Hearing in the news lately about possible new hope for the Peace Process in the Holy Land, I got to thinking about the pressure the world places on the long-suffering real estate of Jerusalem, and the people who live there. No one could doubt the holiness of that place, but I can't help but feel that the focus is too intense -- that it's unhealthy, somehow, to expect just one place to bear the weight of so many hopes and passions.
I don't doubt that sacred sites exist. There's just too much evidence -- well, evidence is not the right word, is it? There's just too much phenomenological data, anyway, that certain places in this world of ours are imbued with spiritual power. "Power spots" exist. I can't prove it, of course -- we're talking about things of the Spirit -- but I have been privileged to visit a few of them, and I can report my own experiences.
The Glastonbury Tor in England, with its uncanny winds, is undeniable. And I confess an overpowering awe in the face of Sandia Mountain, just north of Albuquerque. But the most powerful spot in my little life was a little hill on Central Ohio, right off of a golf course, outside the little town of Granville. I had become a sort of local history buff during my college years, and had read about the ancient Indian mounds in the area. One of the lesser-known of these mounds was on this hill near the golf course. It was called "Alligator Hill", having the character of what archaeologists term an "effigy mound".
The description of this Mound's location was very clear, and I was pretty sure I was in the right place, but I saw no alligator. I went back a second time (it was a rather pleasant two-mile walk from the campus) and saw some undulations in the ground, perhaps, but no effigy. Disappointed, but still up for a good spring walk, I went back once more. I jogged up the hillside, stood catching my breath and...
Bam! There it was. It looked more like a 'possum to me -- the tail was coiled, much longer than an alligator's -- but there it was, an unmistakable four-legged creature sculpted out of the earth beneath my feet. It was about fifty feet long, and it lay -- it suddenly became clear to me -- atop a hill that was more perfectly conical than any other hill around: a work, not of nature, but of craft. And yet of nature, too because the way the shape teased my eye, and finally revealed itself, couldn't possibly have been part of the original builders' design. From that day forward, I have not doubted that "power spots" exist.
There might be a temptation in some circles to believe that such places have supernatural powers; that they are foci of such energies as arise in, say, the Lost Ark of the Indiana Jones moves. However, I think there's an important distinction to be made between the supernatural and the spiritual. If we're talking about physical forces, things that can make Nazi faces melt and stuff, then in a sense there really is no such thing as "supernatural", is there? It's just a matter of forces and reactions that have yet to be described objectively. Whatever the spiritual may be, it isn't that. The spirit "passeth all understanding" -- being inherently beyond the reach of scientific description: "such knowledge is too wonderful for me". This leads many people to deny its existence -- which, of course, is fine, too.
In any case, every culture in the world has a tradition of holy places. Some are renowned, and remain hallowed; others are callously profaned (I must report, with sadness, that a condo development was coughed up right around that Ohio site sometime during the 1990s. When I last visited, I didn't have the heart to hike back there to see whether the mound itself was still intact, or had joined the hundreds of ancient effigies that had been plowed under over the years.) Others exist in a kind of limbo somewhere in between numinous eternity and the vagaries of modern real estate. Sandia Mountain, for example, is owned by the Indians of Sandia Pueblo, who lease it to the National Forest Service, who sub-lease to a private contractor the right to operate a tram and restaurant on the mountain. A Rube-Goldberg arrangement to be sure, but one that maintains the mountain's habitat with some respect, and allows a non-mountaineer like me to be Wowed by the place.
In India there are tree shrines, small prayer-chambers that have been built into -- and over the slow unfolding of years have become inseparable parts of -- the roots of great trees.
In England there are stone rings, lesser cousins of Stongehenge, rising, weird and ancient, out of sheep pastures; their astrological meaning only dimly seen, if at all.
Langston Hughes wrote, "I've known rivers -- ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
The more I think about the existence of holy places, the more I'm drawn to the Native American view, as most famously articulated by Chief Seattle in his 1854 speech (the real one, not the Hollywood version):
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every clearing and wood, is holy in the memory and experience of my people. Even those unspeaking stones along the shore are loud with events and memories in the life of my people. The ground beneath your feet responds more lovingly to our steps than yours, because it is the ashes of our grandfathers. Our bare feet know the kindred touch. The earth is rich with the lives of our kin.
For Seattle, as for many, many people in the world who share a pre-real-estate view of life, the existence of sites with concentrated spiritual power does not deny the sacredness of all the land. That, I believe, is a very important insight, something that should always be remembered in a climate of tit-for-tat shrine-burnings. I mean no disrespect to the undeniable spiritual importance of The Dome of the Rock, or the Ka-ba, or Church of St. John -- but it may be that when the human heart is open, it can worship and find peace on any street corner, or its own backyard. Surely we mustn't make "access to holy places" an excuse to kill each other. Perhaps the stones may yet actually weep.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
The Northeast Corridor, Then and Now
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