The Welcome Blemish on the Sacred

My experiences of sacred places encompasses the typical religious spaces of the West and in Asia. Beyond that, I would note secular places that I hold sacred as well. Whether Buddhist temple, millennium old cathedral, brand new church, the Hiroshima Peace Park or other places, there is something about each of these places that slows my step and prompts me to expect a pristine appreciation by those who visit or use it.

By my own admission, I risk imposing my values when I assume there ought to be a pristine regard for sacred spaces. I recall my first visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima. It was nighttime and as I moved north from the museum toward the Cenotaph and the A-Bomb Dome I was miffed by the skir, clang and rattle of skateboarders taking advantage of the spaces opened by the dearth of pilgrims at night.  I quickly got over this with the simple reminder to myself that this was, after all, a peace park and certainly not a place where I -- a foreigner, after all of 15 minutes -- could insist on a set of rules for conduct in the park. Still, I'm tempted to insist that there ought to be a certain standard of conduct or decorum in a sacred place.

Today I had an opportunity to visit Turtle Lodge, an Indigenous wellness and education centre in Fort Alexander, Manitoba. Set next to the wind-churned waters of Lake Winnipeg, this place of vision quests, learning, and sitting with elders would qualify as a sacred place, at least by my not-necessarily-definitive definition of the term. Throughout the morning, I sat in the circle and found myself preoccupied with the Tim Horton's coffee cup and box of Kleenex that were in my direct line of vision.

Those items struck me as a blemish of sorts on the setting but I did not react immediately. I scanned the room for other things that would appear to be "off-code" for a sacred space.  It was clear throughout the day that the orality and storytelling that are central to Indigenous cultures was most significant and, perhaps, in light of that there is less concern or preoccupation with the appearance. As I scanned the room and took note of disposable paper cups, the Vegas Golden Knights ballcap and the lanyarded key fob that hung around a drummer's neck, I accepted the fact that these items were present and on the periphery of the gathering. We were hear to listen, above all, and whether these things were in the space or not, they were still present and on the periphery.

The presence and acceptance of these items belied a permeability of the space and the hospitable mindset that is part of Indigenous culture and part of what is intended to preside here. Instead of an insistence on keeping those items, those blemishes, outside of the space, it is an interesting example to consider. The tolerance this expresses is remarkable at a time when there is so little tolerance and, further to that, an insistence on arbitrary conditions or a preconceived concept of sacredness or decorum that settles for superficialities instead of the spirituality that ought to be inherent in sacred spaces.

It the history of wabi sabi, it was the rebellion against the limiting "prettiness" of Chinese pottery that fostered the development and appreciation of the rougher-hewn Japanese pottery that so often exemplifies the qualities of wabi sabi as we know them today.

In the accommodation or simple refusal to "sweat" the presence of the non-sacred or "off-code" items brought into this sacred space, there is a prevailing calm and perhaps one that keep the emphasis on the traditional knowledge they wish to share rather than preoccupying themselves with setting rules of admission and foregoing a holistic point of view that from an Indigenous perspective regards all space as sacred.

The important thing in the space at Turtle Lodge was the receptivity of those in attendance.  As the traditional knowledge keepers shared their stories and experiences, the coffee cups and other detritus disappeared into the background. The worlds and worldviews within and beyond this sacred space commingled and there was no fuss or bother in the name of achieving a quaint, artificial purity.

If, after all, a sacred space is to truly be sacred, it cannot be exclusive.

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