Where the heart is.
Ron Sharp explores the meaning of ‘sanctuary’.
How grounded are we, he asks, in the earth which sustains and nourishes us?
We live four kilometres out of town. Unless there is a bag of wheat for the chooks or another large load to be collected, we go by bicycle. The motivational attitudes going in and coming out are quite different. On the way in there is a sense of purpose, but the return journey is more relaxed by a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling. It is in this frame of mind that I regularly reflect on my home, my retreat.
Without thinking, I always go home the same way. It’s as if the bicycle knows which direction to go. I am heading home. Why don’t I go another way? What is it about home that draws me back without hesitation time and time again? If I’m biking in the evening, all the traffic flashes by and 99 percent of it is also heading home. Why is home such a powerful drawcard? Is it because love is there; one is at ease here; I feel I belong here? Home is my sanctuary: holy place – whole place. I am safe, protected, warm, wanted even needed. I am not in a strange place. I am not an alien. I am welcomed here.
Sanctuary is the centre. We get in touch with our essence. We glimpse the truth, get lost in wonder; our inner self cries “Wow!” as we experience ecstasy. Everything is clear and in one whole for a lifetime second. Sanctuary is full of light that disappears as quickly as it came. We try to recapture it, but know we won’t because its purity fades. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced of the dark as forbidding blackness instead of the womb of new possibilities.
Sanctuary can be in a tent or palatial edifice. You can be a wandering nomad or stable permanent. It is a gift, whoever you are. To go to a certain place might help, but everything cannot be made to come together there. Enlightenment comes in unexpected places and times. For the Old Testament writers it was on mountain tops, transcendent, up – beyond human reach and for the privileged few. For Jesus it was at marriage feasts and shared meals. It was definitely not in the desert wilderness or in exile. It could only be when refugees and prisoners of conscience can return home or feel welcomed or settled again. It is when the long dark memories of genocide, tsunami or hurricane devastation have well subsided.
Earth as sanctuary
As our planet begins to show signs of depletion from human greed and exploitation we are becoming aware of Earth as sanctuary. Earth Mother is our home, our nurturer. We are poisoning her children’s milk, stifling her seasonal breathing and stripping her naked. We have abused her abundance, creating infinite goals for her finite resources. Where will we find earthly sanctuary?
The strange thing about sanctuary, like all polar extremes, is that it causes us to sanctify it. Home, property, district, province, country and culture become sacred. Possessiveness and defence mechanisms surround its value. I resist intrusions on my intimacy. The vigour of its defence becomes equal to the vigour of its sanctity. Sanctuary can create jealousy and exclusivity. We go to war and put our bodies on the line in defence of our sanctuary.
Sanctuary is usually somewhere we like to go, to meditate, sit or kneel comfortably, be alone, relaxed and at peace. Sanctuary is also within. I used to love to say my formal and set prayers, sing psalms in chapel, study holy books and pop in to churches to be near the eucharistic Christ.
Now I immerse myself in the life and environment that nurtures me: I involve myself in activities to ease the burdens of the vulnerable in my community. I listen to all that is happening in the world of humans and enter the arena from my rich and limited position, trying to empathise with the suffering and rejoice with the stream of universal becoming, because this is my species.
I can also relate to nature, wander amongst her infinite artistry, feel her depletion by greedy corporates and play with her in my garden in a respectful way, because she is my mother producing masses of children in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of personalities. In the sanctuary of myself I find people of my past, who have touched me along the way of my 70 years, intruding on my natural silence and letting me know that our relationship is still alive, including the deceased ones, and we wonder where each other’s energy is spread now and delight in our momentarily conscious communion again.
This understanding of sanctuary as relationship is not new. Apparently Maori, before the intrusion of pakeha, saw their relationship with land as part of whanaungatanga – family kinship. Atua – spiritual realm, tangata – people realm and whenua – earth realm are one interrelating whole. Land is not just a place to stand and belong – turangawaewae, but a sister ancestor – Papatuanuku, a link between the spiritual and human worlds.
Tui Cadogan, in “Land and Place” (Accent Publications) writes: Acknowledging whenua as their lifeline, Maori in different areas developed tikanga – rules for the use and treatment of her resources. For instance, when a tree was cut down to fulfil tribal needs, Tane, the kaitiaki responsible for forests and birds, had to be acknowledged. The wood chips that resulted were buried, returned to whenua. Only what was needed to sustain the whanau – family, was to be gathered at any one time. Whether seafood, flax or birds, the kaitiaki of that aspect of creation was acknowledged, addressing the tapu – sacredness, of creation and Atua as the source of that tapu. Maori also rested land and seabeds with sacred bans called rahui.
There is a place for sanctuary, for privacy, where each individual, each family and culture treasures its secrets and inmost journeys. The stones of our mountains, rivers and plains are our oldest sanctuaries, because they hold millions of years of stories.
Ron Sharp is a member of St Peter Chanel parish, Motueka