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Finding Sacred Places: Lessons from the Pandemic – Part 7

This is Part 7 of a series – click here to read other Parts!

Continuing on through our list of the Ten Touchstones of Grief from Part 4, and how they can help us with Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination in the wake of the Pandemic…

Touchstone 7

Reorienting to SACRED PLACES:

Home, Havens, & Pilgrimages

Just as we humans need consistency, variety, and ceremony in how we experience time, we also need these in how we experience a sense of place.

When it comes to our need for consistency, we have a name for the place that serves it best: home. We each need somewhere we can always go back to, that welcomes us unconditionally. We love having a sanctuary that is in our more-or-less exclusive care and belongs to us in the deepest sense, as intimate to us as a family member.

We thrive when we know we have a safe, comforting, familiar place that holds us no matter what state we’re in, and holds the few possessions this life lends us to nourish our bodies and our Souls. When we don’t have this kind of sacred dwelling, we struggle. We can never fully rest or feel lasting freedom. A home gives us our lives a center of gravity, ground on which everything else can be built.

Our sense of home, however, isn’t confined only to a literal house or apartment. Hopefully it extends to our neighborhood, town, region, continent, and planet. Hopefully it extends to our close relationships, community, and within our own selves, the bodies and Souls that contain us. Some people even feel at home in a car, in a tent, on the road. Wherever you can comfortably stay for the longest amount of time, there your home is. It is the hub of the wheel of your life.

But too much time at home becomes stifling. We humans are restless creatures, averse to being closed in, hungry to venture out, explore new places, and cultivate some familiarity there too. We seek out a variety of havens – spokes radiating out from our hub, refuges we can visit while we’re out and about in the wider world.

These might be our favorite homes of our favorite people, parks or spots in Nature that speak to us, or places where our community gathers, like our workplace, school, faith community, or neighborhood café. When we have a network of these sacred waystations, it enlarges our sphere of identity and belonging. Here too we can rest for a while, before we head back home, or off further afield.

Many times in life, we all feel something – a call to adventure – beckoning us beyond the small world of our home, even beyond the medium world of our havens, out into the vast world of the unknown. Special places grab hold of our imagination and summon us on pilgrimages to visit them.

They may be far-flung cities or wildernesses, holy sites or cultural capitols, anywhere holding potent lessons for our lives. These are not places we stay very long or return to very often – they lie at the outer rim of our life, meant to remain largely unknown to us. And that’s what makes them so alluring. There is always a cost of time and resources to go, sometimes a hefty one. Making such sacrifices and humbling ourselves before the mysteries of the world are how we honor these sacred journeys and destinations, how we treat them with the ceremony they deserve. And in return, they change us, turning the wheels of our lives in new directions.

So if these three things – home, havens, and pilgrimages – are what we need in terms of places in our lives, how would we describe the ways they’ve been impacted by the pandemic?

The Pandemic as Displacement

Firstly, COVID complicated or completely curtailed pilgrimages to far-away places for a while. In some ways, this was actually one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

We saw a drop in the CO2 burden caused by air travel. And with so many places inaccessible, absence made the heart grow fonder: Many people developed a deeper appreciation for the destinations of potential pilgrimages, and for the global transportation network that helps us journey there. Plus, with a closing of international and urban voyages came an opening to domestic and natural ones – the Pandemic Era saw an uptick in camping, outdoor recreation in general, and “van-life.”[1] More people began seeking out the ceremonial realms of Nature and the nearby.

These developments helped counteract the mental health crises exacerbated by the pandemic. This reinforced spiritual connectedness and environmentalism, in a time when life is increasingly mediated by electronics and the internet. We would do well to keep these trends going in the Recovery Era.

However, it was a whole different story for havens – here absence made for heartbreak. Leaving the nest to gather with friends, family, colleagues, or community was often out of the question, especially for people reliant on public transportation. We could no longer linger at the institutions that normally provided us home away from home. Havens in Nature were about the only option, and not one available to everyone. We all experienced a prolonged dearth of variation in our spatial existence, a severe contracting of our little local worlds.

