By Dorothy Ross
Is there really such a thing as hallowed ground? Is the plot in the churchyard cemetery, sprinkled with holy water any more blessed than the grave in Potter’s Field, watered by the rains from heaven? If so, what consecrates the turf? What is it that makes a place holy? Myth or magic? Miracles or martyrdom? What confers sanctity on the land?
Mythology is irrefutable. Who’s to say there was nothing magical about Stonehenge or Machu Picchu? In places like Greece and Turkey, one cannot easily distinguish sites of historical importance from those of mere mythological renown.
The reputation for miraculous intervention can make a humble hovel, like the grotto at Lourdes, the destination of pilgrims desperately seeking cures, solace or forgiveness.
The notion of hallowed ground is universally pervasive and almost as old as the planet. All over the globe, archeologists have identified structures dedicated by early civilizations for worship and sacrifice. Even people who don’t know the Parthenon from the Pantheon are aware that the Greeks and Romans built mountaintop temples to venerate their gods. Can only great heights inspire lofty thoughts? What of caverns? Stalactites and stalagmites are awesome to behold, and quite miraculous things can happen underground.
The human and divine drama that transpired in October of 2010 in Chile was a vivid reminder that the Holy is everywhere. Thirty-three copper miners had been trapped in the bowels of the Earth for more than two months and workers were poised to attempt a rescue. If there are truly no atheists in foxholes, how could anyone remain an unbeliever in the face of Manuel Gonzales’s bravery? When that man stepped into the Phoenix, the optimistically-named recovery capsule, he was making an act of faith. Not only was Gonzales the first person on the rescue squad to descend willingly into that hell-on-earth, he also chose to be the last man to return to the surface, knowing that he would have to spend a minimum of twenty-six minutes alone—a half-mile under ground.
What sustained Gonzalez during solitary confinement in that subterranean cell? Why didn’t he succumb to the fear that there could be another collapse or that the equipment might fail? He could have been buried alive, entombed in that steamy sepulcher. Manuel Gonzales is a hero, not because he wasn’t afraid but because he found the courage to overcome his demons. He was willing to be a martyr for the sake of rescuing his fellow miners. Chile’s San Jose mine is sacred ground just as surely as traditional pilgrimage destinations like Jerusalem and Mecca.
Civil War historian Bruce Catton maintained, in This Hallowed Ground, that the battlefields of the War Between the States were sanctified by the blood of brethren from both sides, North and South. Those fallen soldiers, many conscripted, were martyrs, even if, like reluctant brides brought to arranged marriages, they could only promise to honor and obey that which they did not love.
Japan venerates the sites where so many of her civilians perished in nuclear blasts. Japanese people stand before the Atom Bomb Dome in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park in reverent awe, much as they do at the serene temples and shrines of Kyoto.
The American equivalent of Hiroshima is Ground Zero in New York, the square city block where almost three thousand office workers perished that bright September morning in 2001. The site of the fallen towers is not merely a hole in the ground in Manhattan; it signifies a haunting hollow in the American psyche, making ‘homeland security’ an ironic oxymoron.
How do we differentiate the profane from the sacred? As Wendell Berry tells us, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” The fact that humans have defiled some sites, either through carelessness or with malicious intent, does not obviate the innate holiness of the land. Even Auschwitz? Yes, especially Auschwitz. The unholy legacy of that death camp serves to remind us that the sanctity of the Earth outlives all despots. Our whole planet is hallowed ground.
Dorothy Ross is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving West in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California, she served as editor and program director. Her work has been published in print and online by The Oasis Journal, Writing it Real, and True Stories Well Told, as well as Fourth and Sycamore, and the Story Circle Anthology. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2007, Dorothy now volunteers with her local PD community and writes about the challenges of living with disease in a quarterly column for the Northern California Parkinson’s Association.