Boundary Issues in Sacred Spaces: Ecotone Analogies. Part II: Transitions

Çatalhöyük was a large Neolithic ritual center in the Anatolia region of Turkey occupied from 7500-5700 BC. Found in the ruins of these structures, were platforms and panels decorated with etched bulls and bull-horned pedestals. Presumably rituals took place there. Animal or human blood was found on some of the alters. What’s interesting to me, however, was that the entrance into the sacred space required a formal transition from outside to the inside. Archeologists Lewis-Williams and Pearce describe entrance into this ritual center like this:

“Access between rooms was afforded not by full-length doors but by small porthole-like openings through which people were obligated to crawl . . . Entry into a complex of rooms thus entailed, first, descent into a dimly lit area; secondly, having descended, people had to crawl or bend low in order to move from one walled space to another and thus deeper into the structure.” P. 105

In other words people had to transition from the secular, ordinary world, of day-to-day, to the world of ritual. Sacred spaces had to be entered formally. This holds for later civilizations as well. Ancient Israel. Egypt. Most ancient ritual centers unearthed by archeologists all over the world, even those which predate civilization and domestic crops, like Göbekli Tepe from the 12 Century B.C., seem to provide openings and borders that allowed a prescribed transition into sacred space.

We too do this when we enter our temples. We begin the process by preparing and changing from regular clothes to church clothes. This is just the first step. We often will fast, or prepare in other ways. When we arrive, we enter through a process of passing through guardians, set to ensure we have the proper credentials to enter the sacred space, we transition further by entering an area specifically set aside to put on the white clothes that will be worn during our ‘work’ within the temple. All of these activities and preparation ready us to enter sacred space. These transition places form an ecotone of sorts, as I talked about in Part I. A transition zone. A border area.

One point. I don’t think we can think about sacred space, ether, without thinking about sacred time. Like the space-time manifold we live in, I’m quite certain that, while sacred space and sacred time can be decoupled conceptually, the lived experience of sacred space requires, at least, a temporal dimension. I’m not sure the reverse holds, as I’ve had sacred experiences that do not seem to rely on the concept of sacred space. But I’ve never been in a sacred space without a kind of sacred time being an explicit part of it.

Besides formal, set-aside-as, sacred spaces that we must transition to, there are sacred spaces that emerge from the complex relationship between the spatial location, memory, its history, or the complex relationships of sociality.

Consider this event:

As a young man during the time I was serving in the Army, I was in touring in Israel with a tour group from Germany where I was stationed. About half of us were LDS, including my Army chaplain and his family. He brought them there, in part, in order to baptize his son in the Jordan River. At some point on the trip (I don’t remember where we were along the river—I just rode the bus and got on and off when they told me) we piled out of the bus and I watched as my chaplain, dressed in white, waded into the muddy water with his son. Nothing about the place seemed remarkable. It reminded me nothing so much as the little dry-land rivers we used to fish in near Evanston, Wyoming when I was a kid—desolate and wind-riven places. Something like tamarisk grew along the sides in patches of mud. It seemed an unpleasant place. Dirty and mucky. There was some exasperation in the group, as some seemed impatient and eager to move on to our next stop. Maybe I was one of them. But suddenly, as he raised his hand to the square, Primary pictures of John the Baptist and Jesus standing in the same river that I now stood beside popped into my mind. The place changed quite dramatically. I was on the banks of the River Jordan, watching the same thing that was done anciently. The river was no longer a muddy creek. It was shifting to a new place under my very feet. The boy came out of the water. It felt holy. And then a dove cooed. I looked up and saw a pair of doves sitting high some trees overhanging the river. No one that knows the ecosystems of the Holy Land would be surprised by doves along the Jordon River. But at that moment, in that place, the a sense of the sacredness of the place filled me up, “And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him.” I could not speak. I tried to say something about the doves, but could not say anything. I pointed them out to someone, but they were not interested. I, however, was breathless. What took place in that instant between standing beside a common muddy river, and suddenly standing in a holy place? It took both place, recognition and memory. The holiness stretched from horizon to horizon, as if for me the entire world had been made holy for me by this one place. A place contextualized by the events, people and memories coming together in complex, emergent ways. Like an ecology, several layers added to the depth and meaning.

Sacred space always involves a transition from secular to sacred in that location deemed holy. This transition is not something we often talk or think about, yet is seems an important part of defining and interacting with our sacred spaces. Like an ecotone, these inhabit an area of in-between-ness that is unique and contingent upon its standing as a boundary between the spaces.

What are your experiences with these kinds of spiritual ecotones? (Remember, I don’t want to talk about sacred spaces per se, but the movement and transition from secular to sacred). How do we transition between these spaces and it what ways might this matter?

*Lewis-Williams, David and David Pearce. 2005. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods. Thames & Hudson. New York.

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  1. Being a new father, I guess this is still very fresh in my mind which is why I bring it up. This is something that I feel many people have experienced, and I am glad to be one of them now.

    When my son was born, I cannot describe the feeling that presented itself. I went from stressed out to near sobbing when he was born, and even more so, when he was placed in my arms. Not only was there a transition from secular to sacred, but a transition of my becoming a father. A lot of realities hit me then, and the spirit was suddenly present. The hospital room, for me, was a very real sacred place.

