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Article ID: 13857

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Appreciating Sacred Sites Not Our Own

Author: Bronwen Forbes [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: June 6th. 2010
Times Viewed: 4,565

As contemporary American Pagans, i.e. worshippers of Gods from other continents, there is a shortage of available holy places and sites sacred to our traditions here in the States. Stonehenge, Avebury, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, even the pyramids can connect us to our deities, but they’re hard to get to from Baldwin, Kansas in a time of spiritual or emotional crisis. And in America, our Pagan-specific sacred sites are the ones we’ve managed to create ourselves –they are few and far between, and often not accessible outside of festival season. Yet there are times when we really need to be in a sacred place, to sit for a while with Presence, heal, reflect, and come away a little more comforted than we were before.

There have been times in my life when the nearest Pagan sacred site was literally and/or figuratively too far away for me to get to and I desperately needed one. Fortunately I was able to get to “holy ground, ” even though it wasn’t “mine, ” and receive the healing and blessing I needed. I’m sure there are similar places near you, and I thought I’d share my experiences in order to help you find them.

Our Lady of Sorrows Shrine, Starkenburg, Missouri

Have you ever noticed that whenever there’s a “visitation” from one of the members of the Christian “pantheon, ” it’s usually Mary, mother of Jesus? Do you think that the Lady is using these “visitations” to reach out to humankind? Gee, I wonder…Anyway, as one chosen by the Goddess Brigid/St. Brigid, I’m already used to mixing a tiny bit of Catholicism into my practice. Good thing.

I’d driven past the signs for Our Lady of Sorrows Shrine in Starkenburg, Missouri half a dozen times. Then one day my husband and I were on our way to spend the day in Hermann, Missouri (another shrine, but one probably specific to my family) . We were deliberately “running away from life” that day; we’d just found out the week before that I was pregnant – joyful news, yes, but news that forced us to take a hard look at Phoebe, one of our beloved dogs. We’d finally admitted to ourselves that she did not have a temperament that was even remotely safe around a child. We’d made the decision, the right decision, and had her humanely euthanized the day before this particular road trip. I was grieving, fighting off all-day morning sickness, and desperately in need of some spiritual healing.

Our Lady of Sorrows shrine consists of a miniscule chapel built in 1852 and a relatively newer church built in 1910. Both are open to the public. Candles and an aura of peace fill both spaces. Outside on the grounds, however, is the real gem: an outdoor “cathedral” – a grove of huge ancient oak trees. In the center of this grove is a small natural amphitheater with wooden benches facing a simple stone well. My husband and I must have sat on one of these benches for an hour crying (me) , reminiscing about Phoebe, and talking about the baby that was coming. By the time we left I was at peace, not quite so queasy, and thankful to the Lady of Sorrows for Her love and care. The fact that the site was technically Catholic and I’m Pagan didn’t matter at all.

Wat Thai, Wheaton, Maryland.

A few years ago I found myself in a situation where I needed to walk away from the Pagan community for a while. I won’t go into the details (because they make me look like a complete idiot) , but I will tell you that I was one wounded bird and I will also tell you that the situation caused me to seriously consider suicide.

I had just enough self-preservation left to know that I needed some place spiritual, non-Pagan and quiet – with extra emphasis on the quiet part. I decided the two paths that best fit my criteria were Buddhism and the Quakers. I called a local family friend who just happened to be a Buddhist, and he invited me to Wat Thai, a nearby temple that served the local Thai-American community.

Now, Western aesthetics and Eastern aesthetics are completely different, but I still think the huge temple room with the larger-than-life statue of the Buddha, red carpet, pale yellow walls with red and gold highlights was and is the most beautiful room I’ve ever been in. It was filled with peace, quiet as a library, and even a bumbling, undisciplined Westerner like myself could sense how sacred it was, the presence of a dozen colorfully-robed monks notwithstanding. The minute I stepped into the temple at Wat Thai, I knew, for the first time in six months, that healing was possible and that I would someday be okay.

I eventually switched to a Buddhist temple where everything was conducted in English (I don’t speak Thai) , but I will always be grateful to the kinds monks and laypeople of the Washington DC Thai-American community for their help, and feel honored to have sat in meditation with them in their sacred space.

Benedictine Abbey, Atchison, Kansas

One begins to wonder, writing this piece, why Catholics seem to have so many other-faith user-friendly sacred sites. Whatever the reason, I’ve recently come to appreciate the grounds of Benedictine Abbey high on a bluff that overlooks the Missouri River. On a cold, drizzly day in mid-October, fall leaves add loud splashes of color and make an odd contrast to the utter quiet that permeates the grounds. The peace is an anomaly, because the abbey is part of Benedictine College, and college campuses are not known for being particularly quiet!

We’d come to the grounds of Benedictine Abbey in order to find peace and quiet and to reconnect as a family – none of which was/is possible living in a small house with my mother, five cats, and five dogs. It sounds funny and trite, but it isn’t. My daughter had started to call her grandmother “Mommy, ” my husband was bearing the full brunt of my mother’s animosity toward her now-remarried ex-husband (my father) and I was exhausted from months of fruitless job hunting. Desperate for time together with just the three of us, we fled to the abbey grounds.

While the kidlet collected fallen, soggy red and yellow leaves, my husband and I held hands, peered over the bluff, and watched the river dance by. In this place that is sacred in a tradition not our own, we began to find our way back to each other.

None of these places are specifically Pagan, and yet they will always be part of this Pagan’s spiritual history. Because of my experiences, I’m convinced of two things; first, that there’s a place similar to these near you that may not be part of your path but is available and welcoming if you need it. Second, the more we utilize and reach out to a sacred space not of our own tradition, the more we realize that the differences between “us” and “them” may not be so large after all.


Bronwen Forbes

Location: Bloomington, Indiana


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