The term "sacred places" summons images of legendary destinations—Egypt's Pyramids, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca—that have drawn pilgrims throughout history. Such structures are physical expressions of religion, from the Latin religare, meaning to "bind together"—institutions primarily meant for communal experience.
But there's a different sort of sanctuary, or temple, that fosters private spiritual contemplation, derived from the Indo-European root tem, meaning "to cut." These are the settings—some natural, some man-made—that you seek when you want to cut yourself off from humdrum reality, open yourself to greater possibilities, and remember what really matters. Only 40 percent of Americans attend weekly religious services, but 90 percent say they pray, and 75 percent say that they do so daily—statistics that suggest that off-the-grid sacred places are important to millions and millions of inner lives.
Sometimes it's what you do in a place that makes it sacred. It might be a church basement that offers support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or a storefront where you do yoga or tai chi. The number of people who read the Bible or other scripture during their commutes shows that even trains and buses can become temporary retreats. Anyone who has a teenager or remembers being one knows that a bedroom can be a sanctuary. As the Beach Boys put it: "There's a world / Where I can go / And tell my secrets to / In my room / In my room."
Informal shrines. Recently, I've been amazed by how many everyday places now incorporate little informal shrines. A bedroom corner becomes a meditation center; one end of a mantelpiece turns into an altar; a garden grows up around a stone Buddha or Francis of Assisi. The most moving of these homemade sacred places are the roadside memorials that mark accidental deaths. No New Yorker will forget the flowers, candles, and signs that spontaneously sanctified the city's firehouses after 9/11.
If some ordinary places become holy because of what happens or happened there, others are hallowed by a particular kind of beauty, often quite simple, that lifts up your mind and heart. Indoors, the single most effective element of this kind is light. Shaker architecture shows that a sparkling, unadorned window blazing with sunshine can offer a view into another world. In the evening, you can make a sacred place in any dark room just by lighting a candle or a fire in the hearth.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who insisted that even ordinary homes should offer hearths and openness to the outdoors, said, "Nature is my manifestation of God." Many of his fellow Americans agree. Now that most of us live in vast, urbanized metropolitan areas, the sheer novelty of a natural environment helps to cut us off from quotidian reality and put things in a different perspective. Many of us choose to vacation near a mountain range or an ocean, which both evoke what psychologists call the "diminutive effect"—the transcendent realization of being a very small fish in a very big pond. But you don't have to travel to a national park, the seashore, or a far-off resort to be inspired by a sunrise or sunset, a canopy of stars, or a full moon.
Over years of thinking and writing about how our external worlds affect our inner ones, I've visited Europe's cathedrals, India's temples, and Morocco's mosques. Nevertheless, when I hear "sacred place," I think first of my modest home, a one-room schoolhouse in the woods, where I'm writing these words.
Like many American homes, the schoolhouse combines natural and architectural ingredients in its recipe for ordinary sacredness. On this chilly morning, sunlight floods the white, high-ceilinged room. The only sounds come from the brook, the wind rustling in the sere autumn leaves, and the fire crackling in the wood stove. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was a small herd of deer grazing on the lawn. The schoolhouse has precious little plumbing and no central heating, cell service, or high-speed Internet. Given a hard enough rainstorm, it has no electricity.
Despite the inconveniences—or perhaps because of them—this is where I come to be cut off from the status quo, glimpse the big picture, and remember the deep truths that are so easy to forget elsewhere.
Winifred Gallagher is the author of The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions(Harper Perennial, 1994).