With the collapse of the spokes on most people’s life-wheels, the hub of home was the only thing keeping the frame together. And while the expediencies that came with this may have been appealing at first, we soon realized that home cannot adequately hold everything for us.

It’s not quite right to say our living spaces became our offices, classrooms, and community spaces – our homes did not in fact physically host all the people that make those havens what they are. Our homes became more like "windows" from which we looked in on our lives beyond. These "windows" were crowded not only by us personally, but crowded by everyone else living with us. Bedrooms and dining rooms hosted office gear, home offices hosted toys and classroom items. Meanwhile our offices, classrooms, and community spaces were dis-placed, dis-located into the ether, and subsumed in the virtual void we stared into from our "windows." And so these vistas felt not only cluttered, but cramped, down to the size of a computer monitor or a cellphone, sealed with a pane of glass.

Our modern technologies do indeed offer valuable windows into other places, but they are not portals that can magically transport us there, bodies and all. Although by interacting with a screen it may feel like we’re accessing another spatial realm unto itself, we aren’t: Cyberspace is not tactile and therefore not a place – our whole selves cannot go there.

Our bodies are an inextricable part of our identity and sense of place. When – while our minds are entranced with the view from some window – we forget for very long that our bodies exist, we do subtle, low-level damage to ourselves. By slowly losing touch with physicality we literally lose touch with reality. This is exactly what many people reported from the Pandemic Era everything-from-home paradigm.[2] Because it cannot hold our bodies, online is not a real place – let alone a home.

Furthermore, the fact that we can look through so many windows at so many different places can help expand our notion of home to encompass more of the globe, but this is a double-edged sword. As we saw with the phenomenon of “doom-scrolling,” access to the bad news from every corner of the world can paralyze and frighten us. It can force us to turn inward on ourselves, dissociating from our kinship with humanity, all living beings, and the Earth. And especially when our bodies are meanwhile confined to a small space, we’re prone to stew in this despair.

In short, it’s hard for human beings – savanna-animals that we are – to stay sane while living in a window, let alone a crowded one, let alone one opening only to a filtered, fragmented, miniaturized, disembodied, overwhelming surreality. Trying to make a home in that kind of context can easily sap the essence of what home is supposed to be: a center of gravity rather than a collision of forces, a peaceful harbor amidst the storm of global turmoil, a place of rest and freedom. Thus the pandemic left us dislocated and displaced.

So how do we now re-locate? How do we find home and havens again? And what about pilgrimages?

What We Can Do: Location, Location, Location

When it comes to pilgrimages, we can keep up the good work:

  • Focus on exploring more local and natural beauty, and on treating travel as a spiritual, ceremonial act.

This can also help us gain an expanded awareness of home and the possibilities for havens, mitigating the adverse mental health effects of the Pandemic Era.

In terms of havens, we may also need to continue what we’re already doing, though each of us likely has more to do here:

  • Finding new ones, reconnecting with old ones, and staying connected to any that have been significant to us in the last few years, especially those in Nature.

Since the coronavirus hit, most of us have been through a significant realignment in our social lives. We might now feel less attached to the same friends or community we did before, and uncertain of how to tend to those relationships going forward. We might be even less certain of where to find new havens on the other side of the pandemic. But for those of us who do have havens established:

  • We need to invite folks who are currently adrift into our friend and community contexts, and welcome them in with hospitality.

We’ll examine these questions more in Touchstone 9 on “village life,” and you can check out this article on recommended practices for building community.[3]

As for our sense of home, after everything we discussed above it may seem like we have our work cut out for us. And we do – we need to resist the newly-normalized everything-from-home standard, and its repercussions from the past few years are a lot to recover from. But when we look at the tangible, day-to-day things we can each do to recover home and resist dislocation, our tasks are actually quite manageable:

  • By returning to pilgrimages and havens, as well as to friends and community generally, we broaden our notion of home and relieve some of the pressure for it to somehow be all things.

  • And by returning to our bodies, we deepen our perspective of home and relieve some of the pressure for technology to be all things.

