I’m a Pantheist. I believe that the entirety of the world, of the universe, is divine. So the idea of “making sacred space” or “purifying” doesn’t really fit into my theology or cosmology. On the other hand, a lot of the ritual facilitation work that I do is about working with people and their processes. I tend to think of psychology as a kind of magic because it works to understand people and how they work, and for me, those patterns and processes are a part of our nature, and thus, part of the divine as well.
For me, the part of the ritual that is often referred to as “making sacred space” is more about getting everyone involved in the ritual into the right mindset, the right headspace. And if I look at psychology, and architecture, and the process of pilgrimage, and the hero’s journey…and I look at that alongside the natural world and the shapes and patterns found in nature, this makes a lot of sense.
Here’s what I mean: We need process. We need steps in order to change our state of consciousness. A ritual provides those steps, those triggers, to shift our mindset.
Christopher Alexander, noted architect and author of A Pattern Language writes that
“whatever it is that is holy will only be felt as holy, if it is hard to reach, if it requires layers of access waiting, levels of approach, a gradual unpeeling, gradual revelation, passage through a series of gates….This layering or nesting of precincts, seems to correspond to a fundamental aspect of human psychology.”
If you imagine any church or temple, there are layers, gateways. Or even imagine the construction of a labyrinth, with turns and twists until you reach the center. Alexander goes on to write that the “feeling of slow, progressive access through gates to a holy center may be experienced.” Also that the pattern of sacred places is formed by “a series of nested precincts, each marked by a gateway, each one progressively more private, and more sacred than the last, the innermost a final sanctum that can only be reached by passing through all of the outer ones.”
A labyrinth, in a far simpler form is a spiral. Spiraling in, spiraling out. The spiral is one of the basic building-block shapes found in nature. It’s found in the growth of seeds, in the swirling of water around a drain, and in the shape of galaxies. Caroline Humphrey and Piers Vitebsky write in Sacred Architecture that “Sacred architecture continually strives to reproduce the patterns, structures and alignments of the universe.” I think of ritual as a spiral. We’re spiraling into sacred space and spiraling out. Or at least, spiraling into that sacred-space-mindset.
We need that process, we need to jump through the hoops, to do the deep work and find the deep magic. For me, the space was already sacred, we just need to awaken to that sacredness. For whatever reason, we humans can’t seem to exist in a perpetual state of mystic communion with the divine. I think we probably wouldn’t get a whole lot done if we were.
Humphrey and Vitebsky also write that “In sacred architecture, humans arrange the materials provided by nature to create a special space within which they can encounter the divine. This space is marked off from ordinary space outside.” I think that this idea of a sacred grove, sacred temples, or other sacred places—including that created during a modern Pagan ritual—exists because we can’t just continually exist in that mindset. We have to spiral our way into it, and then return. In fact, for people, I think it’s a deeply kinesthetic process. Personal transformation of any kind seems to require that pilgrimage, that overworld hero’s journey, when it’s that which is deep within us that is really changing.
When I facilitate a ritual, I think about all those walls we put up, and how we have to pass through them to get to the deep within, to the mystery, to pass through the veils to be able to see where we are as sacred…to connect to the divine…to see ourselves as part of that sacred.
I go through an entire process that, for me, is less about theology, and more about getting people past themselves and into an altered state of consciousness. For some people, movement does the trick. For others it’s chanting or singing bowls. Others trance out through looking at fire or reflections in the water. For others it’s scent. Often it’s a combination of these. I also use processes of getting people to close their eyes and connect to their own energies through trancework and meditation, as well as speaking words out, singing and dancing and adding their energy to the group working, or looking deeply into each other’s eyes to see the divine within each other. That connection and that risk of emotional intimacy is part of the process of that spiral too.
For me the idea of purification implies that I’m dirty. It also implies that there’s something outside of me that can make me clean. For me, purification is a process of becoming present, becoming centered. Not cleansing away the “bad”, so much as focusing my intention, moving past those “talky self” distractions to connect to my deep self.
And props help with the process. Singing bowls, bowls of water, feathers, smudging, chanting…these are all deep signals for, “Let’s begin the spiraling in. Let’s head down into the deeper work.”
In the rituals I do in Chicago, or at festivals, I try to make space for many different theologies and traditions. I often use that typical ritual template of grounding/centering, casting a circle, inviting in the elements and other allies, but for me, it’s less about theology and more about ritual as a pattern. It’s more about that process of moving into the deep within. While I’m coming at it as a pantheist, I know that many are coming in as duotheists or polytheists or henotheists or humanists or atheists or animists. I try to make space for that as much as possible, though I’m aware that people with a pantheistic or archetypal leaning will probably resonate more with the work I do.
Ultimately, I just want everyone to be able to have that experience of the divine, in whatever way they experience that, in whatever form, by whatever name they call it. That something sacred that is always there for us, but sometimes we just have such a hard time finding it.
And so I go through the spirals and the patterns, the circumambulations to get people out of their heads and into that deeper trance state where they might be able to touch the fingertips of the divine. It’s why I work so hard to get people singing and dancing and moving and making rhythm, and opening up to risk that connection. Because it’s worth it.
When people connect to that sacred, there then is no unsacred place, there’s just the journey to get there. In my own deeper mystic experiences, I have felt the beauty of how each person is sacred and has always been sacred. Our bodies are living temples. We are the love of the beloved that is the universe, the ocean of energy and matter that is all of us and the separations between us is just a momentary illusion. Our bodies are sacred, and the land we stand on is sacred, and the skies and the burning stars are sacred…but to stand in awe of all of that would burn us out. I couldn’t live every day feeling the heartbreak of the universe on my skin. I’ve heard it said that people who go to Faerie come back as poets or madmen, but I think that’s probably true of too much time spent in direct apprehension of the divine.
And so we have these processes, these spiraling journeys to get to that mindset where we can see the sacred deep within, and then return. If there is one thing about my own spiritual calling that is the most inspiring to me, it’s that moment when someone goes deep and awakens. When we are singing together in a ritual and I see them crack open, I see them connect to that something larger, touch their fingertips to that mystery they are seeking.
What do you seek? And what brings you closer to the divine, by whatever name you call it? What gets you there?