We contemplated the nunnery
not out of fear, but out of love.
Love of what, we could not say. But we knew
it had something to do with the way
a flower twisted toward sunlight,
the way storms gather, bruised and swollen.
This, we could call God…..
My search for the sacred started early, in arguments with Hebrew school teachers and long afternoons sitting beneath the willow trees that were planted to keep our backyard from flooding. College brought philosophy classes and a severe revulsion for the trappings of religion.
I sought a language of the sacred in the built landscape (thus a few years of architecture school), in art (yup, there was a year of art therapy training), in poetry (which I taught to elementary school children in Harlem), and even in the dreaming journeys of shamanism.
Ultimately, I found communion in the green world, amongst the flowers and trees and the stones. I found a peace and joy in the small messages that a butterfly can bring and in the odd rant of the ravens. And when I did — the questions, the searching and striving, simply fell away.
I have become familiar with the feeling of communion, how it resonates in my heart and quiets my mind. I know the light frisson of joy that electrifies my skin and reminds me that I am alive and a part of a larger dance.
This feeling is a tuning fork by which I measure the vibration of the places and events in my life.
And so… I walked into the Church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Sagrada Familia is not an ancient church. It was started in 1882 and is still an ongoing project. There is a sense — not only in the present space, but in the writings of its architect Antonio Gaudi — that this is a project for the generations. That time and evolution are to play a part in the dance of its creation.
You will have noted up above that I studied architecture. From merely looking at the photos of his works, I had wondered (as my husband Andrew did!) if Antonio Gaudi had the word “gaudy” coined for his style.* I had thought Gaudi’s work was fanciful at best, and frivolous at worst.
And then I walked in and looked up.
The columns of Sagrada Familia are designed to feel like trees. They are precisely proportioned and so, despite the overt ornamentation and allegory, I felt deep peace. I felt awe for the human accomplishment of this vision that spans from generation to generation, enticing artisans from each decade to add their mark and become part of the greater whole. It was breathtaking… and soul-stopping.
The church was crowded the day I was there, as was the Old City of Jerusalem as I stood at the Western Wall five days later, contemplating the seekers and the sacred, wondering what makes a place holy.
We had gone to Israel to visit my sister and her family and to attend my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. I expected to sit in ignorance as the service went on around me in a language I neither speak nor understand. Instead, the Rabbi switched back and forth, Hebrew to English. He talked about the torah reading for that particular day, and how it turned on the concept of holy space.
He asked my nephew “What space is holy for you?”
My nephew told him that his holy place is his summer camp in America.
The rabbi asked “what makes it holy?”
My nephew answered “The people and the friendships and the memories that are created there.”
As the Rabbi closed the service, he offered a blessing to my nephew: the blessing of finding the holy in every place that he visits so that there is no place that is not sacred.
In that moment, my mind wandered back to Barcelona, to a small church courtyard in the winding alleys of the Gothic district. An ethereal voice floated over the square, singing Silent Night as the sun dipped lower, casting long shadows over the cobblestones.
We were halfway across the plaza as the singing began. I looked back to see that the ephemeral voice emanated from a squat woman in bright orange sweatpants.
… and a frisson of joy ran down my arms.
Have you stumbled upon an unexpected moment of the sacred? Or been somewhere where you expected to feel that deep sense of peace but felt nothing? Share below!
Need to be able to create sacred space for yourself wherever you are?
Try putting a few drops of essential oil on your palm, rubbing your hands together and sniffing.
This is soooo personal! Frankincense, Myrrh, Davanna, Palo Santo, Sandalwood, and Sage have all been used in various cultures to connect us with divinity. But you may find that the scent of Jasmine or Pine hold a particular association that is just right for you.
Follow your nose and use what speaks to you, personally.
* Oh, and Gaudi and gaudy: no relation!