Sacred Space: Spirit in the Tree

My neighbors must think I’m crazy.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my backyard recently, staring up at the dead tree which stands at its center.  Every few days, I find myself walking in circles through the high grass (ugh, I really need to mow) and stopping at various points to look up into the barren branches.

After two or three orbits around the trunk of that old oak, I’ll head back inside and go about the business of the day.  The sun may set and rise again a few times before I return, to gaze again into those twisting limbs.

I am looking for the shapes that I know must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, Co. Kerry.  Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, County Kerry. Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

In thinking about how we create a sacred space, it seems to me that part of the job of a temple or a shrine is to remove us from the everyday world of our mortal lives.  While the gods may walk among us as we go about our daily routine, we might never notice their presence because we are conditioned, over a lifetime, to expect only the ordinary.

Our ancestors believed that to experience the divine, we must enter into an altered state of awareness.  There are many means to do this, but the temple is the physical manifestation of that altered state.  The temple sets the mood, it removes us from the ordinary and offers us a glimpse of the otherworld where the gods reside.

Dingle Tree Friar

In my travels, I have encountered a few places that felt as if they were set apart from the world around them.  Most I have sought out, but a few I stumbled upon by accident.

Such was the case a few years ago while traveling along the western coast of Ireland.

Upon arriving in the town of Dingle, in Co. Kerry, and checking into our Bed & Breakfast, the kindly Hostess of the establishment sat us down and offered us a number of suggestions as to what my girlfriend and I should see and do while touring the area.

Now I am very much the planner, when it comes to mapping out my explorations, but I do like to leave some room for chance encounters, and something that our Hostess said grabbed my attention.

“Oh, and you really must visit the Angel Trees!”

“Angel Trees?”

“Oh yes, they are like nothing you have ever seen.”

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

In the town of Dingle, in the west of Ireland, off a narrow street that seems more like an alleyway than something you would actually want to drive through, in the garden of a rectory that sits beside a rather pedestrian little church, there is a doorway to another world.

In this otherwise simple garden, stand a handful of tree-trunks, ash and oak, that are carved in such a way that standing among them I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else entirely.

The imagery, while Christian in theme, had a primitive, tribal nature to it, which seems quite out of place with the rather mundane surroundings.  And yet, while you might expect a certain dissonance between the trees and their surroundings, in my experience, the sculptures draw you in to their world, leaving the mortal realm far behind.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

And now, several years later, as I gaze up into the branches of the dead oak behind my house, I am looking for the shapes that will have that same effect on those who see them.

When I first began planning this project I assumed that after limbing the tree and shortening the trunk, I would enclose in within some structure.  Yet, thinking back to those unexpected trees in Dingle, I realize how much more powerful it would be, to have an open air temple with that great carved trunk as its focal point.

And so I wander into my backyard at odd hours of the day.

I gaze upward, looking for the shapes that must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

****

This is the third post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

3 Comments

Filed under Art, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey, Travel

3 responses to “Sacred Space: Spirit in the Tree

  1. Loved this piece, I never thought of it that way at all. I will most definitely look at all trees a bit differently from now on. With your tree, will you eventually carve the spirit into it? I would imagine an old tree with a grandfatherly or grandmotherly face after all it has seen a lot in it’s life time as any grandfather/mother would have. I picture your tree with a face on each side of it one male one female to represent both. Thank you for sharing this info with us, most interesting read first thing in the morning!

    • Yeah, I’m still trying to work out exactly what I’ll be carving there. The big question will be – can I do it? It’s a huge project and although I’ve worked in just about every other medium, my wood carving skills are untested. Thank you for the great comment!

      • I’m not an artist…but I do have to carve fruit and veggies as part of my position at work… I’m going to tell you this because I have the feeling you will not laugh at what I’m going to say…every time I do it I still get shaky even after doing this for nearly 40 years. what I have found is that if I put my hands on the item and ask for guidance from it’s spirit it never fails me. You create what is meant to be created. Have a wonderful week.

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