A Pagan Primer Ė 26

Ritual and sacred space


This week, I celebrated my birthday. I also have a relatively new apartment. The woman who was my teacher, and in many ways still is, gave me a birthday present and took me out for lunch. She had never been to my new apartment, and when I brought her present to my home, she ventured out into the back yard. When I walked out to be with her, she stood in one spot in my yard and was looking down into a gulley thatís behind the house.

She said ďThis is sacred spaceĒ. I pointed across the gulley to a little hillock thatís there, I told her that I had heard that there was a small Native American burial ground there.


She paused for a moment and said ďNo, this spot, where Iím standing, is sacred space.Ē I told her that that was where I do ritual, and then she was satisfied. Actually, where she was standing, was EXACTLY in the circle, where Iíve done outdoor ritual.


So, what is it about ritual and sacred space? To those who might say that there is nothing to magick or paganism, what is it that can so imbue a space with some sort of unseen but to some, tangible remnants of spiritual activity?


If you have ever been near a very old church, have you ever gone inside? Have you noticed the feelings you felt? Some old churches, especially in Europe are very large. Sometimes youíll look up and get a feeling of vertigo. But beyond that, there is another subtler feeling, a feeling of agelessness, a feeling of connection.


In Europe, many of the old churches were built on top of even earlier pagan sacred sites. These have simply been sites that for whatever reason, were recognized as special for centuries. Whatís happened there, over the years, is that people of all sorts and religions, have gathered there and practiced some sort of spiritual activity. They have done so for so long and so often, that the space itself, the earth itself, if there is a building, then the building itself, and the furnishings inside, have become permeated and imbued with the spiritual energy of those who have spent time there.


Sometimes itís not a particularly special place. Sometimes itís not a very old place. In my case, with my teacher, perhaps it was simply my own energy, which sheís familiar with, that was there. Some people are more sensitive than others. In any case though, simply visiting a sacred space, one begins to feel something.


Some people consider ritual to necessarily include special words, actions or other elements that we associate with religious ceremony. Religious ceremonies are rituals. But thatís simply a type of ritual. A ritual is any action that we use to connect to something beyond ourselves. (Some define a ritual as any repeated action, such as a baseball player adjusting his glove or tapping his bat 3 times, or the OCD individualís repetitive actions, but weíre talking about spiritual ritual here.)


So, what actually happens in ritual? What is it that weíre doing? We are taking our own energy and focusing it and concentrating it, and offering it out to the universe or deity. Some rituals are quite formal, like religious rituals that might happen in a church. Others are informal; the prayer in a time of trouble, or a blessing that we might offer. When someone sneezes, and another says ďbless youĒ, even thatís a ritual.


But what happens in ritual is this: Weíve taken some portion of our will, some portion of our intent, and focused it to a purpose. The longer we focus that energy, the more concentrated it becomes. The more of our will we imbue it with, the more coherent its form. The more we put into it, the more lasting it is.


Some people will say that this energy canít be measured, that it has no basis in reality, that itís a figment of the imagination. Iíll agree that I donít have a technology thatís able to measure it. What I have is my feelings and anecdotal experience. It might be that when I walk into my teacherís altar room, that what I feel is a result of my expectations. It might be that thatís precisely what I feel when I enter any sacred space; the images there evoke certain feelings based on what I know, what Iíve been taught.


On the other hand, there are still experiences like that with my teacher, who walked precisely to the place where Iíve been doing ritual in my back yard. Really, the whole back yard is much the same, and I could have chosen any spot just as easily as another.


There is something that is called ďspirit of placeĒ though. There are places that call to us, places that we reinforce with our own energy. In the case of my back yard, I donít know if what my teacher felt was me, or if weíve felt a the same ďspirit of placeĒ, but the simple fact that weíve both felt something special about that one particular spot is something that is at least in my mind, a bit beyond chance. Usually, when Iíve done rituals, theyíve been fairly deep in a forest on the other side of town.


I suppose this is one of those cases where the personal or anecdotal evidence is, at least for me, a bit more important than the scientifically provable facts of a situation.


So, how might a person go about finding their own sacred space? How do you find a spot in nature that is calling to you?


I think that the first thing to do is to become familiar with feelings of spirit, of that psychic energy that comes about through ritual. Maybe part of the task would be to acquaint yourself with such feelings. Visit some sacred spaces, and in a meditative mood, notice your own feelings. What are the sensations that are evoked just from being in this sacred space?


Visit churches in your area. Sit in the pews, walk around a little. If there is a book of prayers or petitions, put your hands on it and feel them. Offer up a prayer for those petitions. Become involved with the energy of the space.


Visit local sacred sites, like the Cathedral of the Pines in Swanzey or Americaís Stonehenge near Derry. Take the time to sit quietly in each place and feel the energy of that place.


Becoming familiar with spirit is the first step in finding your own sacred space. When youíve become familiar with the feelings, when you can recognize what it is that is similar in feeling between such different places as a mountain-top, Americaís Stonehenge, the Cathedral of the Pines or a local church, then you can walk around your yard, or a local wooded area, and seek out that same ďfeeling of placeĒ for your own sacred space. This is the sense that is beyond the five senses that is letting you know that a place is calling to you.


When youíve found that place, make it a truly sacred space by ritual. Sanctify the place, let the spirits of place know that you intend to honor this place. Keep that place clean, pick up litter. Spend time in that place. Read your spiritual books there, meditate there. That space has become your own personal temple.


What youíll find when you have used a place over and over is that it will develop more and more that feeling that you experience in older and older places. Your own energy is added to the energy of that sacred space. When you find that you are disturbed, youíll be able to go to that place, and energy of that place will begin to feel like a comforting embrace.


What is important to remember though, is that you donít use your sacred space to plant negative seeds. Itís not a place for fighting. Itís not a place to sew seeds of jealousy or hatred.


Have you ever entered a house and felt the negativity? For some reason, just after an argument, the air is heavy. The house might be beautiful, but the fine decorations belie the energy that lingers.


Likewise, the feelings in a prison are quite different than the feelings of a church. So are the feelings of a mental hospital. Even in a hospital, the feelings in the nursery and in the cardiac unit are quite different.


Weíre sensitive to the energy that lingers in a place; it affects us. In our sacred space, weíre looking to sew only energy that will support us. It is a place to support our highest purposes and selves. If weíre using our sacred space to plant seeds of negativity, then weíre turning our sacred space into a weapon.


If you want to create a nurturing chapel, you canít do it with the weapons of war. The energy that you feed into the place is the energy that will linger there, and thatís the energy that youíll feel when you return.


But for me, itís important to have a special place that I can go to, where Iíve poured out my energy, and filled the space with my own will and good intent. Itís comforting to be there. Itís important to keep it sacred, and to not contaminate it with the negativity of anger and frustration. This way, it remains comforting, a place where I can calm down, meditate and perform ritual, finding peace, and a connection to the holy and the eternal.


© 2008, Deirdre Hebert