I grew up attending an all-girls wilderness-focused Christian summer camp in Maine. Running through the woods, boating on the lake, plucking blueberries as we carried wood and water to a campsite – these are how I came to understand sacred space.
There was an element of traditional spirituality, and we were encouraged to explore the ways in which God was present in the natural life around us. It was the wilderness part of it all that made the place special, though. We would climb into tree-houses for bible study, have our nightly devotions around a campfire or while we learned outdoor living skills. I decided I wanted to be baptized while licking the sticky remains of s’mores from my fingers. Being out in the woods, covered in mosquito bites and streaks of dirt – this was where I felt closest to God, like I was bursting with life and love and possibility.
As my parents drove up the camp road each summer to drop off my sisters and me, anticipation would build to a breaking point. We were singing, laughing, trying to untie the knots in our stomach. We would tumble out the car door as soon as we could to run around and find friends, breathe in the Maine air, and call dibs on a choice bunk. As the daughter of a minister, I was no stranger to church and traditional sacred spaces during the rest of the year. Unlike church, camp was a place where I felt free to be myself, to take risks, and to get dirty. I didn’t have to worry about ruining my clothes or sitting through a long sermon that was over my head. The counselors were cool young women who seemed solely focused on two things: the spiritual development of campers and one another, and making sure that everyday was filled with fun and laughter. It was a living, breathing, environment alive with passion and love for God, and that is what made those rustic barns and cabins so sacred.
When I was in high school I spent my last summer camp as a Camper-in-Leadership-Training, or CILT, which is the transition between camper and counselor. In addition to leading bible studies for younger girls and organizing camp-wide activities, we spent a great deal of our time in one-on-one reflections with our counselors who sought to identify in us what would make us good Christian leaders. It was in these conversations where I was asked questions about my faith that I started to realize I didn’t really have any. I had a tremendous love of nature, I loved my friends, I cherished the community, and I wanted to be a part of the living joy of camp – I just didn’t want to have to tell younger campers things about the Bible or Christianity that I didn’t really believe. Worse still, I knew I could not express my doubts and my difficulties honestly with my camp community. I left that summer having passed CILT with flying colors, but knowing that something had fundamentally changed, and that while I wanted to return the following year as a counselor I would not. This was no longer a place where I was free to be me. Spaces that once felt sacred no longer felt quite right.
As a humanist, my definition and understanding of a sacred space will undoubtedly differ from others who hail from more traditionally religious perspectives, but I, too, have had moments when I walk into a space and I just know there is something about this place. For me, this feeling has to do with freedom and a sense of feeling in close alignment with one’s truest self. The best example I can offer of a sacred space from my recent years was visiting the Isle of Skye in Western Scotland with my family in the summer of 2012. The mountains and the streams roll into one another, and with the exception of the occasional cabin dotting the landscape, everything seems untouched by humans. The splendid, beautiful nature of it all flourishes and the only way that I can describe it is to say that those mountains are exactly as they should be – they are in their authentic and natural state. In that presence, I felt as though I, too, could be in my authentic and natural state. I know that for many people, the temple or the church or the shrine or another sacred space is where they have this feeling of authenticity. Walking into sacred spaces, one feels as though one can shed any pretense, any stress, and any hidden doubts or fears and just be oneself – exposed, vulnerable, and welcome. It is often this combination of exposure and safety that makes us feel close to God.
What do we do, then, and where do we go, when we are constantly changing? Most twenty-somethings I know are nomadic gypsy travelers. We leave home to go to school, move somewhere for our first real job, move somewhere else to attend more school, and then eventually hope to settle somewhere for more than a couple of years before moving again. In the middle of all of this we are growing, adapting, getting married, being called home by tragedy or hardship, being forced out by tragedy or hardship, becoming parents, becoming teachers, and outgrowing our mentors faster than we can find new ones. We think we know what we want to do with our time and energy, but sometimes we’re wrong. We think we figure out who we are and what makes us happiest, but sometimes we feel like strangers in our own lives, or we don’t recognize ourselves, or we do recognize ourselves and that’s worse. We are a transient generation, in flux, simultaneously racing out on our own to establish ourselves and desperately searching for something familiar. We need our sacred spaces – these places where we can feel exposed, vulnerable, and welcome – but they can often be hard to find.
I went with my father to pick up my younger sister the next summer. The feeling of stepping out of the car and seeing familiar faces walking towards us from a morning service was confusing. Everything was just as I remembered it, and yet nothing was the same. Camp – these acres in the woods of Maine – were no longer my haven, my own version of sacred space. It was not until much later that I realized how important these spaces of welcome and belonging, of calm meditation and of fervent joy, are to me. I have no intention of ceasing my wandering lifestyle, or to stop growing and changing, but learning how to seek out these spaces and to cultivate that sense of feeling free is an important part of my new transient lifestyle.