Spiritual Nomad Finds Sacred Space

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 - 5:00 am

Spiritual Nomad Finds Sacred Space

Camping Under Stars
(photo by Nate Bolt/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
The sanctity of a location is often said to be derived from its history. For some, the sacred space may be the site at which a loved one transitioned from one plane of existence to another; for others, the locale might have been the silent witness to an exceptional, life-changing event. However, for many of us, our hallowed home radiates a certain indescribable aura, a force that seems to draw in its disciples, offering refuge from the turmoil of everyday life.
The space may not even exist in a tangible respect. It may reveal itself only within the mind of the individual seeking shelter from the raging pandemonium that keeps the “real world” in constant disarray. Wherever it manifests, the discovery of such a sanctuary can be critical to the sustenance of one’s sanity in the midst of pain or suffering. As humans collectively are forced to grapple with increasingly chaotic and tumultuous circumstances, cultivating a tranquil sanctuary within is the first step to creating peace throughout the world.
For a significant period of my life, I considered myself a sort of spiritual nomad. I maintained a calm and composed exterior, but inside I was secretly a wandering traveler searching for a place to rest my tired heart. As I speak with others, I’m finding that I am not alone in this circumstance.
Dizzy with the zealous declarations of partisan faiths, we spiritual nomads are the wanderers — we long to find fulfillment and meaning in something “greater,” yet we acquire only temporary, artificial morsels of nourishment in the empty promises of dogmatic traditions. For some of us, hiding behind false idols in the house of science can pacify the intensity of our longing momentarily, but the beast always reemerges and demands more to fill the void.
For years I played this agonizing game, bouncing from elation to despair, caught in a cycle perpetuated by a need for solid ground beneath my feet. I wanted no less than the ability to turn my emotions on and off — to delegate my tears, laughter, and moments of sublimation. When I found that no denomination, spiritual guru, or uncompromising atheistic declaration could guarantee such a capacity, I decided to instead hide from sentiment altogether. I was willing to sacrifice joy, intimacy, and the very soul of life as long as I didn’t have to risk being vulnerable in a cruel and uncertain world.
At some point, the wanderer must realize that pursuing immunity from suffering ultimately leads right back to the despondency with which (s)he was confronted to begin with. In my own experience, it was only when I was finally able to admit and accept my own powerlessness that tranquility materialized. I finally broke open, split at the seams by my despair. In that moment, surrendering to my own powerlessness revealed a truth that had been previously obscured by the lens of my desire.
I looked up into the night sky — no longer searching, but just absorbing — and the brilliant beam of a single star peering through dense fog imbibed hope into my bitter darkness. A voice resonated deep within me, and I heard — not with my ears, but rather with some thought-to-be vestigial organ within my soul — exactly the message I was supposed to hear at that moment.

“It is only on the darkest nights that you begin to see the stars.”

The night acquired new meaning for me that evening. I can no longer venture out after the sun has set without taking several moments to gaze up at the stars and just marvel at them. Those effervescent beacons of light have become my idols, the night my sacred space. This experience — of acquiring a sacred place of my own — has helped me to better understand the reverence the Benedictine monk feels within the walls of a cathedral and why the Israeli and Palestinian peoples fight so bitterly over what they each deem to be their holy lands.
What I think is often forgotten, unfortunately, is that our sacred places are only concrete representations of our experience of love, God, divinity (or what ever word you use to name it). They are the grounds upon which we project the light that emanates from within, and when we forget that all-important truth we are once again forced into nomadic wandering. When we shed blood in a war over futile possession or limit our experience of divinity to a single location, we render it hollow and effectively desecrate its holiness. The sacred place exists not to introduce us to some higher power outside of our own experience; rather, it serves as a reminder of the splendor we kindle within.
True sacred spaces are not entrenched and immovable in the physical locations they occupy. Holy sites manifest themselves in manifold forms, consistently available in our moments of greatest need. As I mature, I’m learning to cultivate these sacred places within my own mind — to leave the logical, practical, relentlessly anxious intellect and find peace in the silence of quiet meditation and the gentle flow of my yoga practice. This spiritual nomad has finally found her sacred abode.

Chelsea RoffMs. Roff is studying Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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