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Finding Sanctuary in Everyday Hours

Stone Path Through Woods Lined with Fallen Autumn Leaves, Vermont by James Forte

Stone Path Through Woods Lined with Fallen Autumn Leaves, Vermont by James Forte

Once you pass the threshold of this place, you are completely free of the demands of the outside world. Every thread is cut that binds you in time and place to the obligations, incessant voices, schedules and spiritual constrictions of your everyday life. While you are here, whether for a moment, or an hour, or years, no unwanted human-made sounds or lights disturb your solitude. Nothing exists in this place that does not nourish you or that you have not welcomed. You are in sanctuary.

Every day for the past year or so, I have dwelled in sanctuary during daily walks to work on quiet wooded trails. For that hour, I am incommunicado and my only responsibility is to put one foot in front of the other until I reach my office. I remember the same sense of safety and peace from the playtimes of my childhood. Back then, sanctuary was all around me everyday and, in its fertile peace, I flourished. The expectation that such moments are a part of everyday life disappeared in my teens when responsibilities multiplied, the complexity and breadth of the world broke through, and the belief in the divine protective powers of my parents fell away.

Now, decades later, these simple walks have led me most unexpectedly back to sanctuary, an inner and outer place that I had not even realized I missed. Unbelievably, I found this same childhood strength returning and my thinking regaining the clarity of that earlier time when everything seemed so obvious and simple. Solutions to long-pondered dilemmas suddenly alighted on my shoulder, waiting to be recognized. Old nagging doubts disappeared. My vision of my future became focused and inspiring. It was as if I stood still, unchanging, but the world set itself to rights all around me, and I was able to walk literally and figuratively out of the woods into the morning light.

Even more importantly, I find that being in sanctuary leads to a truer and steadier compassion toward myself and others. Dwelling in a place of solitude and safety, I have the calm to see the good intentions and all too human frailty behind my mistakes and those in my life. This is my most prized gift from sanctuary.

In times past, sanctuary was considered necessary, a common good. Even a criminal could enter a church and find asylum. Being a cloistered, contemplative nun or a hermit was considered a sacred and honored calling. In some cultures, women gathered away from the village for the days of their menstruation to spend time together instead of at their daily labors. These were ways people could step outside the toils and turmoil of daily life and into sanctuary. By doing so, they carried out essential emotional and spiritual tasks of and put their world into perspective.

Today, true sanctuary seems to exist no longer; as beneficial as they are, my walks are really only a shadow of sanctuary. Nobody truly has refuge from either environmental devastation or the threat of nuclear war. Wherever I may be, I am almost always subject to the constant demands of cell phones, the internet, and the telephone. When I see magazines full of celebrity gossip, I find no protective boundaries between public and private life; when I notice the person next to me at the airport working on a laptop during a family vacation, I wonder where the traditional lines between work, family, and rest have gone.

Maybe we have even lost the original meaning of the word “sanctuary.” I always thought of it as a temporary escape from what I should truly be doing, moments stolen from being productive and fulfilling obligations to employers and family. Perhaps, instead, sanctuary is a hallowed state outside the reach of the world serving a purpose higher than day-to-day concerns. When I view sanctuary this way, I can envision myself as a sacred being whose natural habitat is a place of contentment, safety, and encouragement of my wisest self.

Perhaps sanctuary is a gift in childhood that must be pursued again in later life once we question assumptions about the importance of attending to daily tasks. I have taken many walks, but during these recent ones to work I found sanctuary because I was ready. The first space where I really comprehended sanctuary’s nature as an adult was a women’s space for gathering circles. Here women are safe to be themselves and talk freely. For an evening, the caring ways of the circle are the world in which we live and society is but a distant and barbaric realm.

Over time, as I became accustomed to being there, I found myself creating other small sanctuaries at home, then at work. On a lower bookshelf in my study is a small area I created to represent my inner sanctuary cave, with tiny statues, small pictures for wall murals, and a tea light for a campfire. Looking at it helps spark a visualized journey when I need to retreat. In my office at work are decorations on each wall to enclose an emotional space that offers some level of imagination among the administrative paperwork. Now when I enter a sanctuary, either of my own creation or naturally occurring like my walking trails, I know it.

Once we have made our own sanctuary, the next step is to help create it outside ourselves, to bring into being a world where sanctuary is celebrated and available to all. To nurture sanctuary in others, I remember to treat them as though perfection is not required or expected. Knowing that mistakes will be understood creates an emotional buffer zone between us and our self-judgment that is itself a kind of sanctuary. I can respect grief and sorrow in others, not always trying to fix or dissolve it. I have found that these deeply sad feelings help us create impenetrable spaces within ourselves that can be immensely healing emotional sanctuaries. Like the women who made the circle space, I can volunteer my time and talents to make physical sanctuaries for women, men, and children, especially those who are battered and belittled.

Like the mama polar bears who build dens under the snow during the winter to give birth and nurture the next generation, we can use this time of year to begin our own inner sanctuary-making and soulful rebirth. Blizzards, ice storms, and cold snaps are perfect excuses to leave behind everyday responsibilities for days at a time. Instead of making lists of all you will need to catch up on, go inside yourself and make a den for your spirit. Then find your sanctuary of childhood and, when you are ready, bring it into the light for yourself and all in your world.

Carolyn Lee Boyd

CAROLYN LEE BOYD is a New Englander who writes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and memoirs celebrating the spirituality and creativity in women’s everyday lives. Over the past three decades, she has published in women’s and feminist literary, art, and spirituality magazines, both in print and online. You may read her occasional musings and published writings, as well as download a free copy of her new novel, at her blogsite, Goddess in a Teapot. You are invited to contact her through her blog’s contact page.

3 comments to Finding Sanctuary in Everyday Hours

  • Asa Spickler

    It is the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I want to read even more things about it!

  • Myrl Tse

    This post about Finding Sanctuary in Everyday Hours | is in fact unusual. But we all have our preconceived ideas concerning stars because they make us all imagine. That which we don’t comprehend is that they also have a life and are individuals at the end of the day. Many thanks for your post
    Myrl Tse

  • Carolyn, This essay touched me in a deep place. I, too, seek sanctuary at intervals during my day, and find these heal and offer clarity in an increasingly congested calendar. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom.

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