The term “sacred space” doesn’t mean what it used to. For most of us, calling something a place “sacred” suggests that it somehow has an important part to play in a religious ritual (the sacred space of a church), or is a spot where some miraculous event occurred (such as the sighting of the Virgin Mary at Fàtima, Portugal, which marks its 100th anniversary this year), or is a place where people have made a terrible sacrifice for their beliefs (think of the Roman coliseum, where early Christians were tortured and killed).
But it’s also possible to think of a secular place as sacred space, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. For many, the three 9/11 sites around the country—Ground Zero in New York City; the west wall of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia; and the peaceful farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed—have certain sacred dimensions. Here many people died violently and instantaneously. Those events had a way of “sanctifying” the spot where they occurred, and people immediately recognized this. Within hours of these tragedies, many visitors arrived bearing flowers, cards, photos of loved ones, and other objects to express their reluctance to let go of the lives lost. It was as if these offerings carried the message: They might be gone, but they will never be forgotten, and their loss has changed an everyday place into something sacred. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, speaking at the dedication of the cemetery in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who claimed that we ourselves could not bless it or make it holy—it was, rather, the sacrifice of those who had died there that made it “hallowed” ground.
Thoughts about sacred space and finding it where one might least expect to occurred to me a few days ago, when my family and I attended a “Departure Photo” event at the White House. One of my sons works in the Obama administration, and he and other political appointees were invited (as a generous parting gesture by the president) to have their photo taken with Obama and family members. We were lucky enough to be able to attend.
Approaching the Oval Office is not unlike processing into the inner sanctum of a cathedral―at least it felt that way to me. I was struck by how small the antechamber spaces seem to be, in comparison to their size in my memory of images of this place seen over the years. My eyes fixed on little details. The hefty width and slight curvature of a solid wood door, the way the moldings at the hallway corners elegantly emerge out of the wall surface, the delicate window frames that hold old glass in place.
The Oval Office and the West Wing are not as old as the rest of the White House, whose cornerstone was laid by Washington. The West Wing was first occupied in 1904, and the current Oval Office dates from 1934. This isn’t very old (we often associate the significant age of a church or temple as part of its sacredness). But while it lacks old age, it possesses the aura of a sacred spot. A good part of this is due to its shape. The oval geometry expresses a sense of no beginning and no end—a sacred allusion to the divine if there ever was one! It is a continuum, defining a volume that connects past with present with future. There are no corners. This is the way many Americans might think of the country itself: expressive of an historical arc, which is curved.
Just as religious sacred spaces have highly symbolic accouterments, so does the Oval Office, in its paintings, furnishings, sculptures—which reference US history. But maybe the most dramatic display of a sacred talisman is on the ceiling. As we stood for our picture in front of the President’s desk, I looked up at the elegantly crisp white plaster presidential seal, encircled by 50 eight-pointed stars, which is read from the president’s desk to the south. It seemed to float over the office and our heads like a celestial dome—another subtle reference to sacred architecture.