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The notion of a sacred space is complex, encompassing a range of aspects: architecture, geography, core beliefs, community stories, and not least of all the receptivity of one’s soul. When several of these elements come together, the result can range from breathtaking to overpowering.
Places of worship stand as monuments to the universal search for meaning; they are physical embodiments of this search and, simultaneously, they reveal much about the spirituality of those who first built and used them. Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques, Hindu ashrams, Native American sweat lodges, African dance circles—all represent a similar longing to gain insights into life’s deepest questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? The need to ask these questions is, in some sense, as important as the need to give lasting form and expression to our answers.

Many have pointed to the trouble of separating the sacred from the secular. The distinction assumes, first of all, that some things are sacred, while others are not. It also assumes that, if there is indeed a rift between the two, we humans will know it when we see it. Furthermore, the distinction depends on one’s understanding of the terms. Not all religious communities see eye-to-eye on this point. In the Christian tradition, for example, little is intrinsically sacred, but many things can be made so through blessings and rituals. Everyday things like bread, water, oil, and wine can be made holy—consecrated, to use the technical term.

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Even an ancient method of capital punishment, like crucifixion, can become an occasion of transforming grace in the eyes of a Christian. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that all things are sacred, while Hinduism and Islam each represent contrasting middle grounds with respect to what is sacred. Given the broad range of opinions on the subject, the author wishes to make clear at the outset that, in her view, no single theology has a monopoly on the notion of a sacred space. At the risk of sounding pantheistic, she also suggests that certain extraordinarily beautiful natural sites, some of which are in and around Santa Barbara, have a way of disarming the skeptic and stirring the soul of the believer. They reveal the Creator’s hand and life-giving breath in special ways, without reference to specific doctrines or traditions.

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