work. It’s satisfying when a building made for sacred events truly shows its power, when places meant to be holy really are. You have to maintain the sacred and let it shine.
Formal sacred places, like cathedrals and kivas and mosques, instruct and inspire us to make every place sacred or to bring out the latent holiness of space itself. You go to a church not to go to church but to remember that this world is inherently holy and is made secular only by our forgetfulness. Our very planet is a sacred being, alive and pulsing with vitality. I now use the name of the goddess Gaia when I speak of it, rather than Earth, which tends to make it into an object.
For me, religion is the capacity of the imagination and the heart together to perceive the awesome, dizzying, utterly serious divinity within things. If the divine is not found in the world, part of it and deeply within it, then it is artificially separated out and becomes weird. We worship what we hold captive, what we make comfortable and sentimental, rather than the holiness that emanates like a power from the very heart of things. You never know when the sacred is going to show itself among all the secular camouflage with which we adorn our world.
We don’t exactly make places sacred. We lay bare their undiscovered holiness. Sacredness has nothing to do with psychological projections. It requires a holiness in our own lives that affects our eyesight so that we are able to appreciate the sacred when and where it wants to show itself. We have to be ready and prepared. That’s why we meditate and pray and build altars and chant and make large and small cathedrals.
Renaissance spiritual teachers said that the churches and altars and sculptures are lures. We hope to attract the divine to them so that we can have access to it. We have to build well and make solid art pieces and use music equal to the paradox of vastness and intimacy that theologians around the world present as qualities of the divine. This is a challenge that only the truly inspired and profoundly educated are up to.
It all comes down to the famous saying of the great visionary English poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” A sacred space is nothing more than this, that although it is entirely natural and even ordinary, the infinite shines through.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.