Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Power of Religious Places


El Santuario de Chimayo
Chimayo, New Mexico
Hello Everyone:

There are places around the world that are revered as sacred.  Whether you are a person of faith. or not, we have to acknowledge that there are special places that have the power to stun us in reverential silence.  One such place is El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico.  Tom Mayes, in his latest installment of "Why Do Old Places Matter?  Sacred Places" for the Preservation Leadership Forum, shares his experience of encountering this Catholic pilgrimage site.  Mr. Mayes writes, "On my first visit to the Catholic pilgrimage site Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, like many people of many faiths (or no faith at all), I was stunned into reverent silence by the palpable sense of sacredness at that old place..."  It that same reverent silence that people experience when they encounter the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Ka'ba at Mecca, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Grand Shrine at Ise, Japan, and so forth.  For thousands of years, these venerated sites have held deep meaning for many different cultures.  The tradition of making a pilgrimage to these places continues to be meaning experience and a tourist destination.

Mount Taylor, New Mexico
According to Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, the word sacred is generally interpreted as "..set apart, separate, different, like a sanctuary."  Mr. Jaeger explains, " these places that are viewed as different, as set apart by the community-and there is something that lifts you up and takes you out of your normal life."  Martin Gray, a photographer for National Geographic and the author of of Sacred Earth, outlines different character defining features of sites that cause people to perceive them as sacred: "visual beauty, geophysical characteristics, building materials, light and color, sound and music, aromatic substances, awareness of centuries of ceremonial activity, collective belief, the power of ceremonial objects or relics."  Specifically, Mr. Gray writes, "I believe that the nature of a person's experience of a sacred site may be influenced by them having Devereux [author of a book titled Sacred Geography] calls a 'multi-mode approach to the sites, that is, by experiencing the sites from the vantage points of both knowing and feeling, both mind and heart." (Gray, http://www.sacredsites.com)  The message is clear, a sacred place is one that lifts out of the realm of the profane (everyday) through engaging all of your senses and lifts to an otherworldly place.

Fuji san (Mount Fuji)
Honshu Island, Japan
Whatever the source of your understanding of sacredness, these places are held in high esteem by individuals within and without a particular faith because of its history, architecture, art, memory, identity, and beauty, and in the broadest sense of sacred.  In studying the definitions of venerated sites from a behavioral, emotional, or place-based context, psychologists Daniel Levi and Sara Kocher wrote,

[s]acred places promote different types of emotional experiences.  Religious tourists experience a 'sense of God's presence' and respect for the spiritual values of the places, while even the nonreligious visitors find sacred sites to be spiritually alive, feel a sense of peace or serenity, and find the place to be awe-inspiring. (Levi and Korcher, 45(7), 912-30, 917: 2012)

Why is this so?  Essentially, old places that are considered sacred are treasured because they provide people with "restorative benefits that foster meditation an reflection and...a sense of peace and serenity." (Levi and Kocher citing Herzog, Rolens, & Koenigs, 42: 395-419, 2010)  This character defining feature provides the benefits of old place and the psychological and sociological benefits as well.

Shockoe Bottom
Richmond, Virginia
A place does not have to be specifically religious to be considered sacred.  A place can be thought of as sacred because of its history, the difficult past it may represent, because it serves as a memorial or a site of conscience-which set it apart from its surrounding.  Think the World Trade Center site, Gettysburg, and the slave trade forts of West Africa, all of whom have been sanctified because of the loss of human life and freedom that occurred there.  The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience encourages these places to make full use of their unique sense of sacredness as a starting point for discussions on contemporary issues.  Shockoe Bottom, recently listed by the National Trust as one of its 11 Endangered Sites, is now revered for its newly uncovered role in the American slave trade.  The title National Heritage Area referred to in Journey through Hallowed Ground, brings to mind the sanctity of a region deemed hallowed by American Revolutionary patriots and the reunification of the United States following the Civil War.  They recall the unique power of old places as sites of memory and provide a forum for re-evaluating history and spurring activism to create a better future.

Interior of Touro Synagogue (1762)
Newport, Rhode Island
Partners for Sacred Places, encourages houses of worship of all faiths to recognize the value of their historic houses of worship at the congregational and communal level, including recognition of these buildings as assets for: the arts, food and nutrition, and a host of other community programs.  While historic and architecturally important buildings are treated as sacred, or not, by its members, Tom Mayes cites the work of Partners in "...reminding us that in addition to providing the city or town where they are located a sense of history, identity, and continuity, they also serve in other ways.  As beautiful and architecturally distinctive places, they are often primary tourist destinations..."  Religious sites, such as the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, have a broader beneficial effect on their communities and the ability to inspire and "lift people out of their lives."  This alone makes them fit into the larger understanding, as illustrated by Bob Jaeger, of the sacred as a place set aside for and by the community.

The Golden Gate Bridge at night
San Francisco, California
Thus far, most of the places I've mentioned are recognized as specifically sacred by individuals. However, as individuals, we all have a personal sacred site.  Landscape architect Loretta Gargan, who spoke to Mr. Mayes for this article, considers the view from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands as sacred because it reminds her of family members she loved and lost. (Interview with Tom Mayes, June 11, 2014).  I suppose if I were to name my personal sacred site, it would have to be the California shoreline.  Looking out onto the vast Pacific Ocean, you get a sense of awe when think about how that body of water can sustain life and at the same time, take it away.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan
There are also places that are held in high regard because of their age.  This probably why people are interested in the are of a building.  There is something the old age of building that instills a sense of veneration.  This manner of respect resonates with people of all or no faith.  When old places are considered sacred, this sense of sacredness can be diminished through destruction or inappropriate development.  It is that sense of sacredness that makes them a target for groups who disapprove of the faith they represent-the Buddhas of Bamiyan come to mind.  In the immediate present tense, a site, such as Jerusalem, can be held sacred by three different faiths, unfortunately leading to religious extremism that result in destruction and tragedy.

