Searching for a deeper understanding of what makes a place sacred.
I spent some time in Hawaii this summer, where Mauna Kea protests were the talk of the town. In case you’ve missed it in the national news, the Thirty Meter Telescope project, proposed for Mauna Kea mountain on the Island of Hawaii, has ignited a firestorm of protests. Some people feel the mountain is sacred and is being desecrated by invasive structures. Others are pushing for the telescope because of its scientific benefits. The discussion got me wondering: How do we define a sacred place? So, I asked some experts for their thoughts.
British psychologist and expert in Druidry Philip Carr-Gomm says he found two broad categories as he worked on his book Sacred Places. “One is places that we have made sacred by associating them with an event, such as a miracle, or the place of birth, death, or enlightenment of a particular individual. Then there are places whose beauty or setting has encouraged humans to build places of worship there. I think sometimes it is due to cultural/historical associations—which over time build up an atmosphere that is tangible. The earth’s electromagnetic field also varies from place to place, which may explain why some places simply feel different in some indefinable way. Essentially it is a mystery, which in itself is valuable since mystery inspires us and gives us a sense of hope and meaning.”
This idea of a tangible atmosphere resonated with me regarding Mauna Kea. Because Mauna Kea is “just” a mountain, “Some people coming from a Western perspective might say, ‘There’s nothing there. They didn’t build anything. We didn’t find anything,’” says Trisha Kehaulani Watson. She is the owner of cultural archaeology firm Honua Consulting in Honolulu. “A church or a temple varies a bit from how indigenous people view a place. On the indigenous people side, it boils down to our values and our history. Looking at Mauna Kea, there is no Notre Dame on it. We instead talk of the land being a sacred natural heritage resource.” The mountain itself is tied to Native Hawaiian history and identity in a profound way and is part of many creation stories. “Mauna Kea is unique in the culture in the way that other sites are not. It has been recognized as far back as we go in our history,” she explains.
“You can’t cut down part of the mountain,” she says. “There is a holistic need to keep the landscape intact and functioning.” Plopping a telescope on the mountain, she says, is akin to parking a Volkswagen van in the middle of the Sistine Chapel.
Deborah Anne Quibell is an author, teacher, and psychologist with a background in Jungian and archetypal studies. Holy or sacred places, she says, offer a sense of enchantment, of wonder. “It’s not about an intellectual debate,” she says. “It’s about moving into the part of us that feels, into a heart-centered perspective. And if we move into that, how does that change the discussion? When we can awaken the feeling, we are able to understand in a different way. Debates would change completely. … Allowing the other to speak and really hearing with the heart, what that feels like for that person, this would change the discussion immensely. And what does it feel like for the earth? That should be part of the discussion as well. Many aboriginal beliefs embody the idea that the earth has a voice and that it should be part of the conversation.”
During her research, Quibell has visited many sacred sites, such as temples and ashrams in Rishikesh, India, and the Black Madonna sculpture at Montserrat, Spain. She notices a commonality: People shift into this heart-centered perspective at sacred places.
Take, for example, pilgrims in Assisi, Italy, venerating St. Francis. “I watched the demeanor of people change as they approached what we have collectively decided is a pilgrimage site,” she says. “There was such a mix of races and ages and ethnicities. I watched an Indian couple come and put their heads on the floor in front of the tomb. A young Italian guy in soccer socks changed completely as he got near it, becoming soft and quiet and open. It is like a passage, watching people walk in one way and walk out another way.”
Perhaps that is a good definition of a sacred place—a place where you arrive and are changed by an indescribable experience of the heart. What do you think? I’d love to hear about any encounters you’ve had with sacred places.