Finding my Soul through the Power of Place
A skeptic discovers that world’s sacred bites bring epiphany and peace, and a surprising sense of awe
by Jay Walljasper
Published in Notre Dame magazine
The turning point in my long, bumpy and still-unfinished spiritual journey began on a bright summer day when I exited a busy highway outside Sturgis, South Dakota, and headed north into the seemingly infinite horizon of the Great Plains. I was in my 20s and quite certain the Catholic faith of my catechism classes was inconsequential compared to modern progress with its scientific, rational explanations for all things.
Freshly hired as a travel editor at Better Homes & Gardens magazine, I had flown into Rapid City that morning to research a story about the Black Hills. The new job suited me perfectly. Always a restless soul, I began exploring new places almost as soon as I could walk, prompting my parents on one occasion to panic when I wandered away on a downtown street at age 3. Now I was getting paid to see the world.
This assignment, however, did not thrill me. I imagined the Black Hills as a tourist wasteland: Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug cheek-by-jowl with RV parks and Burger Kings. What I discovered instead was a whole new perspective on the universe — although it took me years to recognize it.
A guide from the Black Hills Tourist Bureau met me at the airport and announced that we had a lot of important tourist attractions to cover that day. We headed immediately to Bear Butte State Park, which rises from the flat Dakota prairie northeast of the Black Hills. As we approached, I stared transfixed through the windshield. It did look, as the legends say, like a sleeping bear.
I leapt out of the truck, notebook in hand, to investigate the mountain and soon came across a young Native American man tying small parcels to tree branches. My guide from the tourism bureau explained they were spiritual offerings.
Starting up the steep trail, I experienced a weird sensation. It was like déjà vu mixed with the exuberance you feel on a rainy day when sunlight suddenly appears from behind the clouds. Everything seemed different. Time slowed down, and each rock or bush I glanced at was infused with special meaning.
It was not an altered state — more like a heightened sense of ordinary existence, an exciting twist on reality. Trained to be skeptical as a journalist and thoroughly steeped in a secular sensibility, I was baffled. Could too much coffee on the airplane explain these feelings? Or the change in altitude? No. There was definitely something going on at Bear Butte. But what? And why? I hadn’t the faintest clue.
The only thing I knew for sure was that I could not explain this to eight million readers of Better Homes & Gardens — or to my editors back at the office. Mystical experiences don’t really happen in the modern world, at least not to people like me.
Later I learned that archaeological records show humans have gathered at Bear Butte for at least 10,000 years, and that as many as 30 North American Indian tribes consider the mountain sacred. For the Cheyenne, it is Noahvose, the center of the universe where the Great Spirit passed elemental knowledge to the prophet Sweet Medicine, which became the basis of their religious and moral life. The courage of the Lakota leader Crazy Horse is said to have been prophesied in a vision revealed to his father on “Mato Paha” (Bear Mountain, as it is known to the Lakota).
Jim Jandreau, the first Native American park manager at Bear Butte, noted, “Everyone that comes off this mountain, it doesn’t matter if they are Indian or non-Indian . . . are changed spiritually and morally. They may not know it when they drive out of the gate, but that stays with them.”
That’s certainly true for me. I vividly remembered that day, playing it over and over in my mind until I gradually softened in my belief that the world was simply inert matter and that any talk of a spiritual dimension to life was woo-woo nonsense.
Something similar happened in Sweden a few years late when I was covering elections for Utne Reader magazine. I had a free day and decided to inspect a Viking burial ground near the university town of Uppsala. The spot was lovely: sloping grassy hills dotted with trees, and a cozy Lutheran church that staked a Christian claim to this pagan site.
As I strode toward the nearest of three large burial mounds I noticed something odd. This place was nothing like Bear Butte — not topographically, not historically, not ethnically — yet I was overcome with a similar mix of feelings. Wandering around the site for almost an hour in a mood of joyful aimlessness, I felt intensely connected to this patch of earth in a faraway country.
Again, I discovered only later that the place was once a spiritual center, the site of a major pagan temple. It was reputed to be the home, depending on which medieval texts you consult, of either the Norse goddess Freya (who we honor every Friday, Freya’s Day) or the most powerful Viking god, Odin (or Woden, who is remembered each Wednesday). In 1164, it was chosen as the seat of Sweden’s first Catholic archbishop, and 825 years later John Paul II celebrated Mass there on the first ever papal visit to Scandinavia.
