across great seas she travels
up through rising lands
she is everywhere and noplace
her church not made with hands
— The Waterboys
Here are 4 notions of temple. Each is valid, but I believe there is a journey to be embarked upon between the first and the fourth. But none of these are exclusive, they are 4 interdependant views towards a more complete idea of the residence of the Sacred.
1. Temple is a Place
Temple, here, is a place which is set apart from other places, a place for the sacred. This honors the principle of “genius loci” – the Roman protective spirit of a place, which recognizes its unique qualities.
The ancients were adept and attuned to certain mountains, rivers, grottos, rocks, lay lines, or any geographical feature, which inspired awe. Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Central Australia is one of the most famous of these. These places were set apart, and commonly sacrifice or ritual occurred there.
In addition there were places which were constructed. Starting with simple cairns (rock piles), mounds and fountains, to simple shrines, to the more incredible and monumental edifices like Stonehenge, or the pyramids, this trend to build holy places has never ceased. It finds perhaps its ultimate expression in structures such as the Taj Mahal or St Peters.
As modern building technologies have made the process less labor intensive, it might be argued that the significance of any modern place of worship has diminished. During the middle ages it would be common for anyone involved in the building of a cathedral to expect its completion not in their lifetime.
It is hard for anyone to deny the numinous and awe inspiring qualities of sacred places. Even hardened atheists or materialists acknowledge the respite to be found in a cathedral or in a place of natural beauty or awe. We need to be aware of the essential qualities of places, if we are to do honor to them in our activities. This applies as much to the home, or civic space, as it does to our places of worship.
2. Temple is the Person
Temple as person means that we recognize that the sacred is within us. We do not simply exteriorize our devotional or spiritual practices, but start to employ disciplines which have to do with diet and exercise. Yoga is a preeminent practice of the temple of the person. It centers around attunement, wholeness and health. The ideas expressed in the chakras – significant areas of the body – take the Person-centric idea to a very refined place.
By contrast the fragmented attempts at healthy living and self improvement in western societies are proving very shallow and ineffective at helping us house the sacred in any meaningful way. Negative ideas such as “do not smoke or drink, for your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” emanate from puritanical dualisms which will never achieve an inner integrity, for their spiritual foundations are flawed.
3. Temple is the People
Any creator worth worshipping is the creator of all. Therefore we will do well to acknowledge that our worship is corporate. All ideas of Person as Temple, from whatever tradition, will be limited; they are all marked by individualism. This individualism can pose as community; we can appear to “belong” but inside remain alone and unreached by others. For many an attendee, the sum of religious life is warming a seat for an hour a week.
On the other hand, religious communities can play a very large part in the societies in which they are sited. For some they are the be all and end all of their expression of shared life. But the mosque, temple, synagogue or church contains not just the apparatus of religious practice; it contains the focus of tradition and identity as well. Most religious communities offer sanctuary and assistance of some sort to the communities of which they form a part. And many traditions see reaching out to these communities as part and parcel of their worship. The effectiveness of this outreach varies greatly according to the sensitivity, skill and attitude of those enacting it.
So it is very important to value and support community for its own sake. Generally speaking, it is better to work through an existing community than delude oneself with dreams of a new world or way of life. Of course there examples aplenty where a new movement prompted painful severing with the known order.
4. Temple is Praise
Let me offer a starting point. Not a solution, strategy, or a politic. Not an analysis, an idea, or a theory. But rather, a vision. Something central to our being, something which deals with the heart. The idea of personally knowing our creator.
Starting all thoughts and actions from this place. A place where the bigness breaks through, and this limited pool of human experience receives an inflowing from beyond the time-bound gene pool. An encounter with Love, the Love which is bigger than the grave. The Love which forgives all, takes all, restores all.
The means to this encounter? I say, worship. Ascribe worth to one who is worthy. And righteousness, the living in right relationship to all.
The real miracles lie here. Not in twisted, sentimental, pious, sensationalist, media-obsessed pseudo-spirituality. But the miracle of changed hearts. The new beginnings possible only through knowing (or unknowing) encounter with the Giver of Newness, the Beginner of all.
These, my poetic proclamations, are a litany of praise I have learned to sing because of my own experience, a real encounter with my Creator from my own history. Right now, I simply want to point. There – on a hill far away, a wooden cross, and over there – an empty tomb. I let you the reader exercise your own imagination.
This is where I am, this is my aspiration. To live in the temple. To honor place, whether natural or built by hands; to honor my own person with an indwelling presence; to honor my people, those whom I love, choose to love or am chosen to love; and in my praises, no matter how eccentric or halting.
To live in the temple.