Sanctuary. A consecrated place. A place of refuge.
The word itself feels safe, reminding us of where we feel secure.
A sanctuary can be mean many things to many people.
Maybe it’s a place, maybe it’s an environment, an open space larger than one place, maybe it’s an activity, a distraction that brings a sense of contentment, escape, or relief.
Maybe it’s a person, the safety of another’s arms.
A mother’s comforting embrace, a place where everything will be ok.
The idea of a sanctuary is religious, but it extends beyond the doctrine and dogma of the church and chapel to the lived experience of every person.
For sanctuary is ultimately not defined rigidly, but by ritual.
It is that place, whatever form it takes, where we go to seek comfort.
It gives of peace, of time and of space.
It resonates with aloneness, where the individual retreats from public life, from the gaze of the other.
But that is but one embodiment of the idea.
For some, sanctuary may be found in the presence of others, an antithesis to aloneness, to loneliness, an escape from oneself, and one’s thoughts, fears, and anxieties.
Sanctuary may be fluid, moving between ideas.
As needs change, so do the places where we seek out safety.
Is it escape? A place we can pause life, take breath, reflect and reenergise before reengaging with the ever-present thrum of life?
William Wordsworth, when gazing upon a butterfly perched upon a leaf, wrote;
“There rest your wings when they are weary. Here lodge as in a sanctuary.”
Sanctuary then could be a moment, one brief moment to escape, and to rest.
The diversity of the sanctuary reflects its psychological importance, the form it takes is unimportant, it is what it gives us that defines the word.
Taking that moment, finding that place of safety, is important, is necessary.
It is mindfulness, but not attention, it is calm, but not relief.
It is pause.
For eight years and one day, fighter pilot Bob Shumaker lay, and for one stretch of twelve days knelt, on the concrete floor of a prison cell in Hanoi. Deprived of social contact, of pen and paper, of his humanity, he found sanctuary within himself, in the one thing his captors could not breach.
He describes the day he ejected from his jet and was captured as the day he was killed.
But he didn’t die, terribly injured, tortured further still, he remained alive.
He was saved by his mind.
His sanctuary, his escape from the reality of his situation was in building in his mind the home he would one day construct and live in. No detail was left out. The engineering calculations, the load bearing strength required by the walls, the drop of the ceiling, the pitch of the roof, all painstakingly worked out in exquisite detail. The fireplace, moved from one room to another, required new calculations, he worked them all out.
He constructed his sanctuary in his mind, literally, brick by brick.
Six years after his release, Bob Shumaker would build that home, exactly as he had imagined it.
And when he lived there, he was reminded of the power of the mind and its ability to offer sanctuary despite the most torrid of circumstances.
We all have those safe places, our mental sanctuaries.
But it is also something of a glib cliché, purveyed by self-help pundits and born-again gurus.
We must be weary of the propagandisation of those inner worlds we retreat to.
They are ours and ours alone.
We must be cautious, and mindful of our sanctuary.
The sanctuary in a church is the most sacred space, reserved for the holy of holies.
The psychological sanctuary should also carry such reverence; but we can be misled.
The sanctuary should be a place for restoring health, for offering a temporary reprieve from the trials of life.
Be mindful that the sanctuary does not become weaponised against us.
A place we go, too often, a retreat from reality, from facing truths which we must confront.
When our safe place is not a place at all, but a way of being which distracts us from our path.
We may turn to places, objects, people, in the belief that they are our sanctuary.
We may be wrong.
Escapism, to forget, to distract, to obscure, to drift away.
That is not sanctuary. It is hell, veiled.
It is madness.
Recently, I spoke of the default mode network. It is the resting state of the brain, where we daydream, idly floating on the current of abstract thought.
And when we seek an answer to a problem, it often comes to us in that haphazard place, of unfocus.
It comes when, of mind and perhaps too of body, we are alone.
Alone with our thoughts, without our thoughts.
That too is sanctuary.
Perhaps the purest of sanctuaries.
When things begin to make sense.
When answers are revealed, or questions become irrelevant.
In a crowded room, or on an open hilltop, solitude can engulf us.
Because solitude is a place in our mind, where sanctuary lives.
The Turkish poet Mehmet Murat Ildan wrote;
Sometimes solitude is a real heaven for the tired minds and a marvellous sanctuary for the wounded souls!
But solitude too has been turned against us.
Enforced solitude, absence, distance, loss.
We have lost something these last years.
That place we retreated to for respite became a place of anguish.
Separated by not only distance, but time.
Slowly, it is passing, but sanctuary now is more important than ever.
It may no longer be indoors, alone, literal.
It may be outside, together, laughing.
It will be needed again.