Sacred Space and Holy Ground

I moved my husband’s remains to their final resting place this week. When he died in February 2000, Carl was cremated, and we agreed that he would be interred at the lake the following summer.  When the time came, my family and I dug a hole just big enough to fit the 15” X 15” vault that contained his ashes. It was just ten feet from the lakeshore — a really beautiful spot.  I had a memorial stone made that says his name and the years he was alive.  At the bottom, it reads “The Lord is My Shepherd.”  I knew it wouldn’t be the final place, but at the time I needed him close by.  Then, two years ago, I bought a plot at the cemetery where my ancestors are buried, three miles down the road. 

My thought was that when I died, my nephew could move Carl’s remains to the cemetery and add mine, and that would be the end of the matter.  But recently, it seemed important that I tend to it.  Now.  I’m not sure why. The time seemed right and I was ready, so without any drama I helped the man who maintains the cemetery move the vault containing my husband’s remains three miles down the road.  I laid him to rest a second time — this time with no tears.  The earth received him without fanfare.  But the experience has left me wondering about the nature of sacred space.     

"Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." God’s warning to Moses implies that some places are holy.  The bible uses the word “holy” as an attribute of God – literally, set apart; other.  The ground where Moses stood before the burning bush was holy because of the presence of God. 

But this presents a challenge to our modern, reformed understanding of God’s presence and the nature of space, for we understand that God is everywhere.  We know God isn’t limited to a bush.  God does not need to reside in the Ark of the Covenant, or in a pillar of fire and cloud, or in a cathedral.  God is ever-present everywhere. What does that make of holy places?  Couldn’t we say that every place is holy? Majestic mountains are holy, as are vast oceans, erupting volcanos, busy city streets, sewage treatment plants (see my post called  “Spectacular Sights from April 23, 2014), sterile operating rooms, prisons and even red-light districts.  Are they all holy?  We sense this isn’t quite right — some places feel holier than others.

For all the strife, turmoil, war and horror going on in Israel right now, four short months ago I was there and experienced firsthand the “holiness” of that place.  I could not escape the knowledge of how God had been so active in that tiny parcel of land and that God’s activity there had been recorded for thousands of years. With all the conflict and terror, is it still holy?  It seems very un-holy right now.

As I walk the paths around the lake and breathe in the air that has its own unique, clean scent, I am struck by the idea that this might be holy ground.  Maybe the remains of my beloved close by make it feel even more so.   But aside from that, I know the plants and mushrooms, the trees and stumps and rocks that cover the forest floor.  I know the bird songs and animal scat and every twist and turn of the miles of trails that I’ve walked every summer of my life. Important things have happened here.  I’ve been happy and I’ve grieved in this place.  I’ve grown up and will be laid to rest in this rich soil. I’ve star-gazed and seen shooting stars in the endless night sky. I’ve watched otters play and kingbirds fish in the clear water. I’ve felt the presence of God here.  

I worshiped yesterday from a kayak, early in the morning. The rhythm of the paddle hitting the water became a chant of praise for God’s unremitting faithfulness.  I lodged the boat on a submersed log and looked out over the lake, still mist covered in the early light of the morning and I prayed one long prayer:  thanksgiving, praise, petition mingled with doxology. 

God was worshiped all over the world on Sunday morning...not just on my lake in upstate New York. And the presence of God filled all those spaces...God was most surely pleased with each offering made by a true heart.  God was pleased with the collective sweet fragrance of worship that filled the earth on Sunday.  My space was no holier than others. 

We are not using this word “holy” correctly, I think.  “Holy” is overused and has become meaningless in most situations.  Batman’s sidekick Robin used “holy” in just about every imaginable expression: “Holy Smokes,”  “Holy Guacamole,” and “Holy Molars.” I confess that I’ve let “Holy cow” slip past my lips too many times to count.  There’s nothing holy about the mundane.  Only God is holy.  The places we encounter are not holy...they are not “other.” They are, in fact, as worldly as they can be.  But I think there might be sacred places.  I think my lake is sacred to me.

Perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on this, but it seems to me that we determine what is sacred and what is not.  Unlike holiness, which is determined by God’s presence alone, we can ascribe sacredness to a place where we have encountered God.  The place of the burning bush was holy because God revealed God’s self there.  God’s revealed presence made it holy.  Holy scripture is holy because it is of God; set apart from other writings — uniquely the written Word of God.  But sacred....sacred is something we ascribe. My lake and its surrounding woods, my husband’s final resting place — these are sacred places to me.  I have encountered the Holy Other here, so I have assigned it sacred status.       


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry