About

Just as rituals are all around us on a daily basis, so too are the spaces and objects that are used for such rituals. Sacred spaces and objects serve the purpose of signifying that a ritual activity or behavior is somehow special or separate from the rest of our more mundane activities. When we are able to identify something as a ritual, it is usually because of the setting in which it takes place—namely, the use of a special space and/or special objects to perform it. These spaces and objects can be explicitly religious but they do not have to be, just as not all rituals are religious, but they are always symbolic in one sense or another. Sacred spaces and objects are thought to be effective in allowing us to witness or experience the transcendent through material means. They allow us to concretize abstract concepts to help direct our focus toward that which is beyond our normal everyday awareness in the material realm.

Click here to read more about this common thread.

Quotations

The Qur'an
Islamic scripture
Islam

“God has made the Ka’ba– the Sacred House– a means of support for people, and the Sacred Months, the animals for sacrifice and their garlands: all this.”

C.S. Lewis
Christian theologian and writer
Christianity

“All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”

Confucius
Founder of Confucianism
Confucianism

“Surely when one says ‘The rites, the rites,’ it is not enough merely to mean presents of jade and silk. Surely when one says ‘Music, music,’ it is not enough merely to mean bells and drums.”

Huston Smith
Scholar of religion
Judaism

“The most historically minded of all the religions, Judaism finds holiness and history inseparable. In sinking the roots of their lives deep into the past, Jews draw nourishment from events in which God’s acts were clearly visible. The Sabbath eve with its candles and cup of sanctification, the Passover feast with its many symbols, the austere solemnity of the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn sounding the New Year, the scroll of the Torah adorned with breastplate and crown—the Jew finds nothing less than the meaning of life in these things, a meaning that spans the centuries in affirming God’s great goodness to his people.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Baha'i leader
Baha'i

“Among the institutes of the Holy Books is that of the foundation of places of worship. That is to say, an edifice or temple is to be built in order that humanity might find a place of meeting, and this is to be conducive to unity and fellowship among them. […]In brief, the original purpose of temples and houses of worship is simply that of unity -- places of meeting where various peoples, different races and souls of every capacity may come together in order that love and agreement should be manifest between them. That is why Bahá’u’lláh has commanded that a place of worship be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions, races and sects may come together within its universal shelter; that the proclamation of the oneness of mankind shall go forth from its open courts of holiness -- the announcement that humanity is the servant of God and that all are submerged in the ocean of His mercy.”

Wendy Doniger
Indologist and historian of religions
Hinduism

“The word for a shrine in Sanskrit is tirtha, a ford, a place where one “crosses over” a river; once, all shrines were on rivers, and even now they usually have some sort of water, if only a human-made pool in which the worshippers can bathe[…]And indeed, shrines are where one can cross simultaneously over the river and over the perils of the world of rebirth, or cross from earth to heaven.”

The Puranas
Hindu scripture
Hinduism

“The city of Varanasi is my place of utmost mystery, said Shiva, which conveys all creatures across the ocean of existence. There dwell great-souled devotees of mine, keeping their vows to me, great goddess, observing supreme self-control. Pre-eminent among all sacred fords, the best of places, superior to all knowledge, this is my place, the supreme Avimukta. Within this area are to be found sanctuaries, purifying fords, and shrines in cremation grounds supassing those in other divine spots in earth. This abode of mine floats in the sky, unattached to the earth. Those without Yoga cannot see it, but yogins witness it with their minds. This is the famous burning ground known as Avimukta. Becoming Time, there I destroy the world, O lovely woman. This is my most favored place among all mysteries, O goddess. My devotees who go there enter into me. There gifts, prayers, offerings, oblations, tapas and all other acts, meditation, Vedic study and knowledge become indestructible. All the evil accumulated in a thousand previous lives is destroyed for one who enters Avimukta.”

Joseph Campbell
Scholar of comparative mythology and religion
Buddhism

“He arose and proceeded along a road which the gods had decked and which was eleven hundred and twenty-eight cubits wide. The snakes and birds and the divinities of the woods and fields did him homage with flowers and celestial perfumes, heavenly choirs poured forth music, the ten thousand worlds were filled with perfumes, garlands, harmonies, and shouts of acclaim; for he was on his way to the great Tree of Enlightenment, the Bo Tree, under which he was to redeem the universe. He placed himself, with a firm resolve, beneath the Bo Tree, on the Immovable Spot, and straight away was approached by Kama-Mara, the god of love and death. The dangerous god appeared mounted on an elephant carrying weapons in his thousand hands. He was surrounded by his army, which extended twelve leagues before him, twelve to the right, twelve to the left, and in the rear as far as to the confines of the world; it was nine leagues high. The protecting deities of the universe took flight, but the Future Buddha remained unmoved beneath the Tree. And the god then assailed him, seeking to break his concentration[…]But the future Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth to bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was.”

The Puranas
Hindu scripture
Hinduism

“The good people who go there [to Haridvara] find good health—men, women, the four-cornered worlds themselves. From merely visiting hari they all go to the heaven Vaikuntha. Beautiful Haridvara is also a grand pilgrimage place of mine. This best of all fords bestows the four goals of life in the Kali Age; it gives Dharma to people, and release and success as well, there where the lovely and pure Ganges flows perennially.”

Pascal Boyer
Cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist
Hinduism

“Millions of pilgrims, devotees, priests and holy men throng the city of Benares because of the special qualities of the place, in particular the fact that funerals conducted there are said to confer on the deceased a better destiny. The main point of the long rituals performed by specialized Brahmans is to turn the soul of the dead person from a pret, a malevolent ghost, into a pitr or ancestor. During a ritual cycle that extends over eleven days, the Brahman gradually incorporates the substance of the deceased person, in particular the impurity of the dying process, into his own body. The Brahman receives many ‘gifts’ on behalf of the deceased.”

Jeffrey J. Kripal
Historian of religions
Hinduism

“Many of the Hindu temples, for example, display in striking form a most remarkable comparative practice: numerous gods and goddesses share the same sacred space, as each is understood to be a part of a larger cosmic vision or sacred whole.”

Jeffrey J. Kripal
Historian of religions
Science, Psychology, & Philosophy

“It is an often forgotten fact that the vast majority of people in human history were illiterate. They could not read their own sacred scriptures. The situation was often more dramatic still, for in many traditional religious systems people (especially women) were not allowed to read the sacred scriptures. Religious institutions, then, had to turn to other means to instruct and edify their members. One of the most common means of doing this has been what we call material religion—all those physical objects or ‘things,’ from miniature statues and posters to holy cards and amulets, that enable people to imagine their religious worlds into being on a daily basis.”

Pascal Boyer
Cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist
Science, Psychology, & Philosophy

“Among the common features of ritual in vastly different cultural environments, we find an obsession with marking boundaries—for instance, marking off some part of the ceremonial space as special. Indeed, as historian of religion Veikko Anttonen points out, this obsession with limits is probably the only common thread in otherwise very different concepts of ‘sacred’ space and objects. Another extremely common theme is that of purity, purification, of making sure that participants and various objects are clean, etc.”

Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Collection of Jewish writings
Judaism

“The Land of Israel is the holiest of all lands.”

Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Collection of Jewish writings
Judaism

“Books may not be thrown about from one place to another, nor may they be treated disrespectfully. A man is required to have a scroll of Torah written with good ink, a good quill, by competent scribes, on good sheets of parchment made out of the hides of deer. He is then to wrap it in beautiful silks, in keeping with ‘This my God, and I will glorify Him’ (Exod. 15:2).”

The Hebrew Bible
Jewish scripture
Judaism

“When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”  (Exodus 31:18)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV
Tibetan Buddhist leader and activist
Buddhism

“We Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take part in something religious, with discipline and faith, because in doing so you shape a proper attitude within. With the right attitude, any journey to a sacred place becomes a pilgrimage. In our tradition, the Buddha advised that in times to come people interested in his teachings should be told about the places associated with the major events of his life. His purpose was not to ensure the aggrandizement of the person of the Buddha, but rather the welfare of his followers.”

The Qur'an
Islamic scripture
Islam

“[the Ka’ba was] the first House [of worship] established for mankind.” (3:96)

The New Testament
Christian scripture
Christianity

“[Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”  (Luke 2:7)

The New Testament
Christian scripture
Christianity

“[Jesus] went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.” (John 19:17)