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How to Seek Sanctuary in a Time of Chaos

by MARTHA BECK

Every few months I have a recurring dream: I’m walking through my home and notice a door I’ve never seen before. I open the door to find an enormous room—a cathedral, actually—with sky-high ceilings and glorious stained-glass windows. My reaction isn’t surprise, but recognition. “Oh, yeah!” I think in the dream. “I knew this was here all along! I just forgot.” Along with the memory of the space comes the memory of its function. The cathedral in my dream is there to offer sanctuary.

A lot of us could use a little sanctuary right now. As I write this, cases of Covid-19 are increasing faster than ever in the USA. Jobs and businesses are still disappearing. Doctors and financial experts say we haven’t begun to see the full negative impact of the pandemic. As for recovery—well, the experts tell us, that won’t happen for a long time.

All of that said, there’s a sense in which we can recover from all our problems at any time, any place. The word “cover” can mean a place of safety, as in “take cover,” so “re-covery” can mean “to find safety again.” Inside each of us is that unassuming little door that opens to a cathedral. While we’re waiting for human bodies, careers, and social institutions to heal, we can “re-cover,” over and over again, by going to that sacred space and claiming sanctuary.

Seeking sanctuary in a time of chaos

The tradition of creating a sacred space where anyone can find refuge is so pervasive, throughout history and geography, that some social scientists call it a “primordial” concept, something we feel almost biologically. Even in this chaotic time—perhaps now more than ever—we instinctively look for a sanctum sanctorum, a holy place where we can rest, catch our breath, regain our strength.

Historically, people could find such spaces in literal buildings or rooms. I’m always fascinated by the interfaith chapels in some airports—modern rooms carrying on a tradition that has existed since history began. Whenever we feel especially vulnerable—when we’re traveling, when we’re sick, when we’re out of work—such spaces can calm our nerves. But in a pandemic, literally sharing sacred spaces may not protect us; in fact, it can be a vector for viral contagion.

Safe sacred spaces

Happily, there are at least three kinds of sanctuary we can use any time to recover our balance and serenity: virtual, natural, and purely spiritual. We can turn these “spaces” into healing sanctuaries by entering them consciously, focused on recovering. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Sanctuary Option 1: Virtual recovery space 

Sanctuary Option 2: Natural recovery space

Sanctuary Option 3: Spiritual recovery space

The ritual of claiming sanctuary

In the Middle Ages, anyone could gain protection from other people—even the legal authorities—by simply running into a sacred building and saying the word “Sanctuary!” This ritual triggered a system of safety respected by everyone in the society.

Simple rituals like saying “Sanctuary!” signal to our bodies and minds that we’ve entered a sacred recovery space. By creating your own small rituals, you can teach your mind and body to drop into this healing state. Here’s how to do it:

Sanctuary whenever you need it

Once you have a place, a time, and a ritual, you can touch in with the peaceful energy of sanctuary any time you feel especially vulnerable.

For example, I recently watched the news just before going to bed. Big mistake. The headlines were unnerving, the details truly frightening. It took a long time to fall asleep. But when I finally did, I had that dream again. There I was in my house. There was the little door. And there, behind that door, was the cathedral.

I woke up before dawn, feeling tired and a bit anxious. So I went to my favorite chair, pushed it over to my favorite window, sat down, and relaxed into the moment. Sure enough, I began to recover. Not from everything, and not forever, but in that sacred space, that sacred moment. Which was enough.

We can all recover a bit of peace, confidence, and hope whenever we need it. The door inside us—the state of mind that leads to peace—is real. It opens to an infinite sacred space in our own hearts, minds, and souls. And that is real as well. If we go there and ask for sanctuary, we can always find it. Little by little, breath by breath, our spirits can recover from anything.

This essay was featured in the July 12th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

MARTHA BECK

Martha Beck, Ph.D., is a Harvard-trained sociologist, world-renowned coach and New York Times bestselling author. She has published nine non-fiction books, one novel, and more than 200 magazine articles.

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