Tag Archives: Temple

Sacred Space: Finger Bones

My hands ache.

I am acutely aware of the weight and shape of every bone in my hand.

I can feel the tendons stretching and relaxing as my fingertips dance over the keyboard to write these words.  The movements, subtle though there are, carry their own slight discomfort to the pain centers of my brain.

The tenderness is unfamiliar, and irritating, and strangely welcome.

It means that I’ve actually been working.

***

These posts, in my Sacred Space series, are supposed to chronicle my efforts at building a small private temple on my property.

The tree, which I mean to carve, stands untouched.  The ground where the fire pit will eventually go, the fountain and small reflecting pool, the spiral walkways…,

It’s all still a grassy patch of nothing in particular.

The plans are there, but the time, and the will to begin, remain elusive.

***

I took half of the month of May away from my job.

Beltane was celebrated with fire and feast and a flurry of creative exertion, as I broke ground on a new workshop in the backyard.

There was digging, and then backfilling, and leveling.  Lumber and nails were unloaded and then transformed into floor and walls, and eventually many-jointed trusses arched overhead like the bones of some terrible beast.

I took a break from my job to do work, to build a place where I hope to do even more work.

And that probably seems just a little insane, in a world where vacation time is ideally spent in some sort of leisure activity – or even better, inactivity.

But while the job I go to every day puts bread on the table, it lacks true satisfaction.  I spend most of my time creating nothing, adding nothing of substance to the sum of my time on this planet.  I find, instead, that true satisfaction comes about when channeling an idea through the body and forcing it to take shape in the material world.

***

So I haven’t built my temple yet, but my workshop is almost done.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because I think a workshop is a sacred space in its own right.

The stories that my ancestors have passed down, about the gods we worship, tell us that they were not only masters of warfare, and magic, and healing.  The greatest of the gods, the ones who were heroes among their own immortal folk, were the masters of every art and craft.

At the woodworking bench, at the forge, at the loom and the wheel, wielding hammer and saw, and torch and trowel…, through hand and heart the very energy of creation is focused in the places where we make the things that will last beyond our fleeting lives.

We reshape the world in our image.

How better to honor the gods of our fathers?

***

My hands ache – and that is as it should be.

A hammer is scarred by every nail it strikes.

That is the sacrifice we make to change the world.

Even the bones in our hands can be a sacred space!

Lace your fingers together.

Do you remember the rhyme?

“Here is the church…here is the steeple…,”

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

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Sacred Space: Sacristy

In every Catholic Church there is a special room, hidden somewhere out of sight, where the tools of the Mass are kept.  There is a rack where the priests vestments are hung, and cabinets which are used to store the various tools of the Mass: the paten and chalice, ciborium and censor.

In some churches, the Sacristy is equipped with a special sink which drains into the earth instead of into the sewers.  This sink is used to clean the vessels used during the rite of Communion, it being important that no part of the body or blood of their savior, having been washed away, should come into contact with human waste.  This is a part of the sacrament that no one sees, but is every bit as important as all the pomp and circumstance of the Mass.

If the true drama of the church takes place at the altar, before the eyes of the attendant faithful, we may think of the Sacristy as the backstage, a space both sacred and utilitarian, dedicated to the mundane needs of the priest and the fulfillment of his office.

While I grew up in the Church, I could never believe in the miracle it all hinged upon.

The rituals however, the mechanics of it all, these things were always fascinating to me.

I suppose some of the other christian churches must have Sacristies of their own, but I have observed that the further removed a denomination is from its Roman roots, the less likely it is to believe that an object can be imbued with holiness.  In these churches where the pulpit has replaced the holy altar, the robes are simply robes, and the weird little glass dixie-cups that they serve grape juice in are just weird little glass dixie-cups.

If a church like that has a Sacristy at all, surely would be in name only.

Of course, I could easily be wrong on that point.  I happily admit that my knowledge of that end of the Christian spectrum is somewhat lacking, and I am sure that someone among my friends or readers will correct me if I have muddled the details.

Still, it seems to me that if you believe that the tools of ritual are blessed, you must need a sanctified space in which to store them and to prepare them for use.

If you do not believe, or if the nature of your belief is such that you have no place for tools or ritual, the need for such a space is equally absent.

