When I was much younger, I thought a “sanctuary” meant a towering Cathedral, or perhaps a monastery, or a Quaker Meeting House, or even Thomas Merton’s tiny hermitage, where he could be alone.
Sanctuaries were where people prayed, or lit candles and sat quietly and talk to God. Sanctuaries were sacred places. I thought I had to go outside of myself, to a special place.
Today, I have a very different idea of sanctuaries. I live in a world that is glorious and unspeakably cruel at the same time. I need sanctuary.
I find my sanctuary is inside of me, not outside, my soul is my cathedral, my temple.
I find sanctuary in my living room chair where I meditate, in the hills around the farm, in our walks in the woods, in my visits to museums with Maria, as I lie awake frightened in the night.
As I wrote this, I texted Maria a message, it said: “you are my sanctuary.”
And that is true. But I am my sanctuary too.
Sanctuary is where I feel grounded, look inside of my self, get my bearings. It’s about hope and promise, the drive to move forward, to never quit on the beauty of life and the goodness of people. It’s where I bring my anger and my fear, where I quiet down and regain myself.
Our world, our politics, our news, our communities are violent and divided. We are obsessed with money, getting the new Alexa, runaway consumerism, climate change, political conflict, greed, and hatred and bigotry.
We are, of necessity, desensitized to a daily barrage of assaults, if we didn’t step back, we would go mad. But I’ve always needed a sanctuary, sometimes more than I need one now, and the idea that the sanctuary is inside of me, not outside, has been a kind of revolution for me.
Once or twice a day, almost every day, something happens that makes me shudder and worry for my soul. Some days I feel unfit for life in this world, I wonder if I really belong here. I don’t fear dying, but I worry about death by a thousand cuts, about being nibbled to death by the steady downpour of conflict and anger, falling like hail on a tin roof.
Everybody deals with it in their own way.
Some turn to politics – the left and the right – for comfort. Some find religion, some become detached and isolated, living lives of grievance and suspicion and lament. I care a lot about truth, but it seems that truth is forever under siege, being pecked away like a tree with a family of woodpeckers.
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence,” wrote Thomas Merton, “to which the idealist….most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work..it destroys the fruitfulness of his own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Inner wisdom, I think, is what I mean by the sanctuary.
I don’t need to flee the world or to drink it all in and exploit it. I can love my life with all of its many ups and downs and failings and flaws, seeking, again and again, the best of the human possibility, in me and the people I meet.
I know to look inward, not outward for sanctuary. I don’t need a sign, just a soul.
All of my life, the night has brought nightmares and terror. Maria asked me this morning if I wanted to do something different – meditate, get up and walk all night. You don’t have to lie awake shaking, she says.
It’s okay, I said. I just let it flow through. It’s how I heal.
I don’t need to find sanctuary in a book or out in the woods. I just have to close my eyes, as I always have, and walk inside.
It is all right there if I look for it, right under my nose, at my fingertips. I am my own sanctuary, it lives deep inside of me, waiting for me whenever I need to go there.