Are We Zoning out Sacred Space?

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Are We Zoning out Sacred Space?


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


Americans can find paradise without putting up a parking lot--when they begin to see every place as holy ground.

One Monday last July, I spent the hour before sunset in Glacier National Park watching in silence the sort of view God and Ansel Adams have made famous. As lengthening blue shadows climbed out of the forested valley beneath me, I also watched the occasional van or jeep make its way down from the summit, roll past me, and head back toward the campsites and hotels on the western side of the park. Only when the last sunlight had retreated to small glistening colonies at the tops of the surrounding peaks did I decide, regretfully, to get back on my bike and bring up the rear of the descending caravan.

In Landscapes of the Sacred (Paulist, 1988), Belden Lane argues that Americans don't have many holy places. We're too migratory, always on the way to someplace else, enamored by the song of the open road. From the beginning we've been trying to carve a path to someplace else, looking for a trade route to India, a Northwest passage to the Pacific, or a highway to heaven. Even today, when Frederick Turner's frontier has been closed for a century, we're still on the move, with one fifth of us changing homes every year.

Still there is a strain within us that seems to understand--without always honoring--an appetite for sacred places. And if we lack the Gothic and Baroque cathedrals of Europe, or healing shrines like France's Lourdes or Mexico's Guadalupe, we do feel the tug of Gettysburg, Ellis Island, and the Vietnam Memorial. Places made sacred, as Lincoln argued, by the memory of people who lived and died there.

Or we find ourselves drawn to remote sites "far from the madding crowd," places like Glacier and Yosemite National Parks, or the Shenandoah Valley, where some mixture of wonder and quiet seems to bathe our souls like sunlight. Even in America we don't just make pilgrimages to Disney World, Las Vegas, or The Mall of America. We sometimes go to real places, places with stories, places worth being in, worth remembering.

And we come by this appetite for sacred space honestly. After all, numbers of our ancestors came here looking to find and build a new holy land--a bright shining city on a hill. It was Americans who fashioned and were fascinated by Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the wilderness of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" tales, and the vast landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole. No wonder, then, that naturalists like John Burroughs and John Muir should have found here such a ready audience for their ideas, or that Teddy Roosevelt's back-to-nature movement was so well received.

The problem, of course, has been that our love of these sacred places has gone hand in hand with our desire to invade, consume, and sometimes trivialize them. So as we flood into these remote places of refuge, we tend to overwhelm, congest, and pollute them with our autos and campers, believing these "natural" sites should be outfitted with all the comforts of home. In "Redefining Sacred Space," a 1994 piece in National Parks, historian Alfred Runte argues that in America our consumerism and individualism get in the way of our sense of sacred space, that for a people committed to having their own cars and their own way, "sacred space is wasted space." Likewise a 1994 article in Time entitled "Going Wild" reports on the various ways that our national parks have been run and marketed not as wild sanctuaries but as theme parks, replete with hotels, restaurants, shops, and golf courses, and how these parks are in real danger of being "overrun by visitors and blighted by development."

But if our attachment to consumption, movement, and automobiles threatens to scar the sacred domain of our national parks, James Kunstler argues in both The Geography of Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, 1994) and his more recent Home From Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, 1997) that these same forces are currently destroying the shared and sacred space of our human habitat, of our homes, towns, and cities. …

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