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Creating a Sacred Space

by Roselle Angwin(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

There is a beautiful poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado and translated by Robert Bly, in which the jasmine-scented wind calls to the poet’s soul, offering its perfume of jasmine in exchange for the scent of the roses in the poet’s garden. The poet confesses: ‘I have no roses; I have no flowers left now/in my garden ... all are dead.’ After the wind has left, with its cargo of dead leaves and dried-up petals, the poet weeps. ‘. . . I said to my soul / “What have you done with the garden / that was entrusted to your care?”’


Matthew Fox, the radical theologian, in a talk at St James’s Church in Piccadilly a few years ago, asked:

“How well are we humans doing at celebrating creation?”

How well are we humans doing at celebrating creation?

Following on from this I’d like to ask: How well are we looking after the garden that was entrusted to our care? Is it virgin wilderness or manicured and straitjacketed? Mixed woodland? Or have we exported all the exotic and slow-growing hardwoods in exchange for some pieces of silver?

Do we pay attention to the seasons and their differing needs? Do we allow the abundance of harvest to be followed by a period of rest? Do we till and fertilise and prune dead wood, sow the seed and water it? Or do we consider it only of use as a harvest, uprooting what we want when we want?

Do we strip all the fruit, leaving none for the birds or to reseed? Do we plant sustainably, manure and mulch and water with care, harvest judiciously? Do we leave wild spaces for nature to inhabit, birds to nest, children to play in? Do we take time out to simply sit, watch the grass growing, smell the roses, listen to the birdsong?

Or do we never even go into the garden? Do we even know that we have a garden?

I am, of course, not talking only about our front lawns, nor even about the larger garden of the world, but also about our inner processes; for inner and outer affect and reflect each other. If our inner garden is neglected, unexplored, uncleared, ignored, what does this say about our outer lives? Equally if our whole time is spent in a frenzy of busyness, being in control, cutting, clearing, regimenting, organising, then what space is there for silence, for roses, for thrush song, for sunrises?

One of the things that a garden has always symbolised is sacred space; a place set apart from the mundanity and busyness of the routine tasks which constitute everyday life. So what space do we make for celebrating the sacred in our lives? (By sacred I mean that which inspires and uplifts us, which fills us with awe, with joy, with wellbeing; that which adds meaning to our lives.)

There is, I believe, a deep impulse in the human psyche for fulfilment, for unity, for a sense of connectedness. Rather than simply seeking pleasure or happiness, at a more profound level we are seeking wholeness, integration, freedom, meaning. Mystics would call this union with the divine; I’m wary of naming this impulse, as by the very act of labelling we create dis-union, division. However, I am talking about what could be called soul, or spirit if you prefer: – the ineffable; that which is beyond quantifying materially, measuring scientifically, beyond structure and form but which in a way is the heartbeat of the universe. The connecting tissue. The light in the eye. The great leap we need to take when our explanations are not enough. There’s a moment in sub-atomic physics, for example, when we come up against the fact that we are unable to identify the point at which the particle becomes a wave, and the wave a particle; the moment where matter and energy are indistinguishable from each other. In this, in front of this, beyond and all around this, is the sacred. So close we don’t even have to reach out to touch it; so far away we may not even get there in a lifetime.

In talking about soul. I’m talking about anima mundi, world soul, as well as our portion of it, our part in it. In this language, in fact, there is no difference. We are interconnected, and like the hologram, the whole is seen in the parts. Soul is a word that is difficult to use in our culture. Either it is identified with a rather proselytising form of Christianity or it has become diminished, outmoded, marginalised, sentimentalised, and in a very real and literal sense, denatured. It is no coincidence that soul has traditionally always been seen as feminine, and therefore in a way constantly wrongly appropriated and often, even usually, undervalued. In a patriarchal reductionist society there is little place for its values, which are somewhat antithetical to the status quo. Along with imagination and meaning it has become an endangered species in a world that above all values factual information over and above wisdom; and bigger, better and faster in its consumer products, whether these are buildings, cars, roads, genetically manipulated pigs or tomatoes.

