Marking off the Sacred

To interact with the Sacred, we need a contrast with what’s ordinary. Otherwise, holy or not, we’ll miss it. Or just take it for granted. We’re probably kidding ourselves if we think all that matters is our attitude, but not how we express it with our bodies and our words.

The Sacred may come right up and smack us in the face, as it did Jacob in Genesis 28, when he had his vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

More likely, for most of our lives a place or time becomes sacred because we’ve declared it so: a church; a personal altar; a place where we’ve scattered the ashes of those we’ve loved; a period of prayer; a ceremony we create.

Either way, we have to mark it off. Jacob woke from his dream, took the stone he’d used for a pillow, set it up as a pillar, poured oil on top of it, and named the place Beth-El, “House of God.” The angels made the place sacred. But the pillar kept it so.

Trust your heart about what will best and most meaningfully separate the sacred from the everyday in your own ritual practice. Start with simple gestures that feel right, not complicated ones; you may choose to elaborate them later, as your practice develops.

To mark off a sacred space–and to maintain it as sacred–you can:

Raise a stone, like Jacob
Erect a gate, like the torii of Shinto shrines
Create a permanent or temporary path of approach
Build a fence or hang a rope
Sprinkle water
Light candles
Burn incense
Remove your shoes (doesn’t work if you go barefoot all the time)
Cover your head (doesn’t work if you usually wear a hat)
Spread a cloth or rug on which to sit, kneel, or lie before it
Put on garments you don’t wear at ordinary times
Strip completely and approach naked (doesn’t work if you’re a nudist)
Clean the sacred space as an intentional act of service and reverence
Replenish any perishable materials that are kept there

To mark off time as sacred, you can:

Close the door to prevent interruption
Recite a brief invocation
Ring a bell to indicate its beginning or end
Bow in greeting or farewell