Couples murmur as they pass sculptures and paintings. Maps rustle and camera shutters click. A father whispers to his young daughter about what's on the screen of their iPad, trying to stave off boredom from their perch on thick stone steps.
These are the sounds of most tourist attractions in Florence, Italy, but this one is supposed to be different. “Silence. Respect. This place is sacred,” the glowing electric signs read. They create beacons of red and blue artificial light in the midst of Basilica di Santa Croce's many shadows.
I wonder who needs to be reminded.
Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. | Kelsey Dallas
Sacredness has always seemed obvious to me. It’s tall ceilings, stained glass windows and flickering candles. It’s heads bowed in prayer and a sense of awe.
At the more than 500-year-old Santa Croce, sacredness is also the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo, two men famous for the marks they left on the Catholic Church. It was the battered, dark blue and red cross hanging in one of the small chapels near the sanctuary, the shape of Jesus still visible on its painted surface, in spite of water damage.
Sacred space is a physical structure full of religious symbols. But people who've seen it or worshipped inside it know that it's also comprised of special behaviors, such as silent reflection or the ritual of communion. Visitors to places like Santa Croce have rules to follow because sacredness is created and maintained, at least in part, by the boundaries we place around it.
"Religion seems to depend upon separating the sacred and profane,” said the Rev. Terrance Klein, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ellinwood, Kansas.
Boundaries that govern sacred spaces, whether they limit entrance or mandate silence, can seem arbitrary, but they’re profoundly tied to how people of faith understand their relationship with the divine, according to the Rev. Klein and others who have studied the concept of sacredness. They push us out of the chaos of daily life and into deeper connection with God and each other.
"There's a human need to know when you're encountering God. One way or another every religious group says it's because you've stepped into a certain area or it's this time of day," the Rev. Klein said.
The power of that encounter doesn’t go away when outsiders enter. It can alter tourists, too, even if they just stopped in to admire a sanctuary's architecture, said the Rev. Rose Duncan, canon for worship at Washington National Cathedral.
"When people come to visit, they may see (the cathedral) as a destination almost like a museum. But what happens is they have the opportunity to be invited in to worship,” she said.
What is sacred?
Some of the world’s most famous sacred places, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, became important spiritual sites because of people’s beliefs about what happened there in the past.
"What makes a place sacred, at least initially, is that the gods have shown themselves there,” said Richard Hecht, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He offered Ayers Rock in Australia as an example, where aboriginal tribes believe their gods manifested themselves.
Other spaces, including most churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, are sacred because of what happens in them today. God is invited in through prayer, songs and other rituals.
Separation from the secular world is a key part of sacredness, said the Rev. Klein, a former professor of theology at Fordham University. When people cross over the threshold into a house of worship, they are expected to feel and behave differently.
This separation is a way of saying, "Now we're in the presence of God,” he said.
Our understanding of proper separation can evolve over time. For example, before the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, “the sacred was so sacred that only the clergy could be right there witnessing what was happening at the altar," the Rev. Klein noted. Vatican II broke down some of the barriers between clergy and lay people.
Although most religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, teach that worship doesn’t need to be confined to a church or chapel, setting apart sacred space enables these traditions to create somewhere for people to intentionally connect with the divine, the Rev. Klein added.
“These religions say God is everywhere. But they also ask, ‘How do we focus our attention?’ They do that with sacred space,” he said.
Why boundaries matter
As I walked with hundreds of other tourists through St. Peter's Basilica in September, a stern young man stared at me from his post near the entrance to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. His job was to sort out genuine worshipers from other Basilica guests, in order to ensure only members of the former group accessed the space.
My bright blue headset and the iPhone I clutched in my hand made his job easy. I was stuck outside the wooden dividers placed a few yards from the chapel's entrance, and I squinted to see the chapel's ornate altar, with its golden angels and lapis lazuli accents.
Boundaries like the chapel guard are about practicality and protecting sacredness, noted the Rev. Klein, who helped lead worship services at St. Peter’s while he was a seminary student in Rome.
“You have so many people moving in and out. They're trying to reserve a place for people who have come there just to pray,” he said.
Other precautions ensure that visitors won’t — whether knowingly or unknowingly — mock one of the church’s rituals. For example, the Rev. Klein was required to place communion wafers on people’s tongues rather than in their hands during worship services at St. Peter’s.
“We don’t want the consecrated eucharist to end up in a photo album,” he said.
Basilica visitors are kept away from the main altar and confessionals by velvet ropes. The area under the church's dome, which is spacious enough to fit the Statue of Liberty standing up, is empty on one side of these barriers and overrun on the other. People jostle one another for the best camera angle, losing track of their tour groups.
Limitations like these ropes made me worry about the impression I was leaving on true religious pilgrims, or people who felt called by their commitment to Catholicism to visit St. Peter's. As I frantically transcribed my tour guide's facts and took photos, these spiritual tourists made their way to the statue of St. Peter, kissing or touching his metal foot, which has been worn down by thousands of other pilgrims doing the same.
