metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

September 1995, Volume 3 Nr 1, Issue 25

Seeing Sacred Architecture

There are obvious, culturally recognized sacred spaces such as churches, and less obvious spaces, set aside for art: museums and concert halls. What of other places? What if we were more conscious of mystery when we design, enter, decorate? What if we attempted to sacralize the places of the mundane? May we recognize by design and/or ritual that the places where we live and eat and work and play are also sacred?

Since I consider everywhere to be sacred space, I have come to consider this issue only chapter one on a subject I'll revisit in the future in Metaphoria. This month I'll touch on the metaphors of architectural elements; name hospital spaces as unrecognized vessels for the sacred; and encourage practical personal experimentation to honor sacredness in the day-to-day rooms of your life.

I encourage you to recognize the sacred as it is woven into the everyday. To wonder and conjecture and study why our architecture is as it is, relating to the sacred. And, to sacralize those places where soul seems not to be honored.

Consider some archetypal elements of human architecture, the analogies in external nature and in the internal psychology. Floor. Wall. Window. Pillar. Roof. Door.


A floor is stable ground, firm footing. The base, standing on the earth. A towel spread on the beach, a picnic blanket, a yoga mat: all are floors. Portable and transient, but for now they define space and mark a territory. Permanent floors in our homes perform the same function.

Shakespeare wrote of the entire Earth being a floor - a stage floor upon which the play of life is acted: "All the world's a stage..."

In cultivating awareness, in developing present moment being, our challenge is distraction. Busyness, maya, illusion, addiction, glamour - all distraction. Distraction. Loss of traction, unsure footing. The word implies losing our ground. When we are distracted, we are no longer solid on the floor, the ground, of the present moment.

Some floors which may serve to ground us in our own homes are obvious, such as if we have a space set aside for meditation, or if we practice movement series (Tai chi, yoga, etc.) in a certain place every day. Consider the raised floor of the kitchen table where morning and evening rituals are enacted: cup of tea in quiet morning solitude, or an evening meal with a family (of blood and/or spirit).


A wall, a single wall, defines separation. "A single wall is a layer of information that cuts one space into two." Add even one more wall, opposite or adjoining, and you enclose space. Walls rise from floors and express in and out. Cradle, security ,mask, temple.

There are culturally significant walls such as Hadrian's Wall - which though low enough to step over in places, ran for many, many miles, effectively slicing Britain. The only human made structure that is visible from the moon is The Great Wall of China, which is depicted in the West more as an ancient elevated highway than as a political idea manifested in this enormous structure which had enormous effects on the history of China. The Berlin Wall, the walls around The Warsaw Ghetto, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, all have served purposes perceived as sacred.

Look at a corner, an interior corner, the right angle of two walls meeting. The walls, simultaneously supporting and confronting each other, define a space and focus awareness. In traditional feng-shui, a wealth corner should be made visible from the front entrance. Corner placement both highlights and protects the wealth. Objects placed there should symbolize what you value. Perhaps these would include a religious statue, a family portrait, an heirloom, a green plant.


Consider pillars or columns and most westerners picture classical Greece. Pillars are not as often seen in Europe an and American domestic archi-tecture, nor recognized as pillars when they are. The framing of a house is usually hidden, but it consists of pillars, like many slender people holding up the roof. Look at the walls around you and imagine them like the caryatid porch in Athens which has six women statues carrying the roof on their heads. Fence posts and the posts holding up your own porch roof similarly express the upright strength of human dignity.

In our home, we have two obvious pillars. A birch tree from our land gave two of her several arms to support our second floor. Hand stripped, sanded and oiled, each seems to grow out of the floor and split at seven feet. Each supports the load of a roof and wall at eight feet with one arm. The other arm reaches in front of the wall to soar unencumbered to a cathedral ceiling, sprouting many boughs and sub-branches and twigs. Thus, we have brought into our home not only the traditional wood forms, such as floors and furniture which display color and grain, but also the more organic natural forms of curving branches. Sometimes, they seem like an outsized Ikebana arrangement. More often they remind me of what they are - trees. They embody the essence of pillarness: strength and aspiration.


A roof over one's head, shelter, is a basic human need. "Ceilings are the skies of our interior world." Above our heads, the air moves. In many traditions, the winds of Chi (life energy) are recognized as moving through the home, particularly circulating above, in the free space near the ceiling.

A roof creates the security of shelter. Now, one is protected from harsh sun, and from rain and snow. A roof makes a building a container, an enclosed space. Or it may be a canopy, which allows air and outdoors to circulate, uncontained, yet which still designates whatever is under the canopy as special. Such roof canopies include the chupa under which a Jewish couple stand to be married, and the cloth canopy of a litter chair carried by people or an elephant, and the roof beneath a roof of a canopy bed.


Doors are entrances and also exits. Chi flows through doorways of our homes just as it does through doorways of a body. They are the mouth of a home or other building, taking in and also expressing. There is even a feng-shui principle that the front door have the same proportion to the facade of a home as does a mouth to the face. This doesn't mean a large home should have huge entrance doors, like a church or courthouse. Other landscaping and architectural elements, such as trees, porches, gardens, wide steps and statues, can proportion an entrance, highlight the appropriately human scale door.

A door beckons and welcomes. It is eyes and mouth and arms. A mother may be different doors to her children - she may introduce them to the exciting world beyond her, and she may also be the way back, the door to home.


Windows are obvious eyes, for seeing, and being seen, and light is the element of that vision. Although external light will change following circadian and seasonal rhythms and the changing weather, we have some control over that light coming through our windows. Shutters, shades, the veils and masks and habits we may develop for so many purposes - entertainment, privacy, denial among them.

We may draw the drapes as we close our eyes, or darkness itself may be our shutters, reminding us that it is time for introspection, for ingathering, for the inner visions of dreaming. Windows are also ears. And major organs of a home's respiratory system. Light and air are circulated in and through a house almost exclusively by windows.


As a nurse, and mother of a frequent patient, I have been dismayed by the unimaginative impersonal spaces that hospitals provide. While I appreciate the clean, practical and non-threatening aspects of modern medical architecture, there's something missing. There's little conscious acknowledgment of the sacred, of the profound mystery of birth, healing, illness, death, predation, wonder and faith. These are the day-to-day in a hospital and should be honored. Often they are denied. Hospitals are full of light, light, light. This may be a spiritually infantile response to the darkness that we fear to examine, the dragons of disease we, St. Georges all, draw swords against daily. Light, practically and metaphorically, is necessary and proper in the hospital. Yet, there should also be pockets of deliberate shadow for contemplation, for critical privacy, for healing sleep.

There should be art materials on every floor, in every patient room. And in the nurses conference rooms and the chapel and the resident's rooms too. These are relatively available to children, but seldom to adults, either patients or professionals. Call it art therapy. Call it distraction. Call it busy work. By any name, it may serve to heal and to sacralize the hospital experience.

Our son Dylan's hospital rooms have been personalized with everything from poster paint designs on the windows to dozens of cards taped to the doors, to origami mobiles and flowers and toys and shelves of books and paper and crayons and cassettes...

With over a dozen visits to the operating room, we began to provide simple rituals and amulets to honor the idea of that unique space and what happens there.

Here is a tale from the transplant (when Jozef donated his left kidney to Dylan at age five). Jozef and Dylan were side by side in beds in "pre-op holding". They were already in the initiatory garments (open-backed gowns) and wearing their badges of office (plastic name bracelets). In addition, they each had a small crochet bag I'd made, medicine bundles, filled with rocks from home and written love notes and, of course, kidney beans. I had recorded music for each of them that was played during the operations.

Thus are conscious rituals and unconscious ritualized behavior enacted everyday in American hospitals.

One physician at the newly renovated (and always changing) Childrens Hospital of Boston told me several years ago that food and family are two of the most important elements in patient health at the hospital. Hospital policy strongly encouraged that a family member stay overnight in the child patient's room, and every unit had a kitchen where families could store and prepare meals. Food is rich with nutrient and with metaphor. To make food healthy, we must be aware of both.

Though the recent financial climate has been toward limiting choices at hospitals, patient advocates continue to support programs that link home and hospital at the heart.


Some ideas for recognizing, honoring and creating sacred space:

Wander through your house. Notice how your consciousness changes. What are the typical patterns you walk. Could they be changed to make them richer, more deliberate? Ornamentation, color, texture may enhance the different attributes you want reflected in each room.

Notice how both space and light are sculpted by architecture and furniture. Walls, pillars, ceilings, beams, windows, chairs, tables...all are shaping the space and the light. Would you rearrange furniture, draperies, light fixtures to reshape the shadow, light and space?

There are numerous traditions worldwide that have recognized five sacred elements. The first four are earth, air, fire and water. The fifth may be space, ether, spirit. Try to find objects that represent these elements to you and display them. Be aware of how any individual architectural form or piece of furniture may display all of the elements. Be aware of how you yourself display all the elements.

Notice how remarkably human-scale are the items that surround you. Stair-riser, doorknob, chair seat, faucet handle, door. There are buildings where the scale is different, such as soaring cathedral doors lofty enough for twenty-foot angels. Or in a courtroom, where the judge is high up behind a massive bench, itself raised on a dais. Even in these places most of the seats are simple, human scale, planklike benches.

Pay attention to how the sun lights your rooms. Are the activities within these rooms attuned, like a sunflower, to the sun's journey? Could they be? Sometimes the sunlight is intrusive, such as harsh afternoon sun glaring through western windows. Can you modify your home to take the best advantage of natural light? What about moonlight? Streetlights or city lights may be part of your picture.

Ornamentation that reflects what is sacred to you should be key to your decorating. Beautiful, meaningful elements are more likely to enhance your inner and outer spirituality than the fickle impositions of fashion.

Among the most obvious ways to express the sacred are to bring nature indoors. Houseplants and bowls of fruit, bunches of herbs and flowers. Find twigs, rocks, feathers, shells. Display them as you found them or make something out of them. Remember that what you make need not be conventionally "useful" nor even namable. You honor Mother Earth by recycling such inevitable compost and also by salvaging human discards, such as with broken bottle mosaics or resurrecting old furniture with a penknife and acrylic paint. Alternatively, make simple changes in everyday tools so they may remind you to be mindful, aware. Carve a heart in the handle of your toothbrush and remember to care for yourself, and to find your smile.


Thou unbroken unhurt, and full in size, O Brick grant thou the desired object. I now install thee.

-Ancient scriptural charm to be spoken when laying the first brick of a building.  (India).

He lays down the Invincible Brick. The invincible one being the Earth, it is the Earth he lays down. (India)

Doors possess magical qualities in stories and fairy tales and folklore. They are entrances through which imagination moves.

Robert Sardello

Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a light-house while others were making ships.

C.S. Lewis

The space within the building is the reality of that building.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Go sweep out the chamber of your heart. Make it ready for the dwelling place of the beloved.

Mahmud Shakistu

Architecture is born in the heart.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Integrity is the deepest quality in a building.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Every corner in a house is a symbol of solitude for the imagination.

Gaston Bachelard

We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.

Winston Churchill

Louis Kahn suggested that we have conversations with materials to discover their most appropriate uses. They go something like this:

You say to brick, "What do you want, brick?" Brick says to you, "I like an arch."

You say to brick, "Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?"

Brick says, "I like an arch."

With this example Kahn is telling us that material objects contain information about the ways they can best be used. The brick likes an arch because it is strong when pressed against other bricks. An arch can span a great distance simply by letting a group of bricks press one against the other, allowing a heavy lump of clay to fly through the air in a beautiful curving shape. By understanding the qualities that give the brick its individuality, we can bring out its true nature and use it in glorious ways...

The simplest most direct method of creating sacredness into everyday surrounding s is cleaning. I know this activity is usually relegated to the realm of drudgery, but it can become a practical means of infusing consciousness into your surroundings. Sacredness is experienced in the qualities of purity orderliness, balance and renewal. All of these are achieved through cleaning. In the process, neglected objects and corners in our living environments receive love and attention.

Anthony Lawlor


Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room,
And hermits are contented with their cells,
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest peak of Furnessfells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison unto which we doom
Ourselves no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

William Wordsworth

Year Number Three

With this, the twenty-fifth issue of Metaphoria, we celebrate the new sacred space in our home. There is more room and most importantly, there are for the first time in ten-years, doors on the bedrooms. While most people take doors and doorways for granted, we honor the sacred space that exists on both sides and acknowledge the privilege of having trsnsitions from one to the other. These doorways are even more important now that our children are older and one of them is a teenager who realizes the sacredness of her space.

JeanneE and I are grateful for the support that we have received over the past year from readers. While the newsletter goes out to twenty-eight states, the vasy majority of our readers are those who receive a copy through our handing out Metaphoria at schools, festivals, gatherings, bookstores, etc. There always seems to be someone sending a donation toward postage just in time to get the newsletter in the mail.

I am experimenting with making Metaphoria available on the Internet. Needless to say that is a learning experience and a big effort on our part. As stated in the masthead on page two, E-mail can be sent to us at:

Finally, Metaphoria has been difficult to complete in time for the first of the month over the course of the last few issues. Each issue takes from ten to twenty hours per month. We are reassessing our committment to the newsletter and any encouragement is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

1995 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Return to Homepage