“The Pierless Bridge”

Volume 50, Issue 1

How should we protect and, in the event of disruption, help communities recreate “sacred space”? The question itself provokes more questions, including unintended consequences. Set aside the goal of an impregnable sanctuary and think about the sacred itself. If we begin with the assumption that certain places are worth preserving because they have value to the community (the approach of historic preservation) then the process of identifying what creates that value influences the choice of preservation strategy. The characteristics of the sacred and how significance is discerned are what needs our protection – everything else is secondary.

What are we protecting the sacred from? This issue considers external attacks and calamities, but look further. Serious threats include deterioration through neglect, abandonment due to a shrinking congregation, or sacrilege beyond recovery. Sacred places are dynamic in time but not necessarily in form; the sacred inside may be suspended in time but the physical form can change with cultural developments. The mosque-cathedral of Cordoba, Spain manifests an ever-changing palimpsest of relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Can the sacred be harmed beyond recognition? Is there a threat by the increasing number of Americans, unaffiliated with any organized religion, who accept the existence of the sacred yet resist perceived barriers in the form of designated buildings and bloated bureaucracies created by organized religion? If we view religion as a socio-cultural construct embracing ideas such as Mircea Eliade’s concept of continual re-enactment of the cosmogony in order to “live in the sacred” as one way to transcend subjective experience, can we accept a redefinition of how and where that transcendence can occur: a forest clearing, a dome of stars above, symphonic bliss, or (as in Hmong culture) epileptic seizures as portals to the sacred? As Eudora Welty once wrote: “As soon as a man stopped wandering and stood still and looked around him, he found a god in that place.”

Nomadic groups and wanderers/seekers of the “truth” and their diverse strategies to connect to the sacred are viable examples to explore for both displaced communities and the increasing number of “nomads” (work-induced or voluntary) who might use virtual reality to connect to the sacred in “the “cloud.”

In an historic church we were working on, a stained glass window was vandalized. An intense discussion followed about an appropriate response. The decision was not to add a protective exterior shield; instead, the vestry members wished to act within the tenets of how they understood their connection with the sacred. They would not erect barriers, but instead trust in their God and transmit his Word in this way (similar to the recent entreaty by Pope Francis to physically and metaphorically reinstate the “open doors” policy in churches).

Should we approach protection of the sacred as if it were a fruit–gene modification, picked unripe, bred selectively for transport, etc.–to the point of obliterating its essence? Buildings, spaces, rituals, interpretations, guides, and rules to live by can be thought of as aids to facilitate our individual connections to the sacred and to our community. They provide reinforcement through beauty, inspiration, comfort and awe, repetition and habit, the creation of community coherence and support, and perhaps (like “Third Places”) have a better chance of continued existence because the community that supports them values them.

The author is a principal in Thompson Naylor Architects in Santa Barbara, California.