Through the years, strange stirrings continued to strike me in places I was lucky enough to visit. The ruins of Apollo’s Temple in Delphi, Greece. An abandoned monastery in Croatia. An old Spanish mission in Arizona.
Sometimes I also feel inexplicable surges of energy in areas closer to home. Madeline Island in Lake Superior, holy to the Ojibwe, where our family rents a house for a week every summer. The confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, the center of the universe according to the Dakota people, which lies just a few miles from my house in Minneapolis. The Basilica of Saint Mary, just up the street, where I sought refuge several times when personal crises threatened to overwhelm me.
These places have nothing in common except that they are recognized as sacred in some religious tradition and that I felt deeply aware and alive when setting foot there.
This is no profound insight of mine alone. Almost all societies hold particular places holy —from humble houses of worship and burial sites to entire cities (Mecca, Jerusalem), mountains (Fuji, Olympus) and landscapes (the Four Corners region, Tibet’s Lake of Heaven).
Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of world myths, once remarked, “The idea of the sacred place . . . is apparently as old as life itself.” Indeed the most ancient written tale, which can be traced back 5,000 years to the Middle East, tells the story of Gilgamesh, who forces his way into a holy cedar grove, destroying the trees to build himself a palace. Gilgamesh then endures a string of tragedies, perhaps as punishment.
Today we associate sacred sites with non-Western religions, especially the nature-centered beliefs of indigenous people. Yet Catholicism itself is rich with holy places: the sacred wells of Ireland, the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, shrines to Francis of Assisi and Our Lady of Guadalupe, sites of revelations such as Fatima and Lourdes, magnificent cathedrals around the world and the city of Rome.
Some people might include places that have spiritually enriched their own lives, such as a favorite tree or chapel. For many Notre Dame grads, the Grotto, lakes, Dome, Basilica, quads or, without too much exaggeration, the sacred turf of Notre Dame Stadium might qualify. “There is an element of pilgrimage in the hoopla of a football weekend,” says ND President John Jenkins, CSC.
The Celtic tradition offers the evocative phrase “caol áit” (thin place) to describe parts of the earth that seem to bring us closer connection to the past, to heaven, to God. Mindie Burgoyne, an American who leads tours of mystical sites in Ireland, describes them as “places where the veil between this world and the other world is thin.” In these settings, she says, we sometimes “sense the existence of a world beyond what we know through our five senses.”
Burgoyne’s interest in thin places was sparked on a trip to Ireland when she became lost one evening in the countryside of Tipperary and pulled to the side of the road. While her traveling companions consulted the map, she got out to inspect the ruins of an old monastery there. At first it felt “creepy,” she recalls, then she began to wonder: Who lived here? Who touched these stones? Who prayed here? What kind of yearnings did they have? Why did the monks choose this site to build their monastery? Suddenly she heard her friends shouting, “How long are you going to keep us waiting?” They said she’d been wandering for half an hour — to Burgoyne it felt like a couple minutes.
Researchers exploring the outer boundaries of psychology, geology and physics attempt to explain scientifically why people report strange sensations or mystical insights in certain places. Their theories focus on areas located near fault lines or that register high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity, electromagnetic fields or positively charged ions, all of which have been shown to evoke a response in some humans.
Other causes have been singled out for particular spots held sacred by native peoples: the waters of Indian Hot Springs in Texas contain high levels of dissolved lithium; the Serpent Mounds in southern Ohio were built atop a unique geological formation created by either a meteorite or a volcano.
“There are more than a dozen factors that contribute to the presence of energy at the sacred sites,” notes Martin Gray, the author of Sacred Earth, who has spent 20 years studying and photographing such places for National Geographic and other publications. “It is the combination of a number of these factors, rather than just one, that catalyzes the psychological and physiological effects in human beings.
“Not having scientific devices to measure the high-energy fields of these sites, how did prehistoric people determine their precise location?” Gray asks. “Ancient people, living in harmony with the earth and dependent upon its bounty for all their needs, may have developed skills that modern people no longer use, cultivate or even recognize.”
Gray provides a plausible reason for why my wife, Julie, and I once hopped off a tour bus in Iceland and scampered euphorically across a remote meadow as if we’d arrived in the Promised Land. It wasn’t just because we were on our honeymoon. The meadow, called Thingvellir, is cherished by Icelanders as a national shrine, the place where tribal chieftains gathered in 930 A.D. to establish an open-air parliament that continued to meet in that spot until 1789. The meadow also happens to occupy a location charged with geological energy — a fault line where the tectonic plates underlying Europe and North America meet.