    This is something many people experience, no mater what their religious beliefs are. It makes me think of the opening of this post where people from 7500-5700 BC and before, had this transitional phase. They understood the importance of it, like Steve pointed out with our Temple work, and many other things. That is amazing to me, that even from that far back to today we still go through this process, and it is distinct and special.

  2. I had a similar experience to Cap, as I suspect many do, on the birth of my first child.

    One of the things I’ve repeatedly found is these transitions often come suddenly and unexpectedly, much like your experience on the river Jordan. Those unexpected transitions seems to be more profound and deeper than the ones I planned and observed for ritually. Those unexpected times seem to leave me more open, more raw, more substantially effected that anticipated ritual. Not always, but often.

    I also find those transition moments to be like flares in my oil-lamp. They are the fuel that gets me from one point of light to the next, and carries my faith when things are hard.

    These are great thoughts, SteveP. I’ve enjoyed these posts.

  3. Margaret Young says:

    This is a wonderful post, Steve. I often talked to missionaries about the sacred space their missions will be in their memories, and that the language they will learn (they were bound for French-speaking places in our branch) will become holy in many ways.
    I’d quibble with this line: “Sacred space always involves a transition from secular to sacred in that location deemed holy.”
    I’m not sure the space needs to be deemed holy. It becomes holy by what happens there–even if we’re the only one who experiences it. For me, there is a holy side to Spanish and Cakchiquel (dialect) because I have had remarkable experiences in those languages. I have found that if I’m having a hard time “feeling the Spirit,” a shift in language can be the bridge. Something opens for me when a speaker begins a talk in Spanish, as though I have antennae attuned to those particular sounds. The transition is all internal. I mentally shift gears when I move into Spanish. I know when my skills are rusty because it takes effort to make the shift, and I have to focus harder. When I’m in a fluent condition (usually after being in a spanish-speaking place for awhile), the transition still occurs, but with less effort. I transition abruptly out when someone is speaking English. But there’s a moment when I don’t understand what they English speakers are saying, when I have to identify the language and recognize it as my native one. That transition is very quick, and I move quite seamlessly into that other world.

  4. Thanks Cap, I agree those transitions occur with me and the birth of my children too. In fact, many of my sacred spaces, or those that become so have occurred around family. Thanks for reminding me of that.

    “those transition moments to be like flares in my oil-lamp” that’s a perfect description Tracy. I think about your last post about your experience in the temple and can relate completely.

    Margaret, I agree completely. I think by ‘deemed’ I meant more something like you said, that it ‘becomes holy” rather than designated. I really like your description of language as a landscape for sacredness. In fact, I think if we looked at landscape more broadly to include the space of languages, in the broad sense that you recently posted about–both as formal human languages and more general as human ways of discoursing–I think we can begin to get a sense of the complexity and ‘ecology’ of sacredness.

  5. More thoughts (while I do laundry): Some sacred spaces change over time. The first trip to a cemetery, when pall bearers make the journey from hearse to grave, is jarring and often anguished. When my best friend died, her mother clutched my hand as we watched my friend’s brothers bring the coffin to the designated plot. “This is the worst part,” she said. But with time, the grave has become a place of meditation, even of measurement. I think of the things I’ve seen which my friend missed because of her early death, and I think about how proud she’d be of her children. It doesn’t make me sad to visit it. In some ways, the temple is similar, in that our first visit tends to be jarring. Unless we’ve been reading anti-Mormon material and have already read the ceremony, it is not anything we would’ve expected. But with time, it too becomes a place of meditation and measurement. I prepare myself for either place much more in my mind than in how I dress, though obviously I would wear jeans to my friend’s grave and would not to the temple. Both places require reverence, quieting of the soul.

  6. Steve G. says:

    I’ve quite enjoyed these pieces and the resonses as well. I have had a couple of times when I felt a place was sacred in which the feeling was so strong and real. One of those times and places was as a missionary in Germany. We lived near a former Concentration Camp, (not one of the famous ones) and decided to spend a P-day touring it. Before entering the camp itself, we were excorted into a little building in which we could view film from the era. there was no acting, we were seeing actual film. Most of the film was taken by americans as they liberated the camp and discovered the horrors inside. In the background we could see our city burning, since it had just been needlessly bombed days before.

    The video served as a transition into that sacred space, as we were put in a very somber mood. We entered the gates, of which few were still remaining and wandered the grounds freely. Not much remained of the camp, we’d come across foundations and occassionally some plaques showing fencelines and such. Nature had done a pretty good job of erasing the outlying markers, but the feeling while inside the camp, although somber and depressing, was also sacred. As we left the camp we passed by the memorial wall. Never forget was the common theme. It took a while for the somber mood to wear off after leaving. The transition was slower going out than coming in.

  7. Nameless says:

    I have experienced what I believe is a similar feeling of sacred space on a visit to Bryce Canyon on a beautiful Sunday in early April. The park was nearly empty and as I sat on a bench overlooking one of the rims, the majesty of creation just washed over me. I could almost hear music. The feeling I had was of great joy and gratitude.