Even the popularity of a sacred place can diminished its sanctity.  In a study conducted by Daniel Levi and Sara Kocher on perceived authenticity of sacred sites, the psychologists concluded that while a site "...perceived as containing historic architecture that was well preserved or maintained increased feeling of sacredness," (Levi and Kocher, 923), a site that was considered inauthentic when it had "modern and nonreligious features, such as new buildings, sports places, housing, administration buildings, and modern technology." (Ibid)  Mr. Levi and Ms. Kocher as well as other writers highlight frequent negative factors including "the presence of too many tourists and tourist-related commercial activities, and maintenance issues that showed signs of disrepair or created noise and other disruptions." (925)  I can imagine the former death and concentration camps in Europe suffering from this phenomena as well: too many tourists, maintenance issues, encroaching technology, et cetera.

Ramah Presbyterian Church and Cemetery
Huntersville, North Carolina

Despite the great love people show for sacred sites, we preservationists tend to keep a respectful distance when discussing the sanctity of a place.  Much of what happens in historic preservation takes place at the administrative level thus in accordance with the United States Constitutional amendment regarding due process and establishment clause requirements, must apply objective criteria in deciding if a place considered sacred meets the standards set by the National Register of Historic Places.  At the federal level, most places that are considered sacred are designated under the criteria for "traditional cultural properties" which allows consideration of sacredness from a historic context.  In upholding the designation of Mount Taylor as TCP, the New Mexico Supreme Court wrote, "Although these findings undoubtedly include a religious component, because religion is part of culture and history, the findings are nonetheless based on historical evidence." (Rayellen Resources, Inc v. New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee, slip op. 17 9NM Sup. Ct. Feb 6, 2014)

We are comfortable with the acknowledging that certain communities, specifically Native American, assign sacredness to places yet when considering said places for designation as historic monuments, we become uncomfortable about directly talking about a sacred place or regarding a place as sacred. However, at the base of an objective determination of historic are deeply-held beliefs about a place that resonate within the community.  For example, the following is a description of Mount Taylor's determination of eligibility for the National Register:

The Acoma refer to Mount Taylor as Kaweshtima, which means "a place of snow."  The mountain is central to the Pueblo's belief system, and is a place where religious practitioners as well as the community as whole have historically gone, and are known to go today, to perform ceremonial activities in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are important in maintaining the identity and cultural continuity of the community.  The Acoma view the mountain as a living, breathing entity that encompasses all physical attributes such as the plants, animals, stone, minerals and water, as well as air, clouds and rain, which are all believed to embody spiritual elements. (Benedict, Buttery, and Hudson, "Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property Determination for the National Register of Historic Places, 17)

Acoma Pueblo
Cibola County, New Mexico
Former tribal historic preservation office of Acoma, Theresa Pasqual says,

In the United States, we're uncomfortable talking about particular beliefs.  Yet to have a full and rich understanding of the sacredness of place, we have to look at the core values of the people.  Our language does not have a word for 'ownership.'  We don't have a word for 'preservation.'  We have a word for 'stewardship.'  We have a word for 'sacred.'  Perhaps for preservation to be all inclusive we need to talk about the sacred.  It's the transmission of knowledge that is important-the stories, the songs.  These give us a sense of who we are as a people and give us the understanding of sacred places in the landscape.  Those values are things that binds us together.  We have to over our uncomfortable-ness of talking about those core values or we won't have the rich understanding of places.  (Interview with Tom Mayes, telephone, June 26, 2014)

Sarnath Tibetan Community Temple
Uttar Pradesh, India
Preservationists tend to be more comfortable dealing with old places as nothing more than material objects or singular buildings instead of spiritual places.  Mr. Mayes shares his thoughts on an articles he recently came across in The Getty about Sarnath Tibetan Community Temple in India, a site holy to Buddhists.  Sarnath is also an archeological site and remains a pilgrimage site.  According to Mr. Mayes, "...the article highlighted the challenges of honoring its history as a holy pilgrimage site, while maximizing its value as a historic archeological site."  People continue to place candles and apply sheets of gold leaf onto the stupa and architectural remains, despite signs to the contrary.  They are gestures of respect not vandalism, however they do pose a concern for the long term preservation of the remains. (Cumo, "Holy Site, Historic Site, The Challenge of Sarnath, Spring 2014)  The article emphasizes the fact that while it's important to protect the site from damage, preservationist need to tread carefully the line between the instinct to prevent continued use and that use that gives people a reason to continuously value them which gives the place its power.

It's very clear why government agencies must apply and objective criteria for what can be designated as historic.  For everyone else, the discomfort we feel in talking about the sacredness of an old place limits us from potentially understanding the power of a place.  Perhaps we should giver ourselves permission to talk about the old places that we care about and consider sacred in its unique way.  These places gives a sense of solace and move us in a deeply spiritual and psychological manner.  This what enhances our present and future.

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