StorkNet presents . . . Celia Straus'
StorkNet.com > Columns > Celia Straus ~ Prayers on My Pillow
Creating Sacred Space
for You and Your Children
by Celia Straus
"Sacred space is a space that is transparent to transcendence, and everything within such a space furnishes a base for meditation, even for the youngest child. When you enter through the door, everything within such a space is symbolic, the whole world is mythologized, and spiritual life is possible. This is a place where you can go and feel safe and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you might find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, you will eventually find yourself again and again." ~Joseph Campbell
I first learned about sacred space from my grandmother, Geneal. When I was four years old my family moved to Lafayette, Indiana so that my father could teach ROTC at Perdue University. The Victorian house we rented had a huge wrap around porch and backyard that seemed to go on forever with a flower garden and an apple orchard. There were few young children my age for me to play with, but I had my stuffed animals and dolls and life was pretty good that summer of 1956 until August 4th brought a new baby sister. Christine came into the world, frail and sickly and, to make matters worse, my mother returned home ill herself from a difficult pregnancy and Caesarean birth. It became imperative that her mother, Geneal, would instantly fly from New Delhi where my grandfather was posted by the State Department, to help out.
From the onset of Geneal's arrival it seemed to me that the entire household's attention was focused on what was going on in the freshly blue-wallpapered (Christine was supposed to have been a boy) nursery. The house was invaded by strangers, young officers' wives, who came to help launder loads of diapers and sterilize bottles under the imposing command of my grandmother. I resented them. I resented my bedridden mother and I especially resented my baby sister. I began to try to draw attention back to where it rightfully belonged by being, for the first time in my life, bad. I drew on the walls with my crayons. I took scissors to my pastel ruffled organdy party dress, the one my mother was most proud of making on her sewing machine. I "talked back," and I stopped eating. Meals were taken seriously by our family with everyone expected to be on time, in place and demonstrably appreciative of the fare by cleaning your plate. Once my self-imposed fast was determined to be caused by sheer stubbornness and not a stomach flu, mealtime became tortuous battle of wills often ending with me at the table staring at cold congealed mash potatoes until bedtime.
One morning I wandered into the little den which had been converted into Geneal's bedroom and found her seated, motionless, eyes closed, in front of a table on which were placed the most beautiful and exotic collection of objects I had ever seen: a carved box inlaid with coral and turquoise, a polished stone, an ivory statue of a Hindu goddess, a lighted candle - imagine at ten o'clock in the morning - and burning incense. My presence must have been noticed because Geneal opened her eyes and, beckoning me closer, introduced me to the concept of sacred space. She explained that she took these objects with her wherever she went to create a "special place" where she could be alone and quiet and just "herself." And then, in one of her customary strokes of genius, seeing how fascinated I was, she suggested we find a similar "special place" just for me.
It took only a day or so, looking inside and out, for me to locate my first of many sacred spaces - an old apple tree with twisted branches so low to the ground that even a little girl could climb up and hide among its leaves. I called it my "jiggley wiggley" tree and when I showed it to Geneal for approval, she immediately noticed the deep hole in the trunk where she was quite certain fairies lived. The next day an old bedspread mysteriously materialized that, if hung over the two lowest branches, provided a safe hidey place where I could hold long conversations with my stuffed animals and dolls in complete privacy. At Geneal's suggestion I made cunning little "rooms" for the fairies to use at night when I was asleep out of buttons and sea shells, rocks and sticks decorated with moss and picked flowers. But by far, the most sacred time I spent in that particular sacred space was mealtime. Geneal decreed that, for the next month, I was allowed to eat one meal a day, my choice, breakfast, lunch or dinner, in the jiggley wiggley tree by myself, unattended. And, if I wished, I could eat it on doll dishes. Sibling rivalry gave way to utter bliss.
Thirty years later I confronted a similar situation with my four year old daughter Julia when I brought home her new baby sister, almost two full months premature. I was a little slower on the uptake than Geneal, I like to think due to sleep deprivation, but after a few weeks of temper tantrums, a new fear of the dark and a sudden refusal to eat anything but Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup and brie cheese, I remembered the jiggley wiggley tree. We found the perfect sacred space, a closet big enough to put a cushion in and a light with walls plastered in white just begging to be painted with tempera.
As Julia grew older, her sacred space changed, as did mine when I was growing up. Occasionally, in warm weather, it was outside in the backyard. Sometimes it was an actual three dimensional space like the closet, or her dressing table with its collection of photographs, glass bottles, makeup and basket of hair clips. For a while it was the lower bunk of her bunk bed where she read the prayer poem I wrote every night to help her go to sleep, or simply her memory of a particularly pleasant day on our deck when she was three years old. But always it was and is a shelter for her mind, her body, her emotions, her spirit and her soul.
My sacred space is in my office where I have surrounded myself with photographs of my family, fifteen years of artwork and handmade gifts from both daughters, my collections of stuffed lions, music, books, childhood toys, stones and much more. Besides having personal sacred space in which to meditate, read, think, pray, weep, laugh, write, daydream or simply be, our family has communal sacred space, where one or more of us can go to be in harmony with each other and the environment surrounding us, in our case, a special garden room.
Sacred space is all around us, but in order to benefit from it, both personally and communally, we need to recognize it as such. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree, but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul." I believe we can honor the more formal sacred space of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, while at the same time crafting sacred places of our own. Creating sacred space and teaching our children to do the same is just one more way of maintaining spiritual balance, within ourselves and within our relationships.
I wrote prayer-poems for Julia and Emily describing and celebrating Sacred Space, including this one:
Help me remember that moment of happiness
When I was a child
And my world was a garden,
When I picked wild strawberries alone in the sunlight,
Knowing somehow that my time there was precious.
Help me remember that moment of happiness
When the air stood still
And I walked in grace,
When my heart was dancing and my soul was one
With the beauty around me and the love inside.
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