When is Sacred Not Sacred?

Volume 52, Issue 1

After the anti-Semitic massacre of worshipers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last fall, an editorial in The New York Times raised this question: “Can’t we be safe in our homes, in our schools, in our most sacred places?” Seeing the word “sacred” in that newspaper I became hesitant about writing this column. I have, for a long time, referred to our places of worship as sacred. I continue to work as a sacred space consultant for Jewish and Christian congregations. Lately, however, I have begun to wonder if the pervasive employment of the word sacred has diminished its power and significance. In a religious context it is a commonly used adjective to describe sacred space, art, texts, music, traditions, and rituals. In some cultures animals, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, deserts, and valleys are sacred. For many, human life, the environment, and the cosmos, are sanctified and venerated as such.

How does something or someone get to be sacred? Are they sacred just because we say so? Or, do they have to earn that distinction? These are perplexing questions for me. The term is derived from the Latin word sacrare —to set aside or to make holy. Rituals of dedication or consecration are often used to identify a place or a person as sacred. I argue that this is not enough. Most often, we speak or write the word to describe what is believed to be sacred based on preconceptions, without qualification or further thought.

Let us consider a tranquil, sandy beach. Like a mountain or a forest, it is a natural wonder and does not really want to be anything else. Still, the beach has the innate potential to reshape identities as well as popular perceptions of what a beach is. For example, if two people fall in love on the beach, that place will never again be ordinary for them. It becomes an acute space because of the metamorphosis they experienced there. In this sense the meaning of the beach and the couple was altered. As a tragic counterpoint, one could demonstrate how a beachfront and nearby inhabitants are changed after a devastating tsunami or hurricane. No one would say that event is sacred, although some might call it an “act of God.”

What about a built environment such as a temple, mosque, or church? The most any designer or architect can do is create a place of worship that has the potential to become sacred. But that is still not enough. Like the ordinary beach a house of prayer, regardless of its architectural and artistic features, it is just a building until its users (like the lovers walking on the beach) have a transformative experience in it. In some faith traditions a place of worship is, ideally, where people undergo a radical change. Such an experience would reclassify the people and the building as sacred. The Christian writer John Chrysostom observed that it is not the building that makes the people holy. It is the people who enter the church who make the place holy.

When is sacred not sacred? I submit that texts, songs, rituals, traditions, art works, and architecture become sacred only when they alter the lives of people. Not before. Of course not every building has that power and not every person seeks change. The hallowed halls of mosques, synagogues, and churches where ruthless murders have occurred become sacred grounds not only because innocent people have died there, but because they are memorials that remind us to transform a world ruptured by injustice.

The author is a liturgical design consultant and serves on the editorial board of Faith & Form.