Weathered stone butte in desert landscape
Candlestick Tower, Canyonlands National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2021)

The sacred has its places. Belden Lane tells stories of some of these places as he takes readers to where myth and terra firma intersect. Along the way, he demonstrates how narrative gives places their sacred character. “Above all,” he begins the first chapter, “sacred place is storied place” (15).

Lane is an apt guide through the stories of sacred landscapes in America. Besides his training as a church historian with an interest in the history of spirituality, he is an engaging storyteller. Early in the book, for instance, he recounts his periodic retreats to a favorite state park. He says, “My attachment to the place has grown proportionately to the stories I’m able to tell of it—tales of eagles sighted along the bluffs, the scream of a wildcat heard in the dark of night, the memory of problems resolved through hours of sitting beside running water. I have come to love this place.” He expected to find God in the woods, “expecting God’s voice to echo in the rustle of every stirring leaf” (16). But such expectations were frustrated until chance encounters revealed holiness in the unexpected. On one occasion, “Having spent the day searching for mana, for mystic voices, a luminous encounter with the Other, I met simply a deer.” Their momentary meeting brought fulfillment and “an enormous joy” (18).

Lane uses stories to illustrate four axioms of sacred place. First, that it chooses us rather than vice versa. Second, ordinary places become sacred in ritual. Third, recognition of a sacred place is related to one’s state of consciousness. Finally, sacred place is at once both local and universal. These insights frame a series of historical cases and personal tales. They demonstrate the importance of emplacement in our understanding of spirituality. Lane reminds us that the sacred has its places in the geographies of America.

Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

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