Sacred Spaces in Public Places

For those of us that identify as secular, the word sacred is often alienating and uncomfortable. The word can also seem mysterious, vague, and exclusionary. In its most basic sense, the word sacred means “set apart ” and sacred spaces can therefore be invaluable to secular people as well as those who participate in organized religion. We often talk about setting aside time for reflection but as a pastor, I think “setting apart” space is just as important as “setting apart” time. In a time of high consumerism and information overload, we are always on-the-go to accomplish yet another task on our to-do lists. I believe we are, more than ever, in need of sacred spaces: places set apart where we are encouraged to rest, reflect, and take a breath from the business of life. For those who are religious, these places provide space to worship and pray. But even for the non-religious, these places can be valuable for reflection and creative interaction.

Having sacred spaces in the public realm is particularly vital. Much like public art, sacred spaces invite and encourage participation and interaction while reminding the passerby of the importance of stopping, resting, and simply being in the moment, or, in religious language, practicing sabbath. Whether we spend a minute or an hour in a sacred space, this time can cultivate self-awareness while allowing us to see the vast connectedness of us with each other and our surroundings. Additionally, broader public spaces have the potential to attract  a diverse range of residents or community members into sacred spaces. In a world where interreligious and ecumenical relations are often wracked with tension, and many times violence, it is invaluable to provide public places where people of all faiths and secular belief systems can come to rest, rejuvenate, worship, and sabbath.

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A close-up view of the labyrinth at Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes

What could these sacred spaces look like? The possibilities are endless. A favorite example of mine is the paved labyrinth at Georgetown Waterfront Park in Washington, D.C. Labyrinths are ancient prayer tools and have been used in many faith traditions. As one walks the single path toward the center and back out again, the individual can become inwardly-focused despite the sounds from the world around, allowing for prayer, reflection, or meditation. Labyrinths are especially unique because they encourage the connection between the mind, body, and soul. As one walks, one is attuned to one’s embodiment as well as one’s emotional and spiritual states. Most labyrinths include a guide or suggested way to experience them. People are invited to experience them using the prescribed method but are not required.

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A guide to the Georgetown Waterfront Park Labyrinth in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes

Any space has the potential to be sacred (“set apart”) because no physical thing automatically makes any space a sacred one. Religious iconography or symbols do not make a particular space sacred or spiritual. Sacred spaces become categorized as sacred because an individual recognizes them as such. Spaces become meaningful because we make them meaningful, through experiences, memories, and symbols that evoke them. Yet the physicality of a space lends itself to encourage or discourage the opportunity of experiencing a space as sacred. The labyrinth provides a public space the opportunity to become sacred for those interacting with it. The same can be said for a botanical garden or greenway or even the public swings that were recently installed in Nashville’s Riverfront Park. The space has no agenda for its participant, sets no expectation of producing a product, and leaves room for the participant to reflect, imagine, interact with others and/or nature, or just be attuned to one’s own needs.

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Swinging benches at Riverfront Park in Nashville, TN. Photo credit: Chris Bendix.

Having sacred spaces within the public realm is important. These spaces are set apart from their surroundings so as to encourage personal reflection, but are also open to the public so as to support community building. As a result, sacred space can promote mental health, peaceful religious (and non-religious) coexistence, and a deeper sense of self.

How might one go about designing a sacred space? First, the space must invite and encourage interaction while also allowing for diverse interpretations and experiences of the space. Second, as much as sacred spaces are metaphorically “set apart” from their surroundings, they are physically within communities themselves. In this way, sacred spaces have the potential to be gathering places that reflect the character and focus of a neighborhood or city. Work with neighborhood leaders, both religious and secular, to design a space that can be embraced by the whole of the neighborhood. Finally, be creative! How might we rethink abandoned lots, monotonous stairways, or harsh sidewalks or alleyways so as to create an inviting, hospitable space that brings life, energy, and respite to the surrounding neighborhood or city?

Click here to view a previous post about public space just down the road in Carrboro, NC.

About the author: Keller Hawkins is a second-year divinity student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in her hometown of Nashville, TN. Raised by two socially-conscious landscape architects, she has always had an interest in the relationship between public spaces and social justice. Keller is on track to be an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church and seeks to carry out her ministry creatively, sustainably, and with an ultimate focus on community.