Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power

Collective Cultural Belief

The influence resulting from a culture's collective belief in the power and ideals enshrined in a pilgrimage center

Another important factor that predisposes humans to an experience of the miraculous at sacred sites is the beliefs they have concerning those sites. As Joseph Campbell states: "it is a fact that myths work upon us, whether consciously or unconsciously, as energy releasing, life-motivating, and directing agents." (37) Pilgrimage then, is not only a visit to a particular holy place, it also a relationship with the body of myths, legends and beliefs associated with a place. This idea of a body of myths predisposing people to the power of sacred places is clearly evident at religious festivals and pilgrimage celebrations, particularly those that have occurred since great antiquity. Echoing this matter, one scholar states that…

The Hindu festival is sacred because it re-enacts in the present a primordial mythical time. It is a sacred drama which is not remembered, but reactualized; everyone who takes part is renewed by a return to the timeless 'beginning' - the eternal present - in which the myth has its roots. The festival relives a particular myth which either has relevance to a specific location, which celebrates the dawning and passing of the seasons, or which is the passion play of one of the gods or goddesses. The sacred time of the festival re-establishes the community within the divine order of the cosmos and, in asserting its divine origins, reaffirms the sanctity of human existence. (38)

While pilgrimage shrines are normally discussed as distinct entities, they are also embedded within much greater socio-religious fields. As culturally constituted phenomena, holy places are intimately linked to the geographical, mythological, historical, social, religious, literary, artistic, political and economic contexts from which they originated. The sacred place draws much of its potency from its position in these different contexts; some scholars feel a site cannot be analyzed separate from its contextual foundation.

A pilgrim's experience of a shrine begins long before his or her arrival at the shrine. Through such things as childhood stories, religious teachings, familiarity with regional and national myths, dramatic performances, literary accounts and conversation with persons who have made pilgrimages, individuals are introduced to holy places and their belief systems long before any sacred journeying begins. Discussing pilgrimage and sacred sites in China, Naquin and Chun-fang Yu explain that…

information about pilgrimage sites was often transmitted in ephemeral forms: oral accounts by pilgrims, miracle tales, scriptures, woodblock prints, paintings and albums, maps, sketches, drawings, travel essays, novels, pilgrimage association announcements, guide books, historical and geographical studies. These different media prepared the pilgrim for the journey to come. (39)

In addition to preparing the pilgrim for the pilgrimage, these forms also inculcate and intensify peoples' beliefs concerning the mystique and power of a sacred place. Such belief is highly influential in opening the heart and mind to an experience of the miraculous.

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