There are those among us who will always seek out the sacred.
We look for signs of it in our lives, in the comings and goings, the twists and turns of daily existence. Often, if we are attentive and open, we might catch just a glimpse. More rare yet are those occasions when we might see or feel something truly extraordinary. Yet however fleeting or profound the experience, invariably it makes us yearn for still more.
It is in our nature.
We are a species seeking connection, to each other, to the world, and to the spirit within and around us. For every wall and fence we erect, we engineer new ways to connect ourselves to people and places that seem otherwise out of reach.
And so, when seeking communion with those things of the spirit realm that seem furthest from our grasp, we re-engineer the world around us. We build sacred spaces.
These are the churches and temples, the shrines and burial grounds, where the human community has shaped the land in such a way as to being the spiritual world within mortal reach. In some cases, we seek to house the gods, and in others, the goal is to lift ourselves a little closer to whatever realm they inhabit.
But there are, of course, other places to seek out encounters of the spirit.
These are sacred spaces of a different nature.
Or, more to the point, within nature.
There are forests and cliffs, canyons and mountains, which I have visited, in which I have felt the earth beneath my feet vibrating, coursing with the same sort of energy I have felt in certain circles of stone and lofty cathedrals. This energy is raw, untamed, but focused by the shape of the land, by the rivers and the rain, and by the winds that sculpt the rock.
I have felt that energy. I have tapped into it, used it to steady me in high places when I might otherwise have fallen. At certain times, I have seen within in that earthy pulse, a momentary glimpse of the divine.
We are a species seeking connection.
And sometimes that search leads us underground.
I have explored several caves in my life, more than most perhaps, but far fewer than some of the hard-core cavers I know.
I have walked among vast glimmering cathedrals of stone, and crawled between buried shelves of rock narrow enough that a lungful of air would close the gap between myself and the ceiling above. Touristy showpieces, pitch black lava-tubes, and dripping-breathing-living caverns in seven states and the Republic of Ireland have known my careful step.
Footprints in the Darkness: the rule in caving, whenever possible, is to leave no trace.
Standing underground, in the darkest dark it is possible to know, with earth both above and below, I have reached out to feel the ebb and flow of energy that surrounds us in those places.
And, as with the surface world, I have discovered that our results may vary. In some places the pulse of the living earth seems strong almost beyond measure, while in others it exists as but a hesitant trickle.
Still, if you have been in a cave, particularly in a living one where the stone is still flowing with the steady passing of millennia, and if you have reached out with any part of your deeper self, then you know what it is to wander (wonder?) in such a place.
If you know that feeling, and if you can reach back and bring those sensations into the present, then I suggest that you watch Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ – a 2011 documentary concerned with the exploration of Chauvet Cave in France.
The paintings in that cavern, drawn by paleolithic men some 30,000-year ago, are as powerful a bridge between the worlds of human, animal and spirit, as any I can imagine.
The scientists in the film remind us that we cannot truly know what purpose the drawings served, or what people were doing in that cave so very long before the written word. Yet, even as they caution us against flights of fancy, these men of science wax poetic about their personal experiences in the cave and the perception we have, of so called ‘primitive’ peoples, who knew no hard lines between the spiritual and the physical world in which they walked and hunted.
And there are tantalizing glimpses of things we moderns can easily recognize as religious or spiritual in nature. There is the positioning of a cave-bear skull on an altar-like platform of rock, facing the distant entrance, and the grouping of so many of the drawings around an natural font of water – a natural melding of the elements not dissimilar to the holy wells found throughout the Celtic world. These things provide us with touchstones, however tenuous, to a people whom might otherwise seem lost to history.
These things also tell us that the spirits that walked among these people, are not really so different from those that we seek out, if indeed there is any difference at all.
In a forbidden recess of the cave, there’s a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.
Footprints in the Darkness…,
We dig down into the deepest places in search of answers and are often left with greater mysteries still. The quest for the sacred, like any other endeavor, may be as much about the pursuit as it is the objective.
Which, I suppose, means I’ll have to find the time to explore more caves.
I hope you will as well.
This is the eighth post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property, along with contemplations about what exactly Sacred Space actually means. If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.