Dr. Michael Persinger, a psychology professor at Laurentian University in Ontario, spent years studying people’s experience in sacred places as well as sightings of Mary and UFOs. His research shows that natural energy fields can sometimes produce “dream-like imagery.” Persinger likens these experiences to what he calls the “2 a.m. wow” — the thrill that arises when you finally figure out the solution to a nagging question.
“That feeling you get when it all comes together results from normally occurring excitation in the amygdala, one of the brain’s seats of memory,” he told science writer Winifred Gallagher. “Imagine that you are out walking through the boonies in some special place that has a magical reputation. Suddenly, a natural force, perhaps set off by a geomagnetic storm, kicks in and gives you a much more powerful version of that revelation. It’s no wonder that most people rate these ‘sacred places’ events as very meaningful.
“You have to wonder how many historical events,” he adds, “have been shaped by religious interpretation of freak events.”
That offers a logical answer for what has happened to me in various places, which ought to clear up any mystical confusion and reaffirm my youthful faith in a tidy rational explanation for everything that happens in the world. Yet my own observations of what I experienced (which is the original meaning of the scientifically hallowed word “empirical”) makes it impossible for me to revert to a wholly secular view of the world. That’s because in recent years the spots where I felt the strongest, most sudden waves of spiritual connection have not been at places with extraordinary geophysical properties. They’ve been at Catholic churches.
I am not devout by most people’s definition yet I consider myself a Catholic, partly on the basis of cultural tradition and partly because of what often happens when I slip into a church or visit a shrine.
It’s well known that many Catholic churches and monasteries were built on the site of temples or sacred groves where people had long worshipped. A second century pagan tomb has been excavated below Saint Peter’s basilica, and another of Rome’s celebrated churches, Saint Clement’s, was built atop a temple honoring the pagan sun god, Mithras. One of America’s leading Catholic pilgrimage sites, a chapel in Chimayo, New Mexico, where the soil is said to have healing powers, is infused with Native American traditions. Even here in Minnesota, Old Saint Peter’s Catholic church in Mendota — the state’s oldest church in continuous use — sits on bluffs right above the junction of rivers that Dakota Indians believe is the center of the universe.
In his book The Catholic Imagination, priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley notes, “Catholicism (again, in its better moments) has not hesitated to make its own the practices, customs and devotions of the nature religions where it has encountered them.” Yet I seriously doubt there is a legacy of indigenous worship in some of the ordinary parish churches where I’ve experienced epiphanies that help me meet the challenges of fatherhood, career, marriage and my own self-doubts.
The first time I felt an unexpected flash of insight inside a church was, appropriately enough, on a swing through Rome, where I changed planes on the way home from Croatia. My father, hearing that I would be passing through Rome, urged me to visit Saint Peter’s. “I know you are not much for churches,” he said, “but it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.”
He had been stationed in Italy during World War II and fell in love with the country, the people and the churches in a way you would not expect in a working-class kid from the Midwest. I remember reading the eloquent letters he wrote home to students at Saint Mary’s grade school in Fort Madison, Iowa, asking them to pray for all the Italian priests who had seen their churches destroyed during the war.
At that point in my life, I avoided churches. I had become comfortable waxing poetic about the majesty and mystery of pagan sites, but walking into a place reminiscent of all the doctrines lectured about in catechism class made me uneasy. The popular theological badge of my generation — “spiritual but not religious” — fit me well.
But I followed my father’s advice and booked a ticket to stay over a few extra days in Rome, where I dutifully visited Saint Peter’s. He was right — the cathedral was outrageously beautiful. I studied Michelangelo’s Pietà with awe, marveled at the rich colors in Bernini’s magnificent marble floors and kissed the bronze foot of Saint Peter, which my father always talked about. But it was on the way back to my hotel that a new chapter in my relationship to Catholicism opened.
My wife, Julie, and I were both weary — probably museum fatigue from surveying Saint Peter’s splendors, plus our newfound European habit of wine at lunch — so we slipped into little Saint Bartholomew’s church on an island in the Tiber River. I quickly nodded off in the front pew then awoke to the sound of a voice in my head, offering an invitation: “Now, you are able to rest.”