But what happens at the other end of that spectrum?  What if your belief is that everything has a living and sacred spirit, that every rock and tree, that the air we breath and the soil beneath our feet, is all of it inspirited, all humming with power and presence?

If all the word’s a stage, where do we hide all the props and costumes when they’re not in use?

 

As usual, we’ve got it backward.

“Nature is My Church” is a popular saying among pagans.

There are lots of variations of this sentiment, but it is almost always coupled an image of some pure wilderness setting, the idea being that the majesty of the forest canopy or the wind carved arches of desert stone are the pagan equivalent of a cathedrals walls.

And while I freely admit that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences, come from moments spent in a wilderness setting, I don’t think that this is what that phrase means, or what it should mean.

We have worked so hard, as a species, to compartmentalize our world and our lives.  “Nature,” we think of as a place apart from home and from work.  It is another place we might choose to go, instead of the mall or the gym.  Maybe we make daily visits to the jogging trail at the nearby city park, or we could save up our money for that once in a lifetime chance to gather the family head ‘cross country, basking in the majesty of some National Park.

But ‘going’ to church is what the Christians do.

Nature isn’t a place, and it is not a thing.

Nature is a force, and like gravity (or Facebook), it’s pretty much everywhere.

The trackless miles of old-growth forests are no more or less a part of nature than a few blades of grass, peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk.

Grass in Stone

We don’t go to nature.  Nature finds its way to us, always, crashing through whatever feeble barriers we might like to erect against it.  If nature is our church, then that’s the whole of it.

The world is OUR temple.

But does it feel that way?

Probably not.

If you are anything like me, what you feel, most of the time, is a great weight pressing you down, threatening to suffocate you beneath the endless minutia of the every day.

Oh, we can break through it from time to time.

We can steal a few moments of meditation.  We can light the fires on the special days, breathing  in the smoke, and feeling our lungs clear like we were bursting up from a deep dive.  We can calm our minds with a walk in the sunshine, or the rain, or beneath the light of the moon.

But these are fragmentary moments, and when they pass, we’ll still have to deal with pressure that comes along with the day to day grind of existence.  And most people call this “life”.

But I’ve found another word for it.

 

I call it Sacristy.

All the world is a Sacred Space, all of it, but we have made of it a storeroom.

We have, all around us, the tools of worship, but we seldom take them up.

Instead, we tuck them away in their special cubbies, lest they become misplaced.

Our spiritual selves we leave hanging on a rack, waiting for those ever so special occasions when we’ll slip them on and take ‘em for a twirl.

A couple thousand years ago a new religion, born of an unlikely marriage between a messianic cult and the religious methodology of ancient Rome, began to sweep across the land.  With its arrival the gods were banished from our day to day tasks, and the spirits of field and forest were ignored and eventually forgotten.

Because religion became a separate entity unto itself, and everything beyond the cathedral walls, profane.

And here we are, those of us who are working to resurrect the old ways, still burdened by this terrible idea: church is a place we go, religion is a thing we do, and most of our lives are spent backstage, just waiting for the next scene.

I work, and I pay my bills, and the list of things that need to be done just keeps piling up, and not the least bit of progress on the little temple that I’ve sworn to build behind my house.

Because where would I find the time, or the energy, or the money for materials, when everything else needs doing first?

It has become emblematic for me, my little temple project, of a much bigger problem.

A little more every day, I grow tired of living in the Sacristy.

****

This is the tenth post in this series, following the thoughts, planning, and (I hope), the eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Healing Wounds

Robins arrived this morning, and they came by the hundreds.

I heard them before I woke, a cacophony of chirping song, seeping into my dreams, drawing me steadily toward wakefulness.  When I stepped out of the door and into the backyard they were sweeping too and fro from tree to ground and back again, foraging for breakfast.

Breakfast…, just the thought of it had my stomach rumbling.  But rather than turning back toward the kitchen, I made my way down the steps, and sat crosslegged on the landing, facing out into the yard, and watched the airborne circus for just a bit.

This, I should point out, is a change.

Up until two days ago, I’d been avoiding the backyard altogether.

Oh, I’d set a bowl out for the cat, but then it was right back inside.

And it has been that way for months, truth be told.

One of the things that drew me to purchase this particular house was the great oak tree which stood at the center of the backyard, itself surrounded on all sides by a thick canopy of overhanging limbs.  This yard was a secluded haven which quieted the surrounding neighborhood bustle, while speaking in a voice all its own.

