A friend of mine went on a pilgrimage to “the Holy Land” early this year and this got everyone in our friend’s group (which to be fair is predominated by clergy of various sorts) talking about holy ground. And the question of course came up: have you gone, do you want to go (to Israel/Palestine)?
And it might surprise you (or it might not if you really know me) to know I have absolutely no desire to go to “the Holy Land.” (Israel/Palestine and that region.) But the discussion did get me thinking about the words we use and the things they reveal about us.
Conflict & Revelation
Christians have called a specific part of the world the Holy Land for a very long time. Christians have done no small damage to both that place and the rest of the world at the same time. While we call a few square miles of ground holy we desecrate, pollute, exploit, and outright steal enormous parts of the rest of the world.
I am Celtic, it is my ethnic background and I grew up on the stories about our land. The story my family tells about who we are is intimately tied to a few square miles in the highlands of Scotland. It is tinged with trauma and dislocation. But above all it left me with an indelible instinct that the land my family yearned for and missed was unmistakably sacred (at least to us.)
This is right in line with Celtic tradition, which held the land sacred. The Celtic tradition with the conversion to Christianity even called the natural world yet another testament. The world remained a revelation on par with scripture, that could show us who God is if we were paying attention.
Coming Home to Holy Ground
In my 20s I was finally able to visit the land of my ancestors. We flew to Scotland, rented a car and drove out into the Highlands with a paper map. On it was a tiny village at the end of a long narrow loch marked from the memory of family stories. We wound our way through the ancient weathered mountains, stopping frequently for traffic jams of unconcerned sheep. And finally we crested a rise in the road. For a moment, before we plunged back down the side of the hill, the whole of our ancestral valley spread out below us, the sun breaking through dark grey clouds.
There was loch Rannoch about which we had heard so much, shining silver in the filtered sunlight. There was the Kinloch, a tiny cluster of buildings at the East end of the loch. And there was Schiehallion, the fairy mountain, with its sacred wild slopes. My bones relaxed, my inner being sighed, uncoiled, and for those few days I felt rooted in a way I have found no where else. The land that welcomed me home, is for me unmistakably sacred.
But living away from it has made me acutely aware of the ground beneath my feet daily, and it too is someone’s sacred home. All of it is.
The Cost of Forgetting Holiness
We have commodified the land. For the indigenous peoples of the land where I live, that land is sacred. But what we fancy modern people have forgotten is that we are all descended from indigenous peoples. We all once belonged to somewhere (that is to say our ancestors did.) We forgot. It was perhaps inevitable for white Europeans who left behind the myths and traditions that grew out of our land to take on the sacred story of another people and another place.
Maybe that wasn’t the start of it (though I suspect it was), but however it started, we became unrooted, unmoored from place. And along the way we forgot the sacredness of the land that supports us, feeds us, and shelters us. Land became one more commodity to trade, to earn, to steal, to get our hands on by hook or by crook. When land is not a sacred gift or a covenant, it becomes something we can buy/sell or conquer.
And so we “traded” a few shells for someone else’s ancestral lands, and eventually decided that the land was there, ours for the taking: and the using.
And now, we reap the bitter harvest of that forgetting.
Sacred Soil Beneath Us
It is past time we relearn the sacredness of the ground on which we stand. There is no Holy Land, or perhaps I should say it all is, there is no land that is not holy. There is only holy ground we have desecrated with our violence and greed.
If you have a yard, or if your apartment complex has a small grass area: go stand there, even if the only place you can touch earth is the verge between the sidewalk and street. Even if the only hint of the earth is the dandelion stubbornly pushing up through the cracks in the pavement.
Stand there, with your feet on the earth and know that you are on holy ground. Stop, breathe, greet the place as you might a sanctuary of a synagogue, temple, or church. If there is a tree there, perhaps lean against her trunk and know that she too is standing in a holy place. That you are together, two beings, siblings in this awareness. For surely the tree, and the squirrels, the crows, and the starlings never forgot what we have. But we can learn, we’re clever and quick, and we are surrounded by teachers just waiting for pupils.
What If: Invitation to Reconsecrating
What if there weren’t one land that was holy? If every step outside our door was a chance to make pilgrimage among holy space, an awareness that the ground beneath our feet is sanctified, gift, a weighty responsibility and a possibility for relationship?
Lovelies this must become our reality.
The other creatures that share our world depend on us to turn away from treating them (and their home) as a commodity to be used and exploited. They desperately need us to turn toward treating them and our shared world as a relationship and a holy (reciprocal) gift.
Here is what I don’t have for you: a roadmap. I do not have a set of steps you can follow to change your relationship with the earth and her many creatures. Each of us must take responsibility for this work in our own context. In your faith, your tradition. Your sacred stories probably have keys for you, but you will need to dig them out from under layers of assumption.
The work is hard, but absolutely necessary, and worth it.