In today's vernacular, the word sanctuary has come to mean a safe haven, a place of protection. We have bird sanctuaries, elephant sanctuaries, donkey sanctuaries and more generic wildlife sanctuaries. There is political sanctuary for endangered humans and plant sanctuaries for endangered plants. But a soul sanctuary? Where do we find one of those?
The original definition of sanctuary indicated a sacred site, someplace that was holy (as the root word, sanctus, indicates). These holy places could be literally the sanctuaries in churches where pilgrims could shelter and rest from the elements as well as worship and pray or they could be holy wells, ancient trees, misty mountain tops, or fertile valleys. In Celtic lands, sacred structures were often built on ancient holy places, creating enclosures (the origin of the prefix llan in the Welsh language) and building churches near the sacred springs or trees where their ancestors worshiped.
It is often easy to find rest for our hearts and minds in thin places like these with their gossamer veil between heaven and earth. And while some of this may be the expectations we bring to a site that is steeped in history and tradition, these aren't merely peaceful places where we relax and unwind-- they are places where we are re-created. There's something about prayed up spaces, places where ritual and mystery have been honored for centuries, that seems to change the very atmosphere. When we cross the threshold into these liminal landscapes, we step out of our daily life and concerns and into sanctuary.
One of the challenges and opportunities for those of us who live in the "new world" is discovering our own places of sanctuary. Many of the sacred sites of those who walked through these forests and fields before us have been forgotten over time or worse, purposefully erased from memory. But just because there isn't a plaque marking a healing spring or crumbling stone structure in our neighborhood doesn't mean sacred places aren't there to be found. We can be open to noticing those places in nature where our mind begins to slow and quiet, where our restless heart eases and opens, where our soul can find sanctuary.