Blog: Sacred Space on the Winter Solstice

Blog: Sacred Space on the Winter Solstice

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

I recently spoke to a friend whom I had not really connected with since the pandemic started. We had barely said hello when he burst out with this question, “You have not had to sell the Sacred Stream Center, have you?” I was a bit surprised by the force of his question. I said, “No, it is still there. Largely empty since we spoke, but still there.”

“That is so important,” he said. “With condos going up everywhere, we are losing our sacred spaces. It is so important to keep sacred space safe these days.”

As I sit in the garden of the Sacred Stream Center, watching the Japanese maple’s leaves float down in a constant stream of burgundy and yellow in the low afternoon light of the winter solstice season, I reflect on his words. There were many times over the last three years where I wondered what new phase this building, built 105 years ago, was passing through. Built as a Lutheran church and community center for the Finnish immigrant community making its home in West Berkeley in the early 1900s, it has weathered many events, including another pandemic. I wondered if it sat empty during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 as well.

We have had a few in-person classes at this point, but it is not clear that people are ready to come back together. In spite of Zoom fatigue, many people still choose to stay online for classes when they could relatively easily come to the Center. I wonder what the future will bring for this beautiful, very sacred space as this time of non-local interaction continues to take hold and expand its grip on our social discourse.

One thing I do know is that the building has held sacred space for all of us during this complex time of change, dissolution and challenge. As I have continued to teach out of the sanctuary on Zoom, I have felt the power of this sacred space infusing the teachings and supporting students all around the world. In some ways, its role as a refuge and a reminder of the sacred has expanded. As I see all the notices for new condo developments about to rise just blocks away, I feel even more committed to safeguarding and cultivating the peace and heart of the land here.

With so many of the ways we find meaning challenged over the last few years, the importance of cultivating and understanding what is truly sacred to us has been highlighted. Everyone finds meaning in their own ways and everyone encounters the sacred on their own terms. The task is to seek that meaning and that encounter. Even though this is largely an internal exploration, we need reminders, touchstones, in the everyday world to point us inward. Churches and temples provide this.

When I was studying in Paris, I spent most mornings in the nave of Notre Dame. I spent most school vacations hiking to stone circles in Britain: Stonehenge, Avebury, and many lesser-known circles. These places have held the presence of the sacred for millions of people for centuries.

In the stone circles, one of the most striking experiences is the way that time and space meet within these structures. As the winter solstice sun dawns and sets, there are many monuments that mark this sacred moment, this moment when the sun, having stood still in the winter darkness, begins its new journey along the horizon, bringing back the lengthening light to the world. Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Karnak Temple in Egypt, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Pichu in Peru. These are just a few of the sacred spaces that have focused our awareness through time on the magic of the sun’s relationship with the sky and with the earth.

Where would we be without these sacred spaces teaching us as they have taught so many? One thing they show us is how important it is to be in relationship to sacred space and the importance of cultivating the sacred to remind us who we are in relationship with the world around us. We can all create a sacred space where we live or work. A small picture, a candle, a stick of incense, a bell, a stone picked up on a beach, can help mark the boundaries of this space, a space where we can go and reflect on that which is most important to us. This is something we can all do, to allow the space of the sacred to support us as we move through the many seasons of our lives.