Places for the elevation of the spirit

Sacred spaces are a culture's tangible representations of God. Whether these spaces are grand architectural monuments, vast natural territories or humble enclosures, they all serve the purpose of transporting the attentions of the visitor away from the self toward a larger significance. Due to the intangible and ethereal aspect of sound, acoustics almost always plays a strong and significant role in sacred spaces.

"...In the indigenous plains cultures of the North American Continent, the West is the direction of Death and home of the "Thunder Beings." This is clearly supported by the dark and foreboding experience of the setting of the Sun and also supported by the predominant weather patterns of their homeland: in the Great Plains thunderstorms move in from the West. It is likely that the deep distant rumbling, and eventually the explosive cracks and boundless earth-shaking explosions of thunder was perceived to be nearly as profound as the rising of the Sun. Thunder was irrefutably their most powerful sound experience until the arrival of manufactured explosives and steam locomotives. In our times thunder, while evocative, is just another loud interruption adding to the continuous background din of internal combustion engines in our cities and jet engines in our skies. We have somehow rendered the Thunder Beings inconsequential in our larger scope of environmental experience."

"...A late and dear friend of mine spent many years of her youth in Nepal. Her father was a western physician practicing there. She lived in a valley above which, in the surrounding mountains was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. In the early 1970's she related some of her memories to me of hearing the monks ring these metal bells which sang continuously "like a glass harmonica" - rubbed wine glasses - producing rich, high pitched harmonic drones. It was almost a decade later when I heard these bells for myself.

"These bells are made of some exquisite alloy. Some can be quite ancient, and when they are rubbed with a wooden wand, they do sing like wine glasses. I have heard that for the Tibetans, the sound of these bells is the sound of the Soul..."

"...There was a time when sound played a more overt role in sacred practices - beyond the cannons and songs of praise - to the very architecture of sacred spaces. The stone flutes of Palenque's "Temple of Winds" would sing the transformations of the weather, and the myriad hidden internal water chambers of the Akapana pyramid in Tiwanaku, Bolivia would gush and thunder as a constant prayer to the waters that brought life to this ancient, but sophisticated agrarian culture.

"Even during the European Gothic Era when the architecture was largely an homage to the triumph of light over gravity, there was a powerful movement of Cistercian Monks led by Bernard of Clarivaux who believed that sound was the only possible means to convey truth to mortals. He felt that the splendorous cathedrals of Chartres, Cluny and Saint-Denis were all distractions from the actual business of worship. His ascetic monasteries and Abbeys, some of which still exist at Thoronet, Fonteney and Citeaux are visually stark and unadorned; often even without a cross or altar. But acoustically these places are divine. When within, the sounds of your own breathing seems to come from a place deep inside your own body; the sound of your own voice seems to envelop you from everywhere. Even the simplest sound is exquisitely complex.

"Bernard's convictions (and connections to the Kingdom of France) were strong enough to threaten a schism between France and Rome. It was Suger of Saint-Denis whose taste for opulence curried Papal favor - and rather disgusted Bernard. Eventually they saw fit to reconcile for the greater good of the church, so we remember the Gothic Era by the grand architecture of Notre Dame, Rheims and Chartres - all in the Cluniac tradition of Suger. For his part, Bernard was canonized and the next time we find St. Bernard is in Dante's Paradiso when Beatrice hands Dante over to him so she can take her place in the Rose of the Heavenly Host - and St. Bernard can reveal to Dante's eyes the full splendor of the truth of God..."