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you may remember that the character of this sanctuary has changed dramatically in the intervening years.

The central oak died some two and a half years ago now.

In May of 2014, I wrote in the first of these Sacred Space posts, about my intention to incorporate the remains of that great tree into a shrine or small temple, in an effort to win back the spiritual center of the yard which was lost when the tree finally died.

A year later, with only the most rudimentary plans in place, calamity struck.

Due to my own failed stewardship, the yard had become overgrown and a major cutback was demanded by the city.  The aftermath was, and still is, hard for me to look at.  My secluded haven was no more.

Worse yet was the wounded feeling of the land beneath my feet.

I’ve always been one to feel the deeper currents of a place, but the voices I’d become so accustomed to were gone, replaced by something more like a cringing animal, withdrawing from any contact for fear of further hurts.

And even as I tried to sooth the insult to the spirits of that place, one of my neighbors began hassling me, demanding that I cut down the rest of the trees which ran along our fence line.  Claiming that they posed a danger of falling into her yard, and that they were interfering with the new privacy fence she wished to erect on her side of our chainlink boundary.

When I demurred, said neighbor arranged to have someone cut two of those trees down without my approval, reaching over our common fence to cut down two healthy trees on my side of the property line, and leaving the toppled remains stretched out across my yard.

When I discovered this, I shoved them back over the fence, along with an angry note explaining that any further trespass would lead to legal action.  Words were bandied about, and a long stalemate has ensued.

And so I’ve avoided the backyard.  Partly to avoid further conflict with the neighbors.  But mostly because it still hurts to see it and feel it in this condition.

I thought it would be better at night, when I couldn’t see all the damage, but it’s actually worse.

The same neighbor with whom I have been in conflict, apparently believes in 24/7 illumination of every square inch of her yard.  There are no less than seven security lights illuminating an area barely a tenth of an acre in size, and with the brush and trees so throughly cleared away, my former sanctuary is, by night,  awash in a halogen glare.

It hasn’t felt like my yard at all.

Which brings us to Friday afternoon.

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and I’d forced myself out into the yard to do some cleanup work.  Just hauling some branches, leftover from the great purge, into a new pile a little farther from the house, and hanging up a couple new bird feeders I’d bought.

Old habits die hard, I guess, because in the midst of these chores, I found myself wandering out into the greater yard.  I circled past the ramshackle gardening shed, past the trunk of the dead oak, and into the area beyond, now vacant of overgrowth…, or any growth really.

I circled back toward the house, intent on finishing with the brush pile, but just as quickly I was drawn back out into the back third of my property again.  And so I allowed myself to be drawn, circling round and round, drawn in new directions by new currents, until finally I was brought to a stop in what I believe must be the new spiritual center of the yard.

Almost eight yards ahead of me stood the great tree trunk where the center had stood, but in my minds eye I could see the sculpture of the horned god which will stand there, cloaked with ivy, rising up from the center of a spiral which curls around him and then outward, passing under my feet and away to the right and left to become two more spirals, one surrounding a fountain, the other…, a kiln?

The design of the temple space which has eluded me for almost two years came suddenly to mind and just as clear as day.  It was like a watching a flower bloom suddenly from the ashes of some terrible fire.  And for the first time in months I was excited to be in my backyard again.

nightbloom

Saturday, saw more cutting and sawing, moving and piling, but done with my (our?) purpose in mind, and with permission of the local spirits both asked and granted.

And then on Sunday morning the robins came and the yard seemed to be truly alive again for the first time in a long stretch of days.

****

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

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Sacred Space: Inside Out

I have visited many churches over the years.

Some of them have been modern and tidy, while others were old and ruined, all tumbled walls and ivy covered stones.  Some have been big majestic affairs, full of stained glass and flying buttresses.  Others have been of a smaller design, tiny cloisters for the meekest of hermits.

A few of these churches, I have known because of family or friends who worshipped there.

Most, I will admit, I have visited as curiosities, because I have a love of history and architecture, and the village church is so often the pivot upon which both of those interests turn.

There are some beautiful old churches out there that I’d still like to visit some day.  I know I’ll walk their grounds for hours if given the opportunity.

