New Mexico—It is a blindingly bright Southwest autumn morning in Frijoles Canyon, site of a good-sized Ancient Puebloan settlement whose spare but suggestive ruins make up the core of New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument. I am alone, my labored breathing the only sound disturbing the cottony silence in this part of the canyon. Having just climbed 140 feet up three sets of ladders and worn rock steps into a large cleft in the canyon wall called Alcove House, I now descend a ladder to the dirt floor of a covered circular chamber called a kiva. In the dark cool of the room, I find myself in what is unmistakably a sacred place. Even though it is a recently rebuilt structure, unlike the roofless Big Kiva on the canyon floor only a half mile away, this room inspires the same sense of reverence you feel in or around other ceremonial chambers built by the Ancient Puebloan People (sometimes called the Anasazi) and their modern-day Pueblo descendants.
Places are sacred according to how the sacred is understood. And over the long arc of history, human societies have understood the sacred in ways that are both distinctive to their age and enduringly constant. Each understanding has in turn shaped the way humans have seen the world, or places within the world, often as reflections, representations, or embodiments of that order. I have come to northern New Mexico, a place rich in sacred sites, to look at examples of three quite distinctive approaches to the sacred, each representing a different age in the history of belief.
Here in Frijoles Canyon is a place associated with the archaic approach to the sacred, an approach so all encompassing that it is closer to what anthropologists call a worldview than what we think of as a religion. This "original religious mode," as philosopher Charles Taylor calls it, placed humans in a "world in which the order was already irrevocably fixed in an earlier time of foundation." Individuals could in no significant way alter this order. Instead of changing the world or adding to what is thought of as the linear track of history, archaic believers saw themselves as re-enacting, in daily life and through ritual, the cycle of what the great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade called "the eternal return."
This was also a radically egalitarian age. With priests emerging only toward the end with the rise of states, people during most of the ancient period believed that they had equal access to a spirit-infused world—though shaman-healers were thought to have more intimate contact. Similarly, though the entire world was an enchanted place, some places served as ritual sites representing the larger spirit-charged world.
The kiva was one such site for the Ancient Puebloan People. Despite variations in design, most of these sacred chambers have certain common features. Entered from a hole in the ceiling, they typically have a fire pit, a ventilation shaft, and a small indentation or hole in the floor called a sipapu. That hole is crucial because it symbolizes the spot from which the original human inhabitants of this world—the Fourth World, as it is called in many Pueblo creation stories—emerged before embarking on their journey to find the ideal home, the much-sought-after Middle Place. The kiva was a special place where a people returned to their origins, a site for passing on ancient knowledge, a place for rites of passage that led to full membership in the community.
Not too far from Bandelier, at the end of a long dirt road that follows the winding course of the Chama River, you come to a different kind of sacred place. It is a Christian monastery—Benedictine, to be precise—where today some 30 brothers and their abbot live their daily lives largely in accordance with the Rule set down by the sixth-century abbot and saint after whom the order is named. Benedict's Rule was in fact a set of rules governing almost every aspect of the monks' inner and outer lives. One part of it established the order and content of the seven canonical offices, or services, as well as a time for mass.
Sublime structure. The place for worship—the sacred center of the monastery—is the church, the hallowed oratory that Benedict stipulated should be reserved for prayer alone. The church at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a quietly sublime structure. Adobe for the most part, it has large expanses of glass that seem to bring the walls of the facing canyon right into the ceremonial heart of the church.
Deserts were the sites of the earliest Christian monasteries, places of austerity and isolation where the seeker could, through assiduous devotion to work and prayer, draw closer to God. To monks steeped in the Gospels, these rigorous landscapes specifically recalled Jesus's self-imposed 40-day trial in the wilderness. They were the sites of spiritual testing.