SACRED SPACE, an Encyclopedia.com definition: A sacred place is first of all a defined place, a space distinguished from other spaces. A sacred place focuses attention on the forms, objects, and actions in it and reveals them as bearers of religious meaning.
Years ago, the Camino was described to me as a sacred space. A place of serious, conscious devotion, ongoing and alive with spiritual energy. If you walked it, I imagined, you would sense that energy in the air you breathed, the trees that towered over you, or the dirt under your feet. It’s why I never clean my boots when I get home. The dirt to me is a bit of the sacred. Something small that reaches out to me, connecting me to my time spent walking.
The only problem I have with that definition just above is the word “religious.” It is hollow to me, limiting, confining. It’s just not big enough a word to encompass what I have experienced on the Camino and why every time I come home, I start planning how quickly I can get back. I have come to focus on the human energy now and leave most of the religion part to someone else. I know now that a real bona fide sacred place reveals more than a little something of the human beings who have inhabited it.
And I owe this lightbulb moment to my friend in Spain who is renovating a medieval property in order to turn it over to pilgrims to use as a refuge. I have volunteered a couple of times to help Neill, my principal asset being that I like to talk to people and tell stories. Not much of a skill set in the real world but it allows him to keep working if I can tell passing pilgrims of the future of the building and something about its past. Which I do in a few different languages, talking being the one thing I think I do well.
The central part of his property is a closed, empty, former church. It had been closed and out of operation for at least a decade before he acquired it, there being nearby a perfectly serviceable church that was easily accessible to the several towns nearby it.
While I worked there, the building was empty, the pews stacked at one end, no decoration save a chandelier that had lost any hope of becoming operable again, and a rectangle of brick that years ago would have served as the base of the altar. Every and anything of any value had long been carted out.
But here’s the rub. When I would tell people to please step in if you would like to see inside, I got the most interesting responses, both verbal and non-verbal. Men would remove their caps. Couples would start whispering to each other. “May I take photos, please?” “Would it be alright if I sang?”
They were entering just the frame of what had been the church. But that frame, as my friend explained to me, was also a repository and that nothing so small as a deconsecration ceremony or lack of use would ever take that away. It held the hopes and fears of several centuries’ worth of supplicants and believers. It was the vessel for generations of congregants’ prayers, joys, desperation. It was where people came to celebrate the birth of their children, to marry the love of their life, and finally to bury their dead.
And my friend believes, as I do now, that once those prayers and entreaties are uttered into a, what do they call it, a “defined” space, they never leave it. Prayers do not evaporate when the wailing stops. They are held there, in that vessel, even when all that is left of it is the framing and it has long ago stopped being a house of God or a working, operating house of worship.
And so it is to me with the Camino. It’s not a religious experience for me at all, but it is a sublimely human one in what I call a thoughtful, sacred space. Pilgrimage encapsulates the human in us in a way that is not easily described. We walk, we meet new people and they become our friends, our comrades. We learn something and we get up in the morning, God willing, and do it again. In the shadow of our pilgrim ancestors, we act in a ritual that will leave something of ourselves in that defined space. Our deliberations, our sorting out, our confusions over what route to take next when we get home, our anxiety, fears, shortcomings, accomplishments, our joys are all laid out along The Way.
It is us who make it sacred. A human space distinguished from other spaces.
Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again. — Joseph Campbell
If you’d like to read more, please try my book, “Buen Camino!” Available in my bookstore (top menu bar).