On sacred spaces

I’m not a philosopher, but once in awhile I like to safety-pin on a one’s cape and don a paper-cutout of one of their masks, and whoosh around the room jumping off of the low furniture. Occasionally, real ones will pat me on the head, and say “Isn’t he cute!” and let me play around their feet. So it was, that I was invited to present at a meeting exploring boundaries in philosophy of science. There, I talked about perceptual boundaries in ecology (1).

The reason for this meditation on sacred space, is that reading Jason’s excellent exploration of sacred groves and some of the boundary issues I explored in ecology, have seemed relevant to some things I’m thinking about transitions. I’m not talking about sacred places as such, but rather those transitions between sacred spaces—those markers that disclose and define a sacred space. What I’m talking about can be gleaned by analogy from the temporal sacredness that Abraham Heschel places on the Sabbath:

“When all work is brought to a standstill the candles are lit. Just as creation began with the word, “Let there be light!” so does the celebration of creation begin with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol, light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.
And the world becomes a place of rest.” p. 66. (2)

The temporal passage from regular time to sacred time embodies both natural events such as the setting of the sun, and human actions, like setting aside work and lighting the candles, that mark and signify and symbolize the boundaries of this transition. Also at play are memory, tradition, and recognition that a boundary is being crossed. The ‘now’ being created is different from, and holier than, that of a moment ago. It is often a social act, with others present in the transition (perhaps God as the only ‘other’).

In ecology, boundaries, or ecotones, as we call them, are often marked by physical transitions. Sometimes abrupt: as in water to land, or rock to earth. Sometimes more gradual: as in chemical gradients in soil, or as in elevational changes as you move up a mountain. There are lots of examples: forest to grass lands, coral reef to open sea. There are also landscape-level changes like that from desert to Sahel. In Hawaii there is a transition zone from rain forest, near the Kilauea Volcano crater, to the Ka’ū Desert where it rains only very infrequently. This transition zone is only a few hundred yards wide. Ecological boundaries are always boundaries ‘for something.’ Something specific. For a snake, a freeway may be an impassible boundary that for a bird is treated as nothing at all. But whatever it is, it usually evolves bringing in the perceptual awareness of ‘someone’ marking the boarder. Borders can have very well defined areas, like the trout locked into a stream from which it cannot move, to bears that have fuzzy territories, marked by their awareness of the presence and signs of other bears.

Ecological systems are also complex and this complexity grows as new layers of complexity, fold into, and blossom from, other layers. Life expands in evolutionary time to fill new niches and in so doing, creates new niches. For example, as plants left the oceans onto a barren world, they created a new level of complexity of habitats, that were soon exploited by insects, which in turn created more complexity allowing vertebrates, then birds, then mammals, then us (our physical form anyway), to enter into these complex dances as natural selection explores these spaces of possible life-types in creative ways. These new niches in turn allowed more complexity to arise and more niches to unfold into the world. This is creation. Boundaries are created in this process and they are always both temporal and spatial in nature.

Keep in mind that to be a boundary they must be perceived by such. That perceiver can be an individual or even a species (what I mean by ‘species’ perception’ is complex and developed more fully in the paper that came from this conference).

Ecological boundaries also always have historical contingency. They exist because certain features have unfolded in the way that they have, in time, because of physical processes, or additional ecological complexity. This historical contingency also means that each is unique in ways that is not duplicated. They exist for at time, emerging on the stage or earth life for a moment (perhaps a geological moment), never to be duplicated exactly or repeated.

I want to draw on aspects of ecological boundaries that I think are relevant to thinking about how we mark and delimit sacred space. Part II of this meditation will more personal and experiential (and less dry—I hope).

(1) Peck, S. L. 2009. Whose Boundary? An Individual Species Perspectival Approach to Borders. Biological Theory. 3(4):1-6

(2) Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
(This was adapted from a post originally published at ByCommonConsent in June 2009)

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6 responses to “On sacred spaces

  1. Brad July 2, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Plus, there’s the edge effect, the increase in biodiversity that is usually found along ecological boundaries, in the narrow overlap between two natural habitats.

    Steve, you must, must read Jonathan Z. Smith’s To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. In particular, the chapter on the temple in Ezekiel and the concluding, more theoretical chapter.

  2. Brad July 2, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Oh, and in case it wasn’t already clear, I loved this post, Steve.

  3. Nicole I July 2, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Thanks for this. I often dance around community boundaries in a class I teach and this is a really helpful way to look at it.

  4. missy. July 2, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Steve, I love the poetry with which you write about biology. Your love for your subject rings so clear.

  5. mfranti July 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Brad beat me to a comment on edge effect so I’ll save it for later.

    I love this post Steve. I can’t wait to read the second part.

  6. bhodges July 6, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Great post, and I just finished the recent issue of Dialogue, well done!

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