And then there are those things that look like repurposed convention centers, complete with giant video screens and stadium seating.  From the photos I’ve seen, they appear to have all the spiritual appeal of a shopping mall, only lacking the requisite Jamba-Juice and Cinnabon.

When we look at all these designs in aggregate, and when we subtract from them all the trimmings and flourish, all the stuff that is more about the audience than the rite for which the space was designed, what we are left with is this…,

Gallarus Oratory, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Gallarus Oratory, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

No matter how high the vaulted ceiling or how magnificent the windows, we are still talking about an enclosed space, designed to place us at a remove from the physical world, and allowing only a single sliver of light, a single truth, to break through the darkness.

This is not a new idea, nor was it particularly unique to the Christians.

Roman and Egyptian temples, from whom the early Christians took many of their cues, were of a similar design.  The purpose being to create a house for the temple god, a sacred and enclosed space in which that being could manifest in physical form.

The early Christians, took this same idea and turned it on its head.  The design of the church is not intended to bring God to the people.  Those who go around today calling this or that church “gods house” would have been stoned in the streets for idolatry, back in the day.

No, the church is a closed box designed with the sole purpose of removing the worshippers from the distractions of the physical world.

Because the world, we must remember, is bad.

Okay, it’s not actually so much “bad” as it is unimportant.  The god of Abraham built the world so that he would have a place to put us.  But he did too good a job and we started worshipping trees and rocks and aardvarks and stuff, and Jehovah looked down upon his people and was like, “well crap!”

Actually, Saul of Tarsus puts it a bit more poetically…,

They exchanged God’s truth for a lie and worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

— Romans 1:25

That would be one of the more famous lines from a letter written to the earliest Christian congregations of Rome, sometime in the middle of the 1st century of the common era.

It forms one small part of a general condemnation of all things Roman, and was intended as a warning to the freshly baptized, to avoid falling into old habits, surrounded as they were by impressive temples, communal baths, and the kind of debauchery that comes of a society which never discovered pants.

Now that all seems perfectly reasonable, as long as we accept that there is but the one God and that he created an entire universe that is billions of years old, infinitely vast, and filled with trillions of stars and galaxies, all with the sole purpose of housing us for a few thousand years while we spent our time looking at all the neat stuff daddy built and getting it totally wrong.

The only thing to do, in such a circumstance, is to shut ourselves up in a box and focus all of our attention on that one ray of light.  Make that light your truth in the darkness, and reject all that is worldly.

Or maybe you don’t.

Drombeg Stone Circle (also called The Druids Altar) in Co. Cork, Ireland.

Drombeg Stone Circle (also called The Druids Altar) in Co. Cork, Ireland.

I have visited many churches over the years.

But I have also walked in places where the ancient peoples understood that the entire landscape was their holy place, where they found the alignments of mountain and valley, the sun and moon, the rising of the stars and the changing of the seasons.  I have wandered through the fields of the gods and felt their breath in the wind and the beating of their mighty hearts in the vibrations of the earth under my feet.

The path to holiness does not lead to a darkened closet.  It leads us outside, where we can see, by the light of day, where we stand in the world.

****

This is the seventh 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.

It has been a long while since there was an update in this series.

The truth is, there have been many reversals of late that have drawn my attention and resources elsewhere.  For instance, only a few weeks ago the water-lines under my house ruptured, and I’ve had to have the whole works replaced at considerable expense.  Now there are still the giant holes in my walls, where the plumbers had to run new lines, that are in need of repair.

It’s just one thing after another.

So, the great tree stands limbless and ready for carving.  I have the basic design worked out and a small reference model in clay, which I am constantly fussing with.  At the moment, however, I haven’t the money to rent the scaffold I would need to reach the upper heights, nor the time and energy to do the actual work.

As for the area surrounding the tree…,

I am still thinking about that.  I walk the area nightly, trying to see how it all comes together in my head, and my vision is a little more clear now than it was just a few weeks ago.  But we’re still a long way off from a final design.

And I’m fine with that.

In the meantime, I continue to look at the sacred spaces of other traditions, looking for ideas and inspirations, as well as those things to avoid.  There is a buddhist temple near me that I’ve been meaning to visit for over a year now.  Maybe I’ll get a chance to do that soon.

Now then, I’ve spent too much time cooped up in the house writing this.

Time to step outside for a bit of fresh air and a visit with the gods.