As individuals and as a culture, it is physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually unhealthy for us to be so extremely online. For evidence, look no further than the effects the tech-saturated, Nature-deprived lifestyle is having on the mental health of young people.[4]

Our bodies offer drastically more fulfillment than most of what we do in front of a screen, and are even closer to us than the gadgets at our fingertips. Rather than limit our amazing physicality to the confines of furniture, air conditioning, slumped postures, and small glowing rectangles, we can instead limit technology.

  • We can draw boundaries around the time that is available to electronically-mediated “life,” and agree that the rest of our lives are for Life – real, living things.

Restraining news and entertainment are one thing, but it may be harder to swim against the tech-tide in community, education, our work-lives. However, the truth is unmistakable: socializing, learning, and working predominantly via screens has always been worse for our mental and physical health than interacting with the real world of objects, people, and environment.[5]

Tech’s flashiness, fun, and convenience in the 21st century economy are not good enough reasons to let it swallow our every activity. And these boons are definitively outweighed by the under-acknowledged harm (see Touchstone 9). This is especially true of social media. We lose creativity, productivity, and focus– Life – when we’re treated as, and absorbed into, always-on machines. Furthermore, the data from the Pandemic Era compels us to abandon the fully-virtual paradigm. While the research on remote work shows it’s nice to have it as one option (again, see Touchstone 9), it fails us as the only one. The data on remote schooling is even more conclusive: overall it was detrimental to learning, really only helpful as a stopgap and not as a substitute for the real deal.[6]

  • For students to learn well, teachers to teach well, families to stay sane, and communities to cohere, most kids and adult learners must physically go to a classroom outside the home.

In summary, fully-online arrangements may seem efficient on their face, but are not efficient, nor human-friendly, in the long-run. Still, the hype about doing everything from home, not to mention about ceding more of ourselves to media and social media, will continue circulating in our cultural bloodstream. Our homes are the frontlines of this effort, and the places where it can actually be easiest and most effective.

  • We have to stay inoculated against the hype, constraining tech rather than letting it constrain us.

  • We can enforce hours during which screens are unavailable.

  • We can keep devices covered, out of high traffic places, and off our person.

  • If we must work from home, we can keep our office doors locked outside of hours, or otherwise maintain rituals that separate work time from other time (this is one of the benefits of having a work-site away from home and a commute on which to transition there).

  • And all these measures can give us firmer footing as we advocate for humanity over technology in our workplaces, classrooms, and communities.

If we can take these bold steps, we’ll restore our homes to places for restoration. We’ll turn our living spaces from "windows" back to real sanctuaries, declutter them, and insulate them from the tyranny of a screened-in existence. We’ll strengthen the integrity of the hubs that center us, so we can reconnect to havens and pilgrimages, spokes and rims, and bring balance to the wheel of our lives once more.

Stay tuned for Part 8: Support Structures – Radical Presence!

If you’re looking for more practical insights before then, check out the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub on my website. And if you’re looking for ways to help the Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination effort ASAP, share that Hub page and share this blog with people you know, especially if they’re struggling with these things or are a leader who can make a difference in your community.

Works Cited, Further Reading
  1. 2022 outdoor participation trends report. Outdoor Industry Association. (2022, September 19).

  2. Ciaunica, A., McEllin, L., Kiverstein, J., Gallese, V., Hohwy, J., & Woźniak, M. (2022). Zoomed out: Digital Media use and depersonalization experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. Scientific Reports, 12.

  3. Bard, B. (2022, February 11). Simple structure for your spirituality – part 3: Exercises for finding community. InVocation.

  4. Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12, 271–283. ScienceDirect.

  5. Park, J. H., Moon, J. H., Kim, H. J., Kong, M. H., & Oh, Y. H. (2020). Sedentary lifestyle: Overview of updated evidence of potential health risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 41(6), 365–373.

  6. Anderson, M., Faverio, M., & McClain, C. (2022, June 2). How teens navigate school during covid-19. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

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