I saw a woman try to leave a rose at the tomb of St. John Paul II and her look of anguish when the guard told her it wasn't permitted. I saw people content to look around and soak in the marble columns and high archways, as I fretted about which sculptures were worth a picture. I was humbled by the show of devotion while worrying about the mundane.
My dual reactions are a natural response to sacred space, Hecht noted. The boundaries around them are as much about the people they allow in as the people they keep out.
"Your ability to control access to a place is perhaps the most important part of sanctity," he said.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only those who have a recommend can enter the temple after it's been dedicated. In some Catholic churches, people who aren’t baptized and confirmed are asked to step out of the sanctuary before the sacrament of communion.
Strict boundaries like these can strengthen the bonds between people allowed inside, Hecht added, noting that creating boundaries around a sacred space “is an effort to create a community."
Additionally, restrictive boundaries can be more meaningful to cross. When we create boundaries consciously and know why they’re in place, “they can be powerful,” the Rev. Klein said.
Crossing the divide
Because of the important role boundaries play in sustaining religious communities, it may be surprising how many faith groups are willing to let people cross them. But enabling tourists to see St. Peter's Basilica or allowing community members to visit a newly constructed Mormon temple can bridge religious differences and invite people into a deeper relationship with the divine, the Rev. Duncan noted.
In August and early September, 141,000 people, including 70,000 non-Mormons, walked through the newly constructed Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple. Secular media outlets like Religion News Service reported on the open house, raising awareness of the temple's design and purpose before it was closed to outsiders at a dedication on Sept. 18.
A group of visitors line up to take a tour of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Philadelphia, Pa. on Aug. 10, 2016. | Alan Murray
Open house guests see a temple's spotless sitting rooms, chandeliers and areas where brides and grooms get ready for their sealing ceremony. They're also welcomed into the "celestial room," seeing how bright light and ornate fixtures greet those looking for a final few moments of peace and silent reflection before they return to the outside world.
Sacred spaces are often also incredibly beautiful places, and the people who govern them take that into account when deciding to share them with outsiders, the Rev. Klein said.
“Even a person who doesn't believe in God at all ought to be able to see St. Peter's. It's a triumph of the human spirit, if nothing else,” he said.
And tourist-like interest isn’t limited to the famous churches of Rome and Florence. Nearly 117,000 U.S. congregations report that visitors come to their house of worship just to see the building and its artwork, according to a new study on what religious groups add to American society.
The Rev. Duncan, who oversees worship services at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., said she has few qualms about the tens of thousands of non-Episcopalians flowing through the cathedral each year.
"There's always the opportunity, in my mind, for someone to experience God here," she said. "We only ask that during the time people are worshipping, (visitors) respect that and uphold the sacred nature of our time together.”
Tourists may walk away from their visit with a few pictures and historical facts about the space, or they may be changed spiritually. The Rev. Duncan recently heard about a visitor to the National Cathedral who learned of the death of their uncle while they were on a tour.
“They thought they’d be here for 30 minutes and ended up spending three hours,” she said. “They got this sense that God was present with them.”
As the Rev. Duncan's story illustrates, sacred spaces comfort people in pain or in mourning. They also offer other, more subtle benefits to the tourists allowed inside, as I learned during my own recent visit to the National Cathedral.
I made my way to the church's entrance by navigating an obstacle course of field games. Dozens of girls, from around age 6 to 18, dressed in purple and yellow, threw balls to one another, shrieking and smiling and enjoying the sunshine.
By comparison, the cathedral was quiet and shadowed. There were illicit whispers exchanged between guests and a distant baby's cries, but the decrease in noise from the grass outside to the main worship space was shocking. My mouth may actually have dropped open in disbelief.
The long aisle of the cathedral's main sanctuary, speckled with blue and purple light shining in from stained glass windows overhead, was visually stunning. I no longer cared about how sticky I was from a long and sweaty walk because I was so grateful to have made time for this space in my short trip to the nation's capital.
It’s relatively common for the boundary between the sacred and ordinary to be marked by a change in noise level, Hecht said. “I think it’s part of responding to the awe of a sacred place. You have to be quiet."
I was aware of this fact, but as I walked down the main aisle of the National Cathedral, I was still overwhelmed. It's hard to get used to sacred spaces, no matter how many times you visit them.
Inside the cathedral, a worship service was starting. I sat in a hard, wooden pew and listened to a sermon on drawing people to religious practice at a time when many people are dropping out. I put my phone away and tried not to worry about how long it would take me to get back to my hotel.
Time slows down when you're somewhere like the National Cathedral. The stained glass windows, sculptures and stonework cry out to be noticed, but only the worship leaders and a few random tourists can be heard.3 comments on this story
Sacred space offers a sense of calm to counteract the storm of modern life. It invites people to reflect on art and architecture, spirituality and the divine, drawing them away from smartphone notifications and social media.
As I stood up and walked to the door, moving toward the crying baby and excited schoolgirls, I heard one of the final moments of the service broadcast over the cathedral's speakers.
"The Lord be with you," the pastor said.
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