Friday 27 April 2007

Sacred Places

A small boy, a dog, a hill.....
I've written more about the spirit of place in my book The Energy Secret (HarperCollins) - now out of print though the odd copy might be found in a dusty secondhand bookshop...

Every land has its sacred places - from the great mysterious sacred sites of antiquity to the quieter, more hidden, spots that a stranger could easily pass by. These places - it could be a hill, a cave, a spring or a stone; or it could be a structure built or positioned by humans - a stone circle; a well; a church or a soaring menhir - seem to draw the soul like a magnet. They touch us in deep and unfathomable ways.

As a child I had many favourite sacred spots. They ranged from the large ‘public’ sites, such as Glastonbury Tor and the Cerne Giant to tiny corners - a nook in a suburban wall where I left ‘gifts’ of flowers and stones (I’m not sure for whom I was leaving them but there was a definite sense that this was the right thing to do) to a forgotten corner by the railway track where I sat stock-still amongst the tall grass and tried to ‘melt’ into the earth. As I grew up and travelled I found more mysterious and powerful sacred spaces, full of the awe of the earth spirit. My soul shrank at first from the huge vastnesses of the desert in the South West of the USA - I felt like an ant, tiny and inconsequential. Then I took a deep breath and drank in the raw power and beauty of the place - the energy of rock and sky. I felt dizzy at the soaring mountains and endless forests of Wyoming and New Hampshire. Then exhilarated by the clean, fresh air and the timeless splendour of tree and mountain. Stepping into the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid at Giza was like being plugged directly into a battery, a source of superhuman spiritual power. The ancient prehistoric cave paintings in France filled my soul with awe and almost trepidation.

But strangely, when I think about the places which mean the most to my soul, they are neither the vast monuments nor the huge vistas: they are smaller, more personal spaces. There is a particular spring, hidden down a forgotten track, tucked away amidst trees and curling ivy. It is not large, or spectacular in any way but it has a magic for me. I approach it as though visiting a lover, always mindful of taking it something - a daisy chain perhaps or a tiny posy of wild flowers tied with grass, maybe a little figure whittled from wood. Suddenly I’m there and I am overcome once again by its simple beauty. I sit on a rock and look into its bubbling waters. I give it my gift and watch it being swirled gently around in the ripples. I could stay there for hours, listening to the bird-song, simply watching the water. Like many springs it is said, by local legend, to have healing powers. You take a leaf from the overhanging tree, bend it into a cup and drink. As you drink, you also wish (yes, of course, it is also a wishing well) but you must tell no-one your wish.

Of late ‘my’ well has become better-known and I have found litter by its banks, shouting voices splitting its peace. With more visitors, the local council have ‘tidied’ it up, replacing the old crumbling walls with safer new ones. The last time I went I felt the spirit had almost vanished. Was it dying or was it just quietly moving on, away from the raucous voices and the disrespect?

The same principle can be seen in many of the ‘great’ sites. Stonehenge has become almost like a creature in a zoo, to be ogled through the fences. The huge temples of Mexico, Egypt and South America are swarmed over by hoards of tourists half-listening to their guides barking out snapshots of information. The pathways that lead up Glastonbury Tor are littered with rubbish; when you reach the top you will most likely meet - not the echoing voice of the wind as it hurls itself around St Michael’s chapel, but the beady lens of a camcorder and the shrill tones of pop music.

What is the answer? I think we have to find our own sacred sites, our own special places. They lie in every neighbourhood, but just in the country but in the towns and cities too. It just takes a careful eye and an opening of the soul to find them. And when you do, keep them secret, make them yours. Approach them with reverence and always thank them for their restorative powers. Children find them naturally - so be careful not to blunder into their own private worlds. Visit the old sites but carefully, mindfully. Pick up litter and take it away. Visit in the small hours - at twilight, at sunrise - when coach parties do not visit. Go alone or if you are with others, be silent. Listen, watch, feel. Allow yourself and the place time to get to know each other: sit softly and quietly, just be. Let’s get away from the continual race: the urge to notch up sites as if they were trophies. Come to learn. Quietly sit and wait for the place to communicate to you. It probably won’t happen immediately; it may not happen at all. Shamans spend years building rapport with places. But when and if it does happen, you may find wonderful surprises.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just lovely!
Thanks for sharing this one; before I knew you.
I have many tiny corners of sacred spaces I visit for a few moments whenever I am in their vicinity.
You might enjoy this poem, along a similar vein:

The Great Forest

The Great Forest begins
Where my garden ends.
I dare not go there
Except by deepest night
When I take to the skies
Amid the hunting owls.
By day, I see nothing
But the odd glimpse
Of miles of woodland,
Dense and secret
Beyond the wooden fence.
If I approach, come close
And look beyond the barrier,
It's only another garden,
Wild for suburbia
But tamed nonetheless.
The Great Forest haunts me,
Living in snapshot moments
When I sense it's there,
Unseen by others,
Invisible by daylight,
Waiting for nightfall
And those who leave behind
Both bodies and bedrooms
To enter its borders,
Trembling with fear
And the sense of coming home.
The Great Forest lingers,
Hidden in scrubby thickets,
And litter-strewn copses,
In untended gardens
Reverting rapidly to wildness,
And in the ancient memory
Of huge and silent trees,
Of sun-filled clearings
Paved with wildflowers,
In prison-colony plantations,
With larch and pine
Chained in dead-straight rows.
The Great Forest lives on
In the green-scented breeze
On a summer's evening,
Blown from far away,
Bringing scents of woodland,
Musk of deer and boar
And the forgotten bear and wolf,
Making us shiver as we sit
In tended gardens by candlelight,
Clutching glasses of foreign wine,
And struggle to remember something
That is lost in these moments.
The Great Forest still stands
In every persistent sapling
That cracks walls to grow,
In every clipped and shaped yew
Bent in ornamental servitude.
It lives on in the waste-ground,
In forgotten corners of gardens
And in ancient churchyards
Guarded by yews of such age
That they seem like living stone.
I stand at my window
And seek the Great Forest
Beyond my garden fence.
In every green breath I draw,
I smell the heart of the forest,
And beyond it, the Sea.