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Sacred Space: By Design

I suppose one would have to say that the most important thing about progress reports is that there BE some progress to report.

In the case of my backyard shrine project, there has been precious little progress of any kind in these last couple months.  I had intended, by now, to have cleared away the space around the central tree trunk, to have mapped out the area, drawn up detailed layout designs, and to have at least begin the process of removing the excess limbs from the upper reaches of the tree.

However, it seems as if every time I set some time aside to work on this project, something else comes up to distract me, or the weather turns against me.  Just recently we had a nasty winds storm down here.  A straight-line wind, preceding a storm cell, blew through my neighborhood at speeds in excess of 80mph, felling entire trees in its wake.  The streets here are still lined with shattered limb and bough.  Several modest sized trees on my own property came down in the storm, and now I’ll have to find the time to clear them out of the way before I can even think about starting new projects.

It is disheartening, but I knew this project might prove itself beyond me.  I knew also that my own motivation would likely prove my greatest obstacle.

I have not given up yet.  Far from it!

Below you will see some preliminary sketch-work I’ve done, showing the dead tree as it currently stands and then some of my thoughts about how it ‘might’ look in the future.

Tree Concept Sketch

My current thinking has a raised, circular platform, around the trunk of the carved tree.  Immediately to the east of that circle and intersecting with it, a second circle, containing a reflecting pool and a raised fire bowl.  In this incarnation the whole thing lines up with sunrise on Samhain.

I am not even close to a final design for this yet.  Another idea incorporates the Celtic Triple-Spiral with three platforms of varied height providing which tie into the three realms (land, sea, sky).  A third (mostly rejected) idea involves a long arbor-like processional that spirals around the central carved tree trunk, which itself rises up from a circular pool of water.

None of these designs do a very good job of interacting with the other features of the yard and house, and it is important to me that the entire space seems to flow, rather than feeling forced.

And so more time at the drawing board is called for.  As is more time in the space itself, wandering around, feeling for the natural ebb and flow that has not quite vanished under the surface.

Time and attention are what this project needs, and both have been in short supply, with many other projects clamoring for attention.

And speaking of…,

You may remember, several weeks back now, that I mentioned a particularly powerful meditation experience, involving a certain sacred well, and Nuada of the Silver Hand.

Since awakening from the vision, I have been looking for a token to place on my home altar, to stand for the ‘fallen king’ who seems to have unexpectedly entered into my personal pantheon.  Thus far, I have found nothing that seems appropriate to the task, but a friend suggested to me that I should perhaps make my own, perhaps casting it out of pewter or some similar metal.

I have very limited experience in metal casting, but I am actually very excited by this idea and have been putting time into researching the methods, tools and materials involved.  I have also been working, in clay, on a preliminary sculpture that may form the basis of a mold in the future.

Nuada Hand Sculpt

It’s a tad crude as of yet.  I’m still trying to decide if I want to stick with just the symbolic silver hand, or work in a more anthropomorphic rendering of the deity himself, but it feels good to be sculpting something again.  When I work on things like this it feels as if something is waking up in me, some part of my inner landscape comes alive, which I have not wandered in what seems like ages.

Maybe these feelings are nothing more than happy accidents, or perhaps that comes to me by design.  In either case, the more I push back against the work-a-day existence that threatens to drown me in needless tedium, the more I try to shape the world around me into something better, the more human and alive I begin to feel.

****

This is the fifth 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.

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Sacred Space: Off the Grid

In our heart of hearts, we seek the untamed places.

I believe that, somewhere deep inside each of us, there is a primal desire to break away from the human pack and run free through the underbrush of some imagined primordial wood.

And yet, despite that inner nature, we have been drawn, collectively, to remake the land in our own image.  After ages of effort, we gaze around us and imagine that we have successfully pushed the wilderness out and away, so that it exists in only the most remote of places.  We imagine ourselves to be safe and comfortable within our walls, warmed by the glow of our technology.

We are subsumed within ‘the Grid’, caught up within a network of roads, power lines, radio waves, and the uncountable bits of data which stream through us as we go about our busy lives.  We exist within ‘the Grid’.  We move along its pathways, perpetuating it through uncountable actions that are, to us, simply the basic stuff of living.

Drive home from work, no right on red, cook a meal, watch the news, wash the dishes, take a call, go to bed, turn off the light – we are living in the grid and it lives within us.

