Monday, July 13, 2009

Sacred Space

Sacred space is an interesting thought because – well, we are surrounded by space. Since you woke up this morning you have been in several spaces – your home, your car or bus, this place. How do we know what is sacred and what is not? What makes a place sacred?

Joseph and I have lived about 8 months in India (between our 2 trips) and when we were there we saw and experienced many many sacred places. Some of them we knew about beforehand and travelled to see them – but most of them we discovered when we were there.

Every time we came to an area and met and talked to people, they would inevitably tell us what was so special about that area.

The Hindu religion is imbedded in the land. So everywhere we went – there was a holy place, a sacred mountain, holy river, special valley. People would share with us their knowledge - This is where Krishna started his journey, this is where Hanuman fought the demons, this is where Buddha attained enlightened etc etc. It got to be a bit of a joke – we would see how long we were in one place before someone asked – if we had been to the sacred______. How special it was – what had happened there. How blessed they were to live so close to this sacred spot.

We visited many many of these places. Large and small. Magnificent structures, incredible temples, temple complexes, natural features – mountain peaks, rocks …..and rivers. In Hinduism it is believed that all rivers come from heaven – so they are a direct line from the spiritual world to the earthly world. And touching them is like touching heaven.

A day after we flew into Delhi last fall we hopped on a train and headed north to rishikesh to see the Ganges River. Going to the Ganges river is very special. It is the dream of every Hindu to bathe in the Ganges or die close by so their ashes could be put into the river. And we wanted to experience it.

It was hard to choose which spot to view and visit the Ganges because every few miles – is a sacred spot. Where we went, Rishikesh, is where the Ganges river first meets the plains of India. The first place it hits the ground after it comes tumbling out of the mountains and the valleys. A very sacred spot. 15 miles downriver is where two other rivers join the Ganges and guess what? It is also considered a sacred spot.

When we were there we walked amongst thousands of pilgrims that had journeyed form all over India to be there. We walked on the beautiful sand and among the huge boulders that had come tumbling down the river valley. You could hear Ma Ganga at night when we slept. There are hundreds of temples and shrines up and down the river and all day and all night you could hear the temple bells ringing as people entered and left them. We joined hundreds of people who gather each night at dusk to chant by the riverside and place little lighted floating candles on the river. We took water from the Ganga in little bottles and as we travelled, gave it to our Hindu friends.

We visited the river every day. It is clean, fresh, cold and beautiful – straight from the Himalaya mountains.

The river is called Ma Ganga. Mother Ganga.

"She is the distilled essence of compassion in liquid form." No one is denied her blessing.

As we travelled we stayed in ashrams, chanted, prayed and meditated in incredible places. We received blessings from a woman who is considered a saint in India. We saw incredible relief work being done by ashrams – even still resulting from the aftermath of the tsunami.

Even on our visa application – one of the choices – was ‘pilgrimage’.

We didn’t have to look very hard to find the sacred. What became very evident was that in India there is no separation between religion and life. Between the mundane and the sacred. They are one and the same.

Every person starts their day in prayer and acknowledging God. If you enter a shopkeeper’s tiny space you will see a little space on a shelf, between the soap and rice where there is a small carving or picture, a small offering and the smell of incense in the air – he did not open his shop until these things were done.

There was a neighbourhood temple across from our homestay and every morning before dawn we could hear the temple bells chiming and if we looked out our window we would see everyone from that neighbourhood going to the temple to say their prayers, make an offering and go about their day. Children on their way to school, businessmen with their briefcases, everyone.

You cannot walk 100 feet without encountering some type of small shrines. They have a picture or statute of an aspect of god – say Lord Shiva, with some flowers, candles and incense. People stop to pay their respects and make an offering. Imagine our surprise when as we were walking one day, saw a shrine and stopped to acknowledge it – peeped in and saw – Mary and baby Jesus! Same shape of opening, candles, flowers.

A part of each day is spent remembering and reconnecting with the sacred. Everywhere you look – you can see it.

But what makes it a place holy, sacred?

We have a great example of holy ground in Exodus. When Moses approached the burning bush in the desert the first thing that happens is he hears the voice of God: “Come no further, remove your sandals for the ground on which you stand is holy”. Do you think God meant that spot only was holy and that if Moses walked a few steps away – that ground would not be holy? No – no matter where we are, the ground on which we stand – is holy.

If we see it that way. And that is the challenge isn’t it? To see the sacred in everyday life. In every place we are. To take off our sandals – meaning – remove anything that stands between you and God.

Elizabeth Browning
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off their shoes
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Millions of people travel to sacred spots around the planet. You can read about their stories – of miracles, of healing, of amazing insights.

Lourdes, Ayers Rock in Australia, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu – these places are called sacred or holy. What makes them so?

We do.

Our being there. Our intention – the way we think about them – the way we feel about them. How we show up – open and receptive to the divine. Perhaps when we are in these places – we ‘take off our shoes’ – we open our eyes to the sacred that is around us, and we allow the mystery to become visible.

Buddha said: wherever you live is your temple – if you treat it like one.

Wherever we live………….

In the New Testament Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the ‘kingdom of heaven’. He tells parables and stories and more stories – each one trying to get those around him to look at the kingdom of heaven as not something up there – far away – separate from us, but wherever we are.

In Luke 17: The Pharisees demanded of Jesus to tell them when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, “The kingdom of God comes not with observation: Neither shall they say, Look here it is! or, there it is! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

The kingdom of God – the sacred – is not here or there. It is not something we can see – through our observation – through our eyes. It is, as Jesus says, within you. God is everywhere present. And the thing that is sometimes the hardest to remember is that also means – where? Right here – inside us.

And that is why – wherever we are is sacred ground. Because we are.

My challenge is to remember that. To act as if I really believed that. To treat every place as sacred.

I invite you to enter into your week and your world – with eyes that see the sacred. With the intention to create the sacred – everywhere you are.

We are a walking, talking, living, breathing – sacred space!