What in the world did that mean, I wondered? Was it foretelling imminent disease or death? Only when I got home did it dawn on me that the message might really be about rest — relaxing, kicking back, taking it easy. That seemed frightening, too. By nature, I do not kick back. The same restlessness that drives me to explore the world also makes me leery of taking it easy. I might miss out on something.
I tried to file the experience at Saint Bartholomew’s in the “Interesting But Not Important” compartment of my mind and go about my business, hoping that was the end of it. But like what happened at Bear Butte, I continued to replay the event in my mind.
I must confess that I did not immediately adopt a new leisurely lifestyle, but I did start visiting churches now and then. At first, it was always when Mass was not in session, but now I venture in on Sunday mornings, too.
Once, sitting in Saint Mary’s Basilica in Minneapolis, I felt almost as if I were observing the church from above — the Gothic-style arches, white stone walls, the statue of Mary shining in the sunlight, me kneeling down in the pews.
Another time, in the chapel at The College of Saint Catherine in Saint Paul, I picked up a scrap of yellow paper printed with a Buddhist prayer, which I still recite regularly:
May I be at peace. May my heart remain open. May I awaken to the light of my own true nature. May I be healed. May I be a source of healing for all beings.
I am grateful for extraordinary experiences like these, but even more happy about the simple peace and sense of connection to the world I often feel in the pews of various churches. And if I sit still long enough an answer might appear — sometimes to a question I fervently ask and sometimes to one that I did not realize was on my mind. I can’t help but believe God is reaching out to me in those moments, even if I can’t explain how.
Holy sites from other religious traditions along with natural wonders also instill me with a sense of the sacred, but Catholic places affect me with the most intensity and regularity. Andrew Greeley would ascribe this to a “Catholic imagination” — a sensibility nurtured by family, cultural and religious influences that shape your view of the world no matter where you eventually land on the spiritual spectrum.
Yet outside of my not-frequent-enough visits to church, I remain a restless soul, hurrying to this event, racing to finish that project, anxious to see all that I can see in one lifetime. I suppose that’s my own true nature — the one I pray to awaken to the light of.
Now I am exploring the idea that sacred places may be far more prevalent than I ever imagined. Greeley celebrates the “Catholic instinct to believe that all space is sacred” — a view shared by Presbyterian theologian Daniel Deffenbaugh, whom I met while on a retreat at Saint John’s Abbey in the northwoods of Minnesota. “God is present in all things,” Deffenbaugh offered one morning as we ate breakfast in the guesthouse. “And you can read the landscape for meaning the same as you read scripture.”
For Deffenbaugh, who is also a Benedictine Oblate, sacred places exist anywhere “the eternal breaks into ordinary time and space.” That made perfect sense to me as I gazed out the guesthouse window at a brightly painted chapel surrounded by pines on the far shore of a snow-covered lake.
It’s dawned on me that the greatest value of holy places — from the Taj Mahal to Saint Peter’s to Bear Butte — is not their spiritual power to inspire awe in us but the experience of the divine they offer, which helps us discover what’s sacred everywhere else in the world.
That’s how it felt to me on a frantic-as-usual Saturday last spring when I woke up in a snit wondering how I was going to get everything done that day, especially with a nasty cold coming on. Things could not get worse, I thought, until remembering my son had a jazz class, which meant driving him a half-hour to Saint Paul and waiting two hours before driving back home.
My wife had an appointment at that time, so I grumpily packed my son, his stand-up bass, his friend who plays drums and my laptop computer into the car and took off for the music school, sneezing all the way. Instead of heading into a coffee shop to do some work — I felt too rundown — I found myself drawn along the sidewalk toward the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a Catholic basilica built on a commanding spot overlooking the Mississippi River. Inside the gorgeous church, which was being decorated for Easter services the next day, my irritability and stress seemed to melt away; even my sniffles improved. I sat there, luxuriating in the fact that I was just sitting there, doing nothing.
As I strolled back to pick up the kids, I wondered what all my earlier fuss had been about. It was a beautiful day. Everyone was happy about the sunny spring weather. Kids giggled as they played in the park, even the dogs were grinning. How had I missed all this on the way over to the cathedral? Getting closer to the music school, I noticed how spruced up the neighborhood, once considered some of Saint Paul’s meanest streets, looked. A bird sat on a branch singing. A family sat on their porch talking.
“Aha!” I realized — this is sacred ground. I resisted the urge to genuflect but walked the rest of the way with extra bounce in my step.