July 1st, 2012

Mystery of a hospital’s sacred place

Not long ago a man I hardly knew and barely understood agreed to walk with me on the hospital grounds. I wanted to see if he was able to manage more privileges without getting into a fight or taking off. I am not sure exactly what he wanted and the combination of his disordered thinking and impaired speech made it difficult for him to tell me. All I do know is that when he agreed to sit with me at a picnic table, he very clearly said that this was a sacred place. That got me thinking.

The idea of sacred places conjures up images like Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem, the Temple of Confucius or the banks of the holy river Ganges. A picnic table on the lawn in front of an old state hospital hardly fits into this noble company of places that are central to major religions throughout the world.

For many of the sacred places on my abbreviated list, the place is important because of what happened there or, more precisely, because of the relationship of the place to the founder of the religion that calls it sacred.

Winifred Gallagher, in her book, “The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions,” offers a different hypothesis about what makes some places sacred. Gallagher turns to the work of Michael Persinger, a psychologist with a background in both neuroscience and geophysics to explain the connection between strange phenomena and electromagnetic stimulation generated by “massive geophysical forces” beneath the earth’s surface. These forces, Persinger theorizes, are stronger at particular locations and at specific times in history. In this way, phenomena as diverse as religious apparitions and experiences with UFOs are thought to occur more frequently at times and in places with stronger electromagnetic stimulation. The observer’s frame of reference or set interacts with characteristics of the setting to make a place sacred.

The theory sounds like a more scientific version of the idea that there are certain “thin places” on the earth where the veil separating this world from the other world is thin. You need a spiritual perspective to appreciate this thinness and, when you are in a thin place, you sense the nearness of another dimension. While there are thin places in all countries, they tend to be concentrated in the Celtic nations of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. It has been suggested that this occurs because Celtic people from ancient times have a more keenly developed appreciation for an “other” world and the boundary that separates it from the ordinary plane of existence.

In thin places, we feel more strongly connected to the power of the universe or, in religious terms, God. We feel a kinship with all who have gone before us and all who will follow us. In thin places, we know we are on sacred ground.

Perhaps our picnic table sat directly over a hotbed of geophysical activity and right now, even as we talked, tectonic plates were locked in a death match far below us. Nothing about the setting suggested that this was the case. There were no weird lights or unexplained sounds and, as far as I could tell, nothing trembled or shimmered. Maybe we had re-discovered a thin place sacred to the native people of central Massachusetts but hidden by overzealous landscapers. I can imagine them removing the holy cairn when the hospital was built in the late nineteenth century. Let’s get these rocks out of the way boys so folks can have room for a picnic. Not likely. Yet still my companion persisted in calling this a sacred place.

There are more common reasons that places come to be called sacred and these involve special events in our personal histories and the bonds of affection we feel with the places they occurred. We have only to think of a favorite vacation spot, perhaps a mountain lake or a pristine beach, to begin to appreciate the special quality that defines sacred places. Add years of memories of good times spent with our loved ones at these places and they can easily surpass the appeal of holy shrines and gossamer thin boundaries with other worlds. Surely my companion had no pleasant associations with this particular picnic bench on these hospital grounds. Perhaps the setting reminded him of a similar place associated with good memories. Or was there something else about this sweep of lawn at the bottom of the hill that conveyed a sense of sacredness to my companion?

Our first place is a person. In her book on the power of place, Winifred Gallagher offers this reminder of how the complex experience of life in the womb shapes the newborn’s senses and preferences for types and levels of stimulation. Our second place is the interpersonal space between parent and child, each responding to the other in an elaborate dance. What happens in this place contributes to the course of future relationships, but there will be many more dances, many more partners, many more chances to get it right. This can happen anywhere even at a picnic table at a state hospital. On some days that might qualify as sacred but, on that particular day, I doubt that it did. My companion moved on before we started anything resembling psychotherapy, taking his ideas about sacred places with him.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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