What makes a place sacred? Perhaps there’s a religious event associated with it, or a human construction there to hold that sacredness and alert us to it. Maybe the construct’s purpose is obvious – as with temples, maybe more elusive – as with stone circles. Often we’ll travel vast distances to visit the sites that humans have framed as sacred by building something. Be that Stonehenge, Greek Temples, Nazca lines or ancient cave paintings, or anything else of that ilk.
Repeated use of a place by people approaching it in a state of veneration has an effect. However, these designated sacred places also attract tourists, who come to look, but not to experience the sacred. A sacred site full of loud, photo taking, irreverent site seers doesn’t always feel very sacred at all. Of course being Pagan does not prevent us from showing up as tourists, and our showing up does not guarantee anything will happen.
I’ve been to Avebury more times than I can count. It’s a place I love visiting. I’ve participated in rituals there and spent time contemplatively amongst the stones and on the earthworks. For the greater part, I’ve had no really spiritual experiences there. No flashes of awen, nothing numinous. A sense of awe at the vision and determination of its builders – every time. The most profound experience I had there was a few years ago when, for the first time, I had chance to walk the site. I went out to Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow and back to the stone circle. There are many sites in the Avebury complex aside from the main stone ring, and seeing some from afar and moving through that landscape was by far the most profound thing I’ve ever done there.
I’ve been to the Nodens temple site at Lydney, once, as a visitor. There were a lot of visitors. It was an interesting experience, but not a profound one. As a ‘pilgrim’ coming in for one visit, what are we expecting from the place we land at? Does that expectation psyche us up to a heightened state so that things feel more profound than otherwise they might? Thinking back to my first visit to Stonehenge, sleep deprived and deeply invested in the experience, I think the answer is ‘yes’. Making an event of pilgrimage, of arrival at the sacred site, we can enchant ourselves into feeling more than otherwise we might.
It may be a bit like the difference between the chemical rush of falling in love, and the depth of a long term relationship. The wildest reactions to another human can be fleeting and soon lost. It takes active, dedicated involvement to make a relationship, with another human or with a place.
All of this suggests to me a case for making pilgrimages over and over again to the same places. Ideally not just driving up and looking around, but moving thoughtfully through the whole landscape, putting the place in its context. Where does the sacredness stop? Of course it doesn’t, there is no line in the land. There’s the limit of how far the tourists normally walk from the car park, and it’s important to find ways of going beyond that limit. If you can’t walk out of and around a site, time spent at the edges, looking out will take you further than you might otherwise have gone. Time spent in the site paying attention to it takes you beyond gawping and into experiencing. The more touristy a site, the more important it is to figure out how to be something other than a tourist in that place if what you really want is a spiritual experience.