Reflections on Sacred Space
On my way back to Tamworth from Newcastle recently, I stopped by the Franciscan retreat centre at Stroud. Haven’t been there for years. Where once (the last time I visited) there was a living community, now there was a solitary caretaker priest. She kindly opened it up for me. I was very impressed by the chapel, with its tree trunk alter – it felt like a sacred space.
I started inquiring into the sense of sacredness. What is this? It was the sense that I was in the midst of subjectivity – of knowing – that did not belong to me.
My usual consciousness is that I possess the knowing. I am the seer and that which I experience is the seen. In this sacred space the knowing was no longer mine; rather, it was suffused into, as a quality of, the space and all that it contained.
- Not in an animistic sense that the objects were themselves localised points of consciousness looking back at me.
- Nor in the intellectual recognition that the objects of experience, by virtue of their being objects of experience, are already forms of knowing.
More like: that everything, including myself, is lovingly held by and suffused with impersonal knowing. The knowing no longer belongs to me as the knower but, rather, adheres to, or is an aspect of, the things being experienced. This moment becomes the occasion of all things experiencing, celebrating, themselves!
Perhaps one way of looking at it is like this: You are watching a bird. From an objective point of view, say, of someone else watching this, that person will see you watching the bird. Now, your normal consciousness tends to internalise this objective perspective so that your experience of seeing the bird will also include, as a background framework, the sense of “I’m watching the bird”. So, if someone were to ask you “what’s up?”, you could well immediately reply, “I’m watching this bird.” (Perhaps, an infant or toddler who has not fully developed this objective framework that includes the sense of self as an object, would simply reply “Bird!”) In this normal adult consciousness, the knowing is felt to be localised behind the eyes of the observer. The bird is not part of the knowing; it is, rather, the target of the knowing. In this way, the objects of awareness are bound in a binary relationship to one’s reflected sense of self, the sense of ‘me’.
I might add that this way of knowing, which objectifies and reflects the self to the self, is profoundly instrumental: it enables us to plan and get things done that would otherwise be impossible.
Consciousness is not static. One direction away from the consciousness described above is experienced in trance-like absorption. For example, you might be absorbed in a film. Now, if I were to ask you “what’s up?”, you might reply, not with “I’m watching a movie”, but with “the moon Nazis are about to invade the Earth!” (This is similar to the toddler’s response.) Here, the sense of knowing is not, as before, contracted to behind one’s eyes, but has disappeared altogether. There is only the film.
A sense of the sacred is also a step away from normal consciousness but in the opposite direction to absorption. Here the sense of knowing is no longer contracted to behind one’s eyes or lost completely. Rather, Knowing is sensed as being distributed throughout the experiential field. It is pervasive and palpable and takes on the sense of presence. It is no longer in the background but occupies the foreground. Moreover, because it adheres to the objects of perception rather than to the sense of ‘me’ as the perceiver, the things I experience are freed from dependence upon me. They stand fully in their own ontological / epistemological ground and the binary quality of experience (me – you / me – it) is loosened. Things are liberated, to be themselves, from me!
Frequently, the experience of being seen, or known, evokes a sense of judgement and shame. Being seen can also be the experience of being loved. But in taking the foreground and being non-localised, the experience of Knowing is purified of judgement and thus has the sense of being lovingly held. I imagine this is what mystics mean when they talk about by feeling the love of God. I take it that this is very different from fantasising that there is a God who loves me on the basis of some preaching and wishful thinking. A little more of this below…
Sacred Space, Religion and God
This being a Franciscan chapel and me being a Christian, there was certainly a disposition for me to recognise the space as sacred. Its a bit like knowing a style of music, say, jazz: if you understand jazz, it will be easier to recognise the genius of a Charlie Parker piece than if you don’t. But, while it helps, I don’t think intimate knowledge of a form is necessary for recognition. I imagine that any well crafted space designed for such a purpose from whatever religious culture has the potential to trip the mind of the viewer into a different way of experiencing. Furthermore, such occasions have, for me, been most commonly elicited in outdoor, natural settings.
Is the idea of God helpful in allowing for such experiences? While I do not think a belief in God is necessary (or sufficient), I do think that the idea of God can be helpful as a way to overcome the prejudice that the only things that are real are objects and that, therefore, this Knowing I am experiencing is something that belongs to me (something I have, that the reflected ‘me’ is doing). The problem of thinking in this way is that it is antithetical to the sacred experience itself and will sabotage it. Instead, a view along the lines of: “this experiencing is not really my experiencing but God’s (or Reality’s) self-experiencing and the particular experiencing occurring here, now, is an instancing of this” would harmonise with the experience.
The way I am using the term ‘God’ here is quite different to how it is commonly used by religious (and non-religous) people. I’m using it as a useful shorthand for, as well as a reification and mythologisation of, the sense of non-localised Oneness disclosed in the experience of sacred space: oneness of subject and object, Being and Knowing, actor and action, thereby conceived as the source, medium, power and end of everything. (Well, something like that, anyway!) Sometimes, in occasions such as finding oneself in a sacred space, Reality suffers a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ to expose this usually veiled divine Oneness.
However, in my experience, for many, God is, instead, imagined as an all powerful entity external to ourselves, with whom we relate as we would one person to another: an adult version of the child’s imaginary friend. Such localisation of God into an individual point of subjectivity with which this point of subjectivity (myself) can be in relationship (me as knower, God as known / God as knower, me as known), while in some ways useful (prayer is better than worry), will, in the end, serve to reinforce unquestioned investing into one’s reflective sense of self (‘me’) as something absolute. Whereas, as I see it, spiritual maturity is very much about learning to sit lightly with the sense of ‘me’ as it (naturally) arises and passes. That is, I do not make I / me / mine the absolute orienting point of this life lived. In love, I open to find the orienting point anywhere and everywhere. This is finding myself in sacred space.
As a caveat, I do not think it is particularly useful to chase altered mind states such as the one described here. It is more important to be mindful to whatever state is self manifesting in the present moment. Indeed, state chasing can serve to further cement the dualist ‘me – not me’ perspective of normal instrumental consciousness; wakeful acceptance, however, may keep us alert to state changes that otherwise would not get a look in while we are preoccupied with getting somewhere else. Nor am I suggesting that there is anything wrong with dualistic instrumental consciousness – as mentioned earlier, it gets things done. But the altered state of knowing that I am describing does seem to be more complete, as the knowing here enfolds all arisings of the sense of me or of instrumental thought, for these too are objects in / manifestations of the field of knowing.
So, if you’ve read thus far, what has been your experience of sacred space? How does your experience coincide or differ from my analysis in this essay? Have I overlooked anything bleedingly obvious? Your thoughts are appreciated!
(PS. If you have an interest in spirituality, you may be interested in some of the links on my Links page.)