And yet, from time to time we seek escape.  That spark of wilderness endures within each of us, and it rebels against the constraints of civilization.  I suspect that we all feel it gnawing at us, from time to time, and for those of us who see the natural world as an expression of the divine, that drive to reconnect with the natural world may thunder through us with religious fervency.

And so, when we are asked, by outsiders, about where we go to worship, many Pagans will speak of seeking the divine in wilderness settings.

“We don’t need buildings,” we explain to the simple folk, with a lofty air, “because Nature is our Church.”

Yeah, okay.

So let’s take a moment or two to consider ‘the Grid’.

If you’ve been following along with the other posts in this series, you know that I am working toward building a small shrine/temple space in my backyard to replace a large tree that died there.

I’ve spent a lot of time, over the last couple months walking around that yard, trying to envision the proper layout between the space around that tree, my home, and the other features of my property.  It occurred to me the other day, that a view from above would be handy, in this planning process, and so it was Google Maps to the rescue.

Home From Above

So, this is where I live.  This is a satellite image of my home with a few lines I’ve added after the fact, to more clearly mark the property lines.  If you look in the lower third of the lot you will clearly see the deceased tree I’ve told you about.

Looking at this image, the first thing I noticed, of course, was how small everything really is when viewed from a distance.  But as I pondered this unusual perspective, I began to think about ‘the Grid’, and about Nature, and Wilderness, and what those words really mean.  I began to discover some really beautiful things.

At first it was just a jumble of boundaries and borders; I had to expand my view a little to really see the beauty in it.

Property Grid

This is my neighborhood, its streets and property lines, spread out for several blocks around.  I traced these lines myself over a few hours, drawn from an image on that same website.

I can’t stop looking at it.  I get lost in the subtle twists and turns of it, the orderly asymmetry as it bends and folds over the contours of the natural landscape.  We drive through our neighborhoods and we think of them as artificial spaces which we have imposed upon the landscape.  I am forced to wonder if the bee thinks any differently about her hive.

Now let me adjust the filter a bit and we’ll take another look at that same neighborhood:

Canopy Grid Thermal

In this image, everything that is white is natural canopy – trees (mostly) and shrubs, and bushes, and even a hedge or two.  You’ll notice that well over 50% of the frame is filled with tree-cover.  Now look at that patch in the upper right corner of the image.  That is a bit of natural terrain left on the fringes of my neighborhood.  This part of Texas is scrub prairie and rolling hills, dotted here and there with trees.  But here we have a veritable forest and the happiest squirrels you have ever seen.

Why?

Because ‘The Grid’ makes forests!  People plant trees, and where they don’t, they build fences where birds rest and literally crap the seeds into the ground.

I was raised in the country, and most of the trees we had, sometimes vast stands of what seemed like primordial old-growth, were actually the result of some farmer’s fence, now long gone and overgrown by time and nature.

And since I’ve moved into town, I have seen more wildlife than I ever did in the country.

Now, this is not to say that pollution and urban sprawl and overcrowding are not problems, in need of our attention.  Nor would I claim that wilderness areas and indigenous species do not need our care and protection.

But to assume that we must escape ‘the Grid’ in order to commune with the natural world is blind arrogance.  We’re really not that good at having our way, and ‘the Grid’ has as much to do with nature as anything we’ve put together.

If we vanished tomorrow, most of our precious infrastructure would be absorbed back into the landscape within a hundred years – less than the blink of an eye in geologic terms.

Nature, is NOT our church.  Nature is the the expression of the divine upon the mortal world, and it surrounds us, wherever we are.  I know this is true because even as I sit here, in my artificial environment, doors and windows closed to the outside world, I hear an erratic tapping at the window nearest me.  I pull aside the curtain, and there is a tiny bird, shaped like a miniature Bluejay, clinging to the screen and tapping at it madly with his beak.

We look at each other for a moment, and then he flies into the bushes.  I come back to my typing, and he starts again.  I raise the curtain and with a flutter he is gone, only to return the moment I begin to lower the curtain again.  We keep at it and now two more birds (finches, I think) have joined in the game.  I need to get this post done, and these little birds are playing with me!  And now I’ve told you about them, and in their own feathered way, they have contributed to the grid.

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This is the fourth 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.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey

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.

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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.

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