Nothing recently has impressed me more that sacred space is widely misunderstood than a merit-making ceremony in our village last Tuesday morning at the cremation ground.
The merit-making was to symbolize the merit being garnered by those who had contributed to repairs on the crematorium. Ban Den Village raised 13,000 baht ($400 US) which is the last part of the funds needed to fix the facility. A chapter of Buddhist priests chanted stanzas and then food was eaten. Compared to the efforts and events connected with the reconstruction of the crematorium in 2015 this project is minor. Nevertheless, it was not to be undertaken without due care. Merit-making alone does not cover the reasons for the ceremony.
What is going on in spaces like that?
A cremation ground is associated almost exclusively with death. It could not be otherwise. Nobody would ordinarily think of using the ground for anything other than cremations. Since a cremation disintegrates a human body, so the story goes, the spirit / ghost is deprived of its accustomed place to be. If they have not gone on (into heaven or hell depending on their accumulated merit) to prepare to be reincarnated, they may be lingering in the cremation precincts. “Placidly haunting” is the least of the things these ghosts may be up to.
But the cremation ground has been repeatedly neutralized by solemn and extensive ceremonies. Buddhist monks maintain that death is merely one of the unavoidable conditions and consequences of life. In one of the Lord Buddha’s earthier sayings he posed that there are two inevitable human experiences: defecation (the translation I came upon avoided the Pali word for shit) and death. One discipline undertaken by serious monks is to contemplate the decomposition of corpses (or sometimes just skeletons). Itinerant monks sometimes seek cremation grounds for an overnight campsite. This is all about much more than desensitizing monks about death. Monks are to be masters of the specter of death; at least the more adept of them are.
Without extending this essay to include several other examples of the yin-yang nature of haunted-holy places, let’s agree that those are liminal-threshold spaces, as forests are in many cultures. Cremation grounds in Thailand are typically in wooded areas called “paa chaa” ป่าช้า (implying literally, “a forest for lingering”). The dual nature of cremation grounds could not be clearer.
What is not so obvious in our time is that all really sacred spaces are that way. Holiness is indivisible from frightfulness. To be in the presence of the Holy is to be terrified and also to be transformed beyond that immobilized and debilitated state. One is never the same after that.
Talmudic Judaism, Medieval Christianity, Vedic Hinduism, and mystical Islam all comprehend the awesome and compassionate dual-nature of the Holy. Wherever the Supreme has stood, sat, or lain is sacred, and to touch such a place is perilous as well as pious. Piety, as mystics know, is fraught with ecstatic agony. One must approach treacherous Holy places with respect; but respect is only the beginning. Indeed, one can never know what sacrifice might be required when one enters the Holy of Holies.
Christianity early on conceptualized the holy event as a sacrificial meal to recapitulate the supreme divine-human encounter. That simple meal first eaten by Jesus with his disciples was embossed with layers of ritual sanctification which Protestantism sought largely to remove in order to get back to the essential meaning of “Christ with us.” The Enlightenment castigated all mystery as superstition and began to eradicate it.
We have now come to the point where there is no longer such a thing as sacred space.
Churches are designed as refuges. They are sanctuaries. They are places to escape the confusion and conflict going on outside. They are places of serenity and community.
This downgrading of holy places (which is happening throughout most cultures in our time) has come at a price. Domesticated holiness is impotent. When we no longer value the transformation that comes from encountering the stunning and awesome Holy, and refuse to see our stricken and naked souls clearly, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
But our friendly gathering places (or their virtual substitutes into which we can zoom or chat) lack the power we need to meet the realities that linger in the shadows to assail, betray, and beguile us. Deprived of sacred spaces we become lethargic and inept. Lulled by the deceit we have cultivated that there is nothing to fear, we succumb to the illusion that there is nothing worthy of awe.
Trapped in our naiveté we are overwhelmed when the shadows congeal.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.