A few weeks ago, I went on a field trip with a few other students in my AP Art History class. The trip, entitled the “Sacred Space Tour,” was a day-long journey around Los Angeles, during which we visited three major religious centers: Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, Wilshire Boulevard Temple (my synagogue community) and King Fahad Mosque. Each site had several unique attributes that distinguished it from others of its kind, and each holy location stood out to me for different reasons.
Our first stop was the cathedral, which is extremely eclectic, like a tapestry woven from both