In 2006, with a grant from the Lily Foundation, we were able to take a sabbatical that focused on sacred spaces. Like many Lily Clergy Renewal grants, our adventure included a significant amount of travel. We explored some of the Canadian west, from the Rockies to the coast, reading stories of the indigenous people and visiting beautiful places. We traveled with friends around Australia, visiting Uluru and other sites in the center of the continent as well as spending time on the island of Tasmania. We listened to the stories of special places that had been recognized by people as sacred for thousands of years.
In preparation for that sabbatical, I made a few pilgrimages to sacred places that were close to our home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The hills have been known as sacred to a dozen or more tribes for as long as we have recorded history of the place. It is easy to see why people saw the places as sacred. Bear Butte, also known as Paha Mato, stands a bit away from the main hills. A climb to its top winds around the butte, past tobacco ties in the brush and above sweat lodges constructed on the slopes. For Lakota people it is a place of vision where young people went to discover their vocation. It continues to be a place for clarifying prayer. From the top of the butte there is a spectacular view of the hills to the south and the plains to the north. On a clear day you can see three states.
At Mato Tipi, also known as Devil’s Tower, visitors are respectfully requested to refrain from climbing. The rock monolith is traditionally experienced by walking around it. You can see from miles away how it became an important meeting place for semi-nomadic people who followed the buffalo. It was easy to describe, even to someone who had not previously seen it. It is a unique feature in a big land.
Climbing to the top of Black Elk Peak affords a way of sensing the geography and geology of the Black Hills. It helps one to understand why so many generations of people saw the hills not as a place to own or stay permanently, but as a place to go to renew the spirit and get a sense of one’s place in the world.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to live in the hills for a quarter of a century, to have had deer and turkeys for neighbors and the wind in the pine trees to lull me to sleep at night. I was blessed to be able to walk on paths that wandered through the trees and to climb to vistas where I could see for miles.
Just up the street from the church where we worked for those years is a narrow path that leads up the side of a ridge called Skyline. The view from the top of the ridge allows a look at the western and eastern sides of Rapid City from above. We became familiar with walking on the trails in a wilderness park that was developed to preserve some of the land from development. Memories of walking there and having access to that beautiful place to restore my perspective in the midst of a job that was at times stressful will remain with me for all of my life.
I was thinking of some of the high places in the hills, and some of the walks that lead to places of vista yesterday as we were taking a walk around Little Mountain. Little Mountain is a hill in Mount Vernon that is preserved as a wilderness park for hiking and biking. There is a road that goes to the top and miles of trails that wind around the hill. It reminds me of Skyline in Rapid City, but there are some significant differences. The trees are taller. There are ferns and dense undergrowth. At the top of Little Mountain, on a clear day, you can see snow-capped mountains to the north and east rising ten thousand feet above the city. And, when you look to the east you can see the ocean, dotted with islands, themselves with striking hills and mountains.
I enjoy making photographs, but I have never been able to create photographs that fully capture the places I have visited. The beauty of the places exceeds the images that I am able to record. Still, I enjoy looking at the pictures we have taken and I came away from our walk yesterday with more pictures to enjoy.
There is something in the human spirit that is renewed by the beauty of the world. A stunning sunrise or sunset can give fresh energy to a time of day when one feels drowsy. The climb to a vista can help one rediscover a place in the world and the calling for one’s life. Our eyes allow us to perceive a particular part of the spectrum of light and color that we behold as beauty. Sight and sound and smell combine as a single sensation instead of distinct experiences. A sip of water tastes glorious when partaken in a place of beauty. The touch of a hand becomes a sacrament. We don’t have the language to describe the sensations and so we call the place holy.
One of the benefits of having lived for many decades is the knowledge that there is great beauty in many places. Comparison fails. It is not that one place is more or less beautiful than another, but rather that when we approach the world with open eyes and open arms it rushes at us with beauty in different ways in different places. Seeing the mountains and the ocean from a single vantage point is a refreshing experience, but no more or less beautiful than kneeling next to the first pasque flower emerging from the prairie or watching the buffalo cross the badlands.
Fortunately for us there are prayers that do not require words and praise that doesn’t require loud noises. For we are surrounded by the beauty of sacred places.