July 6, 2012 by The Editor
In a barren spot of countryside on his way to exile, Jacob encountered God. Fleeing to Haran to avoid his brother’s wrath, he stopped for a night on the way and had a dream: the famous dream in which he sees a ladder stretching into heaven with angels going up and down and God at the top. He awakes from his dream and says “Surely God was in this place and I, I did not know.” He then consecrates the place and calls it Bethel – house of God (Genesis 28).
In determining that this place was sacred, Jacob pronounced the word “I” twice: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” This statement goes to the core of what it means to have an experience of the sacred, to exist in sacred space. By focusing on his self, his “I”, Jacob exposes an unawareness of the nature of the place and time he was in, just as he reveals that our awareness, our openness, is inherent to the experience of the divine. He may be there to rest, but the old saying applies: no rest for the weary. How could he have been anything but keenly open, keenly aware of his surroundings as he runs in fear? His was an existential flight, a journey that served to confirm who he really was. He was aware that he was unaware, yet he was open and thereby experienced the divine.
The scene raises many questions about living life in search of God, or if you like, in search of meaning, in search of answers. Not least among these is the question, To what extent do we, in our needs, our search, our “I”, determine the sacred nature of a place and to what extent is the sacred inherent where-ever we are? Is it really useful to distinguish between sacred and profane when Jacob’s experience of the divine occurs while resting on a rock on the road to Haran?
Sacred space is not something that can be simply constructed. In a recent article in the magazine ICON (no. 108, June 2012), Edwin Heathcote explores the modern search for sacred space through architecture. He points out that for many people today, ‘sacred space’ is constituted by art galleries and libraries rather than places of worship. Through use of light and form, atmosphere is created which lends itself to contemplation and learning.
In the same way, designers create temples to fashion in New York City, London, and Paris, creating physical spaces where the customer sees himself in the best possible light (literally), while surrounded by the finest creations money can buy. It is not at all ironic then that, as Heathcote writes, a monastic community in the Czech Republic hired architect John Pawson to build their monastery in Novy Dvur having been inspired by pictures of his Calvin Klein store in New York City.
It is not ironic because, even though we may consider Calvin Klein boutiques profane and monasteries sacred, it is in the end our experience of each that is determinative. I have seen many boutiques that, emptied of fashion or art, would serve well as meditation rooms or yoga studios. Emptied of monks, a monastery could easily be an office building, galleries, or even a strip mall.
When Jacob experienced his unfolding relationship with the Divine, he was in a moment of fear and transition. We read that he consecrated the place, but it is just as fair to say that he was consecrating the moment. That barren patch was a ‘place in time’ as much as a physical space: a waymark on Jacob’s way to becoming Jacob. It was a moment of rest when the potential of his connection to the mystery of mysteries surfaced. It might have been by a stream, or on a hilltop. It could have been down an alley in Beersheva or in the room where Isaac sat in blindness.
Because it is recorded and has come down to us in the Bible, Jacob’s sacred space is generalized to be sacred for all, for all time. But what of us? Is our own experience of the God-filled world diminished (or enhanced) if we experience it out of view of man and history? If life is a journey through which we strive toward a higher set of values, a higher consciousness, or a connection to the Eternal, what are the waymarks you observe and set for yourselves? What space is sacred to you? What space in time is marked by blessing?