Matthew Fox talks about the multi-billion computers that are so much a part of our Western lifestyle and exist purely to store information. By contrast, in his view, the “. . .wisdom that has accumulated since the Renaissance could be probably fitted onto a cigarette packet.” T. S. Eliot said, along the same lines, that we have lost wisdom to knowledge, and then knowledge to information.

What room is there for soul in all of this?

Since the Renaissance, give or take a decade or two, we have lost our sense of inhabiting an ensouled universe, a world where everything is alive, everything has its place. And with this loss has come the loss of our sense of belonging, of being part of a greater whole. Without this sense of the sacred inhabiting matter, our world becomes merely a two-dimensional resource, to manipulate and plunder as we, collectively or individually, see fit. The results of this are obvious; apart from the destruction of whole cultures and forests the size of Africa, we have lost our eye for shape, for form, for colour, for grace, for appropriateness. In short, we have lost our feeling for beauty.

The structures we create can only reflect this. In the majority of purpose-built functional buildings of this century economy and quantity have taken precedence. Who considers it worthwhile – as someone before me has already asked – to invest the millions of pounds and tens of thousands of working hours to build the equivalent of a St Paul’s, a Chartres, a King’s College? And maybe there’s a rightness in that, too; with issues of starvation and homelessness and poverty and healthcare cuts the money is more needed elsewhere.

But the heart needs its food too. Ugliness and squalor have become the urban or suburban norm; a kind of outer reflection of the junk-food diet that is, or was until very recently, also an urban norm. So, too, what we feed into our minds. To misquote Matthew Fox (again from his talk at St James), looking for soul in the twentieth-century urban landscape is like looking for chastity in a brothel.

We live in a lopsided, fragmented, pillaged world. Many of us feel alienated, dislocated, isolated; our lives feel profoundly meaningless. We have become like limpets, each stranded on the tip of our barren, dry, infertile rock, clinging on for dear life and watching the waters recede.

But, though the outer causes may be different, this is not entirely new. Humankind has been here before; it is part of the universal “human condition”, to one extent or another. There is a legacy of wisdom teachings from which we can learn, if we bother to look.

During the early years of this millennium a remarkable body of European literature grew up, myths transcribed from an earlier oral tradition, concerning the Quest of the Holy Grail. The myths speak of a world where male and female are out of harmony, where man and nature are set apart and in conflict. These themes have probably recurred one way or another since homo sapiens first emerged from out of the water or out of the trees and started to walk upright. The Grail quests also, however, talk of a climate in which reason and intellect, or sometimes simply brute force and ignorance, rule over and above feeling and imagination. They address a state where there is no vision, no compassion (“feeling with”) and where a mindless egotism directs all experience towards its own petty appetites. Greed is not new, self-serving ignorance is not new.

The landscape against which these archetypal conflicts are played out is the wasteland. Because of greed, because of ignorance, the land has become dry, barren, infertile, and the waters have dried up. The land is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

But like all good myths, the Grail quest cycle teaches us the cure for the trouble that it illustrates. It only takes one person with conscious intent and courage, compassion and a degree of awareness, and a willingness to question and to learn, to start to heal the wasteland, restore the waters, resacralise the world. A garden can grow from very little, in the most adverse conditions, given the work of attention and intent. No effort, however small, is worthless; the tiniest tributary adds to the greatest ocean. So back to my title, creating sacred space, which is also about restoring the waters of soul.

I have said that soul is the connecting tissue.

We know that we live in a world where the tiniest action here may have repercussions on the other side of the planet. “Somewhere a butterfly stamped and suddenly everything changed.” Every time we open our mouths and make a sound we are rearranging the universe, shaping the molecules before us into new patterns. I find this an awesome thought. What power we have.

image of web

Inhabiting a network. In Hindu belief we are held in lndra’s Net, a structure composed of billions of filaments. At each intersection of the net glows a jewel, a living being, connected to both the net and all the other beings which also inhabit it, each bright as a star. The tiniest tug anywhere, on any thread, sends ripples through the whole, creates change. One way of resacralising the world, of honouring the sacred, is to remember this. Can we bring to all our actions, all our words, all our creations, whether we are designing a building or cooking a meal, the kind of attention, of presence, of intent, that will add to the sparkle of this jewel, these jewels, rather than tarnish it or them? Can we be open-hearted enough to choose to send positive repercussions through the threads of the net? This is about taking responsibility and living with awareness. Buddhists call this right thinking and right action, living skilfully. Much harder to do than moaning and blaming and being apathetic.

Hand-in-hand with this is the idea that the objects, structures, relationships we create should be beautiful as well as functional. Even the most impoverished person or society has the option of adding to the sum of beauty in the world rather than the stockpile of squalor. There is beauty in a smile, in a look, in the right word at the right time, in a poem, the flight of a bird, in a twig of cherry-blossom in a jamjar on a bare windowsill, in the choice not to be disempowered by circumstance. An orangebox bookcase in the right place may be more beautiful than a Habitat one in the wrong place, just as a jumble-sale shirt in exactly the right colour may do what a Gucci suit in the wrong shade or cut can’t. It’s a question of being conscious. An act of beauty is an act of power in the world, an agent for change. It is also an offering to society, a potent step in community building.

Another way of creating sacred space is to make time for stillness. We in the west are on the whole addicted to doing, to fill up what we perceive as emptiness. Much of what we actually do is trivial, meaningless. “Measuring out our lives in coffee spoons.” We need often, preferably every day, to allow time for merely being with what is actually here, now this minute, without judging it, reacting or responding to it, attempting to hold on to it, change it or direct it. Coming face-to-face with what is. Merely being. Being with the stillness. Being is the natural landscape of soul, out of which come our creative and generative powers. It is a vital recharging, as necessary as sleep.

It helps to reconnect with the physical senses, allowing ourselves to receive the world in all its beauty and mystery by really seeing, really hearing, really experiencing it all exactly as it is, rather than through our habitual patterns of half-listening, half-hearing, picking up on what we expect to hear and see and tuning out the rest. We need to allow ourselves to be moved by the world, to expand our boundaries so that we let in more of the world, share in more of what it means to be human on this beautiful planet with all her inhabitants. And we can use the senses of the physical body too to express our joy, our wonder, our longing, our sadness, which are our reactions to being fully alive.

We need to question: what inspires me? What moves me beyond myself, beyond the petty confines of ego: a walk? A film? A sunset? A piece of music? A conversation? Being by the sea? We need to commit ourselves to setting aside regular time for our creative imaginations to be fed in this way, and then to find channels to allow this into the work we do in our lives.

We need to question what gives our life meaning; whether the work we do, the environment we live in, the company we keep nourishes this aspect or diminishes it.

We need to remember our connection with all the other beings on this planet and be mindful of our actions in relationship to this connection.

We need to bring attention and positive intent to all our actions.

We need to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom.

We need to remember that our inner and outer lives reflect each other – where and how we live has a bearing on the life we create for ourselves, and the vision we have of our life affects its outer manifestations and the structures and relationships we create. Our world is a product of the thought-patterns we generate, and the way we live our lives is a direct reflection and outward expression of  these patterns. Do flowers blossom in our hands or does barbed wire snag our footsteps?

We need to remember our origins, and that we are not isolated little egos, but filaments in a web, inhabitants of a network.

We need to live our lives consciously, making space for soul, for imagination, for compassion, for time out.

Antonio Machado, the author of the poem I quoted at the beginning said: “Beyond living and dreaming there is something more important – waking up”.

And finally, perhaps we would do well to remember to ask ourselves from time-to-time: what are we doing with the garden entrusted to our care?


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About Roselle Angwin

Roselle Angwin is the author of Riding the Dragon (Element, 1994), a book on the psychology of myth. With a background in Transpersonal Psychology, she is particularly interested in the connections between creativity and wellbeing and empowerment, and she facilitates a variety of workshops exploring these ideas. A poet, she is also a lecturer in Creative Writing. Workshop details available from: PO Box 17, Crapstone, Yelverton, Devon PL20 6YF, or tel. 01822 852650.

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