|El Santuario de Chimayo|
Chimayo, New Mexico
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|
|Fuji san (Mount Fuji)|
Honshu Island, Japan
[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.
|Interior of Touro Synagogue (1762)|
Newport, Rhode Island
|The Golden Gate Bridge at night|
San Francisco, California
|The Buddhas of Bamiyan|
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)
Cibola County, New Mexico
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
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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