What Makes a Sacred Place Sacred?

What Makes a Sacred Place Sacred? August 9, 2020

Last week a Facebook friend asked if anyone had been to any place in the United States that felt especially powerful. The responses were generally affirmative, with examples of places people had been where they had strong experiences, or just felt like they were in the presence of something sacred.

A few said they hadn’t. They said there was nothing on this continent that could compare to the sacred sites of Europe, or just the land there.

I’ve been to places of great power in Europe, especially in Britain and Ireland. I’ve also been to places of great power here in North America. But the most powerful spiritual and religious experiences I’ve had have been in my back yard and similar locations here in suburban Texas.

Still, spiritual experiences and encounters are more likely in some places than in others. I’ve poured offerings to Cernunnos on the Las Vegas strip (and He was there) but I feel His presence more strongly in the woods.

From our experiences, we intuitively understand that some places are sacred. They’re special, they’re powerful, and you’re more likely to experience something mystical there than in other places. And that raises an interesting question.

What makes a sacred place sacred?

The Portal Stones - Anglesey, Wales - 2014
The Portal Stones – Anglesey, Wales – 2014

Places of natural beauty and power

It borders on circular reasoning to say that powerful places are powerful. Perhaps it would be better to say that some places are inherently powerful and we don’t know why. We just know they inspire wonder and awe when we visit them.

Some of these places are liminal zones – “in between” places like beaches (between the land and the sea) and mountains (between the land and the sky). Some are places of literal power, like waterfalls and volcanoes. Others just inspire us in ways we can only guess.

Even in this high-tech world where seemingly all knowledge is at our fingertips, there are still places that make us feel small and insignificant. And at the same time they connect us to something much greater than ourselves. We don’t have to know why they’re powerful to experience their power.

We just have to be there.

Red Rock Canyon - Nevada - 2019
Red Rock Canyon – Nevada – 2019

Connections to the Otherworld

Some places have an Otherworldly feel to them because they’re directly connected to the Otherworld. Traditionally, these have been deep places like wells and caves, and high places like mountains.

But there’s a spot in my back yard where certain spiritual persons tend to come and go. When I step into that spot, I’m no longer entirely here. Other people have said the same thing.

And I have a local friend (who I will not name to keep them from being pestered by the curious, but if you think you know what I’m talking about, you probably do) whose back yard changes size after dark. Sometimes it’s ordinary size, other times it’s the size of a football field. Lots of spiritual persons come and go there.

Perhaps these connections are due in part to the humans living nearby. But I’ve come across other places where no humans live that are especially close to the Otherworld, or at least, to a portion of it. Places where you step in and come out some place else, or where you think a minute has passed and it’s been a half hour. These places can be hard to find… and if you do find them they may have moved the next time you visit. Or they may be closed next time.

But they still exist. Some places are powerful and sacred because they’re directly connected to the world of the Gods and ancestors.

Place where powerful things happened

Some places are powerful because of what happened there.

Chickamauga National Military Park - 2017
Chickamauga National Military Park – 2017

This is Chickamauga National Military Park. It was the site of the second most deadly battle of the U.S. Civil War, behind only Gettysburg. Casualties on both sides totaled 34,624, with 3969 killed. I grew up a few miles away and I’ve spent a fair amount of time here. I’m not the most psychically sensitive person in the world, but even I can hear the dead at Chickamauga. The last time I visited I wrote this:

What I heard was soldiers in the middle of battle: many voices screaming many different things. I felt fear, pain, and terror. I heard the moment when invincible young men realized they were indeed quite mortal. I heard the realization that dreams would never come true. I heard the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, and the whispers of something that was neither.

I’ve heard similar stories from Gettysburg, Normandy, and other sites of huge battles.

Trauma isn’t the only thing that can build up power. Site of miracles like Lourdes are usually associated with Christianity, but we need not accept Christian claims of exclusive truth to acknowledge that miracles happen in virtually all religious contexts. And the places where miracles happen often retain that miraculous power for a very long time.

Is the Hill of Tara in Ireland a naturally powerful place? Or is it powerful because it was once the seat of the High Kings of Ireland? I don’t know. I just know it’s a powerful place.

The Hill of Tara - Ireland - 2018
The Hill of Tara – Ireland – 2018

Places where mystical energy has built up

Temples, churches, and other sites of worship and magic aren’t holy ground just because they were consecrated to sacred activities. They’re also sacred because the mystical energy of religious rites accumulates over time.

I’ve visited some of the cathedrals of Europe. Most of them are more museums than active churches, but they still have that feeling of sanctity and power. I’ve felt the same thing in some American churches that are far younger and far less opulent. And after 20 years of CUUPS rituals (not to mention 60 years of Unitarian and Universalist services) an ordinary UU meeting house and its grounds in Denton, Texas have some pretty good energy built up.

Remember that Pagan temples were not built as gathering places for the faithful – they were built as homes for the Gods. In some cases (at least, for the handful I’ve visited) those Gods are still there. In other cases They no longer “live” there, but the impact of Their presence remains.

Temple of Artemis - Ephesus, Turkey - 2012
Temple of Artemis – Ephesus, Turkey – 2012. All that’s left of the temple is one column… and its namesake Goddess

There’s no place like home

It’s often hard to separate what makes a place inherently powerful from what makes us receptive to spiritual influences.

For me, there’s something magical about the woods and hills around Chattanooga. I was born there and I grew up there. My parents were born about 100 miles away and moved there when they were quite young. Our family has roots in Tennessee going back about 200 years, which isn’t much by historical standards, but it’s enough. My wife – who is rather non-mystical – talks about Texas in similar ways.

For most of us, “home” has a power and a connection that can’t be replicated in other places. Unfortunately, for others “home” was a place of trauma and abuse and they have to break the very connections that should be supporting them.

There are some sacred places in and around southeastern Tennessee, but much of the power I feel there is simply the power of home. If where you are isn’t home, make a home where you are. Connect to the land where you are.

Sacred places in a time of social distancing

As a Druid, it was important for me to visit some of the stone circles and other ancient sites of Britain and Ireland. It wasn’t a case of “my life will be incomplete without this” but it was a case of “there is value in going there and I really want to do it.”

There are still places I have not been that I really want to see. I had plans to see some of them in 2021, some in 2022, and others in future years.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to leave the country in 2021. I hope so, but until travel restrictions are removed, I don’t know that I can. I can’t be certain I can leave the country in 2022, though I expect it.

In any case, I can’t go now.

This is a good time to remember that while there is great value in pilgrimages, we can experience our Gods, ancestors, and other spirits anywhere we meet them.

Not the spot in my back yard that’s a connection to the Otherworld. But still, a place where the power of rituals, devotions, and daily prayers has built up over the years.

When I first visited Anglesey in 2014, I expected to feel a connection to the Druids of old. And I did – just not like I expected. They were quite hospitable (as were their living descendants) but at the end of the trip they said “we’re glad you visited – now go back to Texas and get to work.”

We can do what we need to do here… where ever “here” is for you.

There are places of natural beauty and power throughout the world. We can connect to our Gods and other spiritual allies anywhere we are. We can build up mystical energies at our home shrines and altars.

So if you can travel to sites that are sacred to you and your tradition, I encourage you to go – at least once it’s safe to travel again. But the connections and experiences most people seek at places of power can be found in your back yard, if you work at it effectively and diligently.

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