Christine Strelan - Between the Covers
Five Mile Press 2007
What makes a particular site scared? Is it a myth about some long-ago saint, the prayers accumulated over the years, or a natural wonder thats so awe-inspiring that our puny little minds find it incomprehensible? Is sacredness a real, definable quality that inhabits these places, or is their perceived holiness all in the minds of those who go there? These are some of the questions addressed by Rebecca Hind in her fascinating book. She examines well-known sites, like the pyramids and Lourdes, and less obvious places, like the extraordinary Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. Her book provides a history of each site, some comments on why it is believed to be holy, and pictures to illustrate her points. Hinds attitude towards the various religions involved is respectful, and she allows herself to be impressed by places, even when she doesnt share their faith.
The ziggurats of Palenque are surrounded by Mexican rainforest, and once hosted rituals concerned with natural cycles and astronomy, as well as the Mayas more infamous sacrifices. Mt Athos in Greece clings to the crags of a rocky peninsula, and can only be reached by boat. The monks here are totally self-sufficient, a hard-working bunch, similar to those at the Monastery of the Transfiguration, on an island in Russia. There are elaborately carved Indian temples, ancient Ethiopian churches cut into stone cliffs, French cave paintings, and Uluru and Bungle Bungle. Its a comprehensive look at the way humans can find a sense of the divine in places and objects. All these sites fulfill some kind of spiritual function, because people keep visiting them, even if its only as atheist Western tourists. Hind encourages her readers to get out there and travel to these places, as a way of promoting understanding between different religions and cultures.
Whatever our beliefs, it does us good to feel awe at something outside ourselves. There are some needs the Mall just cant fill, and for those of us restricted to armchair exploration, Hinds book makes a fine substitute. The inclusion of maps wouldve made it even more effective; even powerfully holy places need to be accurately located.
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