I think most people have holy places. These are probably not temples, cathedrals or famous synagogues, locations which possess the public attributes we associate with sanctity and rites. But they are holy nevertheless, set aside, special.
‘I would go’, said a friend of mine who is sadly no longer alive, ‘and talk to my tree and that made me feel better’. I wonder if she actually spoke. Perhaps she really did, or maybe it was rather that the tree offered a kind of safety in which she could listen to her own heart and feel it strengthened by that same sustaining flow of sap which year after year has the power to summon spring out of winter. Then one day they cut the tree down.
Is it history which makes a place holy? Is what makes our private sacred spaces special, – the hilltop, the small bridge by the river, those rocks overlooking the sea, – that they hold for us in confidence the story of our life, because we stood there twelve years ago, and five, and last year, and certainly intend to go back again next year, if we’re still here, after the next challenge, or joy, or troubles, and listen once again, and watch the shore give way to the sea?
Sometimes I think our most special places begin in our childhood, before time became so pressured and oppressive, before the knowledge of mortality began to invade us with its fears, and life could be unbounded wonder and fun. Then, slowly, comes the ineluctable awareness which gradually grows through the rest of all our days: ‘I witness all this beauty and I love it. What is my life? What for?’
Do we get answers? No. The mysteries remain the same, intractable as they always were. Sometimes they taste of joy: does one not go to such places to say that one’s in love, with one’s partner, with these very trees and the sky, with this great life itself? Sometimes they taste bitter as the irreversibility of aging or death. But the question ‘why?’ will not be removed, for once and for always, from the heart.
Do we get answers? Yes. For we go to such places because they somehow help us to bear, and bear up before, the unknowable and the irreconcilable: the vastness, the cruelty, the beauty and the tenderness of existence, which are all inseparably bound together. We listen to the great presence of this incomprehensible life and depart with greater stillness, and wonder, and love, in the heart.
Is God in those places? It depends what we mean by ‘God’. When Moses finally enters the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, passing through the curtain to stand in the innermost space, he hears the voice of God speaking to him. Or rather a more exact translation, because the key verb “speak” is in fact in the reflexive form, would be that he overhears God speaking to God’s self.
Maybe that’s what we listen to, walking at night to our favourite tree, or down to the small running stream. It’s not a voice from above, but from within, one receptacle of our heart talking quietly to the other, and the consciousness which fills them both is God’s.