Today we celebrate the commemoration of St. Columba, best known for his missionary work in Ireland and Scotland and his establishment of three religious communities, perhaps the most famous of them at Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. Columba set up Iona to use as a base for the mission work of converting the Picts and the Scots. At Iona, Columba ultimately baptized both the King of the Picts and the King of the Scots. Iona became known as the “Holy Isle,” a title which is still used today.
Iona, as Columba had established it in 563, was destroyed by Viking marauders around 806, around the time of the creation of one of Iona’s most famous works of art, the Book of Kells. Through the centuries since, it has been a place of pilgrimage, a place where even when thinking about it, one wants to take off one’s shoes because it’s holy ground. Was it because of the martyrdom of the victims of the marauders while upholding their Christian faith? Very possibly, or perhaps it was because of the sanctity of Columba and his influence, which, by the time of the destruction of Iona, had spread across Scotland and northern Britain, converting many and continuing to spread.
I’ve never been to Iona. I’ve read a lot about it, and I’ve known some people who’ve been there. The consensus is that it is a very holy place of peace, quiet, tranquility, and inspiration, among ancient ruins and large stone Celtic cross carvings. That’s what is sacred space is: somewhere were all those ingredients come together to make individuals aware holiness all around them in the ground they walk on, the air they breathe, and the sky that covers them. Iona is a prime example. Pilgrims are still drawn to it.
Sacred spaces are all around us, if we just have the sensitivity and desire to find them. For me, I have several. One is on the hill in my hometown overlooking my river. God and I met there a number of times as I was growing up. God may not have physically been sitting there, but I felt the presence. I also felt it as I walked along the beach of that river and heard the waves as they lapped against the shore. That was a holy place.
Another sacred space of mine is the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I haven’t visited it since it was finally completed, but I remember it as a building that was growing even as I watched. It was a slow process, building something like a Gothic cathedral, even with modern equipment. It isn’t something that’s put up in a week or a month or even a year. Yet, even with black tarps and scaffolding, the whole place felt like a sacred space with God present there in the chapels, the nave of the church, the choir, the wonderful stained-glass windows, and the solidity of the massive stone columns. There’s so much sacred about that place that I still mentally take off my shoes when I take myself through it and remember.
I remember visiting a mosque in Washington DC many years ago. It was a place where women had to cover their hair, and all had to wash their hands and take off their shoes. I didn’t think about it so much then, but I understand now that the rows of shoes outside the doors indicate that the people are entering a sacred space, just as Moses did when he met the burning bush. I didn’t recognize the mosque as a sacred space, full of beautiful calligraphies on walls and tiles, and thick, rich carpets. There was a feeling of something special there, but I just didn’t know what precisely it was at that time.
For some, mountains are sacred spaces, where the immensity of rugged crags pointing toward the blue sky, large boulders, and trees meet like a scenic, invisible cathedral. Some find sacred spaces by watery places like mountain streams or the great wide ocean. I think people find a sense of peace and a sense of wonder in nature. For them, it’s a sacred space because one feels different when one is there. There is a consciousness of the grandeur of nature, but also of creation and the Creator. Again, it’s something that makes God present, far more intimately than is usual in life.
Sacred spaces don’t even have to be big. They can be as simple as a single seat in a church or a small corner of the room set aside for meditation and prayer. Sacred space is somewhere where a person can feel blessed and where awe and mystery come together in a moment in time.
Where are your sacred spaces? What draws you to those places? What feelings, emotions, and insights come to you there?
Look for new sacred spaces. They can be found in lots of unexpected places, like a hospital or hospice room, a desert, or a park. Look around. You just might meet God in a sacred space you didn’t know existed.
Image: Moses before the Burning Bush, by Domenico Fetti, ca 1613-7. Source:
In US public domain.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.