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.
Christianity is only one of the religions, and a late one at that, with seeds in what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers first dubbed the Axial Age. During this age—roughly 900 to 200 B.C.—four traditions arose in four different parts of the world, each representing a new approach to the sacred: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. While all of these traditions had their own particular historical precursors, and most would have offspring (including Christianity and Islam in the case of Judaism), each one acquired its distinctive and classical formulation during this age.
But what was the common thread running through these traditions? According to Taylor, it was the fact that all of them "took the diffuse and variegated order of earlier religion and tried to unify it under a transcendent supreme principle." That principle, Taylor elaborates, could be a supreme creator God or some unified principles of order, like the Tao; or the endless cycle of samsara, the Hindu and Sikh concept of reincarnation or rebirth; or escape into the Buddha's nirvana.
While the implications of this change have been interpreted in many different ways, a few of its consequences seem beyond dispute. One is that the order of the world was no longer an immutable given, established once and for all in an unrecoverable past. Individuals, either by worshiping and obeying the Supreme Creator or through other beliefs, could bring about change. Particularly in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, that meant people could make history even while remaking themselves. The birth of history, the rise of the individual, and even, ironically, the rise of secularism were all made possible by the religious and ethical traditions born in the Axial Age.
These traditions also led to the disenchantment of the world by concentrating the sacred in certain specific sites. Churches, shrines, temples, monasteries, and locations associated with saints or central figures in those traditions were places, often overseen or inhabited by priests or spiritual adepts, where the faithful could connect with the transcendent creator or principle. Like kivas, they were ceremonial places. But while kivas were symbolic representations of the spirit-infused world, sacred places in the Axial Age religions tended to be places apart from the world—a world not only emptied of its sacred dimension but also often viewed as a snare or illusion.
Still, the ancient view of the world did not entirely die. In their various ways, the great religions accommodated it. Visit the Sanctuary of Chimayo some 25 miles north of Santa Fe, and you can see how Christianity made its own partial truce with the Puebloan worldview. Even the founding of the shrine has a mythic quality evocative of American Indian legend.
Blessed soil. In 1810, the story goes, a member of the Catholic Penitentes Brotherhood saw a light shining up from one of the hills. Digging into the ground, he found a crucifix, which he took to a church in nearby Santa Cruz. But the crucifix inexplicably returned to its place in the Chimayo hills, and did so after being carried to the Santa Cruz church two more times. Accepting this as a sign, the local Catholic hierarchy allowed a small church to be built in Chimayo, and the crucifix was mounted on its altar. Further blending the ancient American Indian religion and Catholicism, the church contains a small room with a little dirt-filled pit (pocito, in Spanish) in its center. The dirt is blessed by the clergy, and people seeking cures scoop up small portions to take with them. The church is quick to say that the soil has no magical property. But the kivalike aspect of the pocito and the reverence with which the soil is regarded suggest a view of the world that predates Christianity.
In more recent times, spiritual seekers of all kinds have intentionally sought to blend elements of the great Axial sacred traditions with the ancient approaches to the sacred. Whether searching for intense mystical experience or universal principles or insights into the human psyche, they have launched movements, founded communities, and written thousands of books. Sometimes dismissing it as New Age fadism, critics ignore the serious ambitions of such eclectic spirituality, including its attempts to recover the lost sense of an enchanted world.
Among the many alternative communities founded in New Mexico over the years, none more enduringly embodies this open approach to the sacred than the Lama Foundation. Located some 25 miles north of Taos on the side of Mount Lama, the community occupies a compact cluster of central buildings—including a large dome used for classes and other gatherings—and a few small outlying residences for the core group of some 15 year-round members.
Founded in 1967, Lama has been home to a number of prominent spiritual luminaries, including the American Sufi teacher Samuel Lewis and Hindu convert and former Harvard psychologist Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), who wrote the bestselling Be Here Now. A serious commitment to spiritual pursuits is perhaps the greatest reason this community has endured. Its collective life adheres to a set of guidelines, from a rigorous spiritual curriculum (prayers, dances, song, and meditation techniques drawn from various sacred traditions) to work duties, including the running of large summer retreats that bring in much of the community's income.
Among local people who have helped the community—notably after it nearly burned down during a large forest fire in 1996—have been various members from the Taos Pueblo. They have taught practical building and gardening skills as well as local lore. Austin Babcock, who has been doing a lot of the recent construction of energy-efficient permaculture buildings, takes me up to the spring that provides the community's water, a site that the Pueblo consider particularly sacred. "When the Pueblo come to visit," Babcock says, "they always ask, 'How is the mountain? How is the spring?' " Babcock and his wife, Kathy Lyons, tell me how the Pueblo sense of place has influenced the way they came to feel about the land. "The place," she says, "becomes the meaning."
Is it merely the romantic conceit of a few postmodern religious seekers that they can recover an older religious sense of an enchanted world? Perhaps. But their quest may resonate for others. After all, how people understand place—including its sacred dimension—influences what they seek in places, whether in natural settings or the human-built environment. The search for the Middle Place might be understood as something more than a lost ideal of the Ancient Puebloan People. Unless some sense of sacred purpose and presence inspires people's relationship with place, the places they inhabit may end up being just as lifeless as they think they are.
Senior Writer Jay Tolson's blog on religion and spirituality, Faith Matters, is here.