We are immersed in the Sacred
The Sacred surrounds us. I’ve felt it so many times around the Great Lakes, and this past week, I experienced the Sacred in a new place when my wife and I visited our daughter and son-in-law in South Dakota. We had a chance to visit the mountain known as “Mato Paha” (Bear Mountain) in the Lakota language, and “Noavosse” (the Good Mountain) in one translation of the Cheyenne language. The mountain is also the site of Bear Butte State Park.
"Mato Paha" (Lakota), "Noavosse" (Cheyenne), and "Bear Butte" (English)
Both the Cheyenne and Lakota Nations consider the mountain sacred. Along the path to the base of the mountain and beyond, you can see small strips of cloth and tiny bundles of tobacco tied to trees as prayers. The morning we were there, a small group of people were camping about 200 yards from the main trail and had set up what looked like a sweat lodge.
We kept to the main trail and tried to maintain a respectful presence. Very few people were in the park that early in the day. A sense of the sacred surrounded us, and the power and beauty of that place were very evident.
I’ve had similar experiences walking the beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, overlooking Lake Superior near Bayfield, WI, and swimming in Lake Michigan. At those moments and in those places, I felt a deep connection to something bigger than myself, something at the root of our shared existence. I call it God or the Divine, but you may have other names for that reality. I hope you have a place where you can experience the Sacred, however you know or connect to it.
Green Bay and Ellison Bluff State Natural Area; Door Co., Wisconsin
I believe a physical place can be essential to experiencing the Sacred. We are physical and spiritual beings, and these two dimensions of ourselves are not separate. Therefore, our connection to the Divine is not separated into physical and spiritual experiences.
In the Christian tradition, places often have value as a physical location for something that is superimposed on it, like a church or a shrine. That is not a critique, necessarily, because there is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a “place” for that within our spiritual traditions.
However, too often, it seems to me, those of us with European roots only see a place in terms of what it can do for us or what resources it can provide us. One of the gifts I’ve received from Indigenous people and cultures is the value of a physical place, not just for utilitarian purposes, but for understanding our journey in this world.
Locations like Sleeping Bear Dunes or Lake Superior have value unto themselves, and if we are fortunate, we can experience them as gift and connection to something greater. We do not need to add something external to that place. If a spot on this Earth ONLY has value from what we add to or take away from it, then it has no real value.
As with many things, though, there is a danger of taking the idea of a “sacred place” too far. If we see the Sacred as only located in a few particular locations, we miss the opportunity to see the Sacred that surrounds us wherever we are, and we fail to understand the need to care for and not degrade the place we find ourselves at any given moment.
Sometimes, the word “sacred” means something that is set aside for religious purposes. But when over 30 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, there is no setting aside. We live in the midst of cities and small towns, surrounded by water, and alongside the animals and plants with whom we share this region. We must see the Sacred throughout the watershed, for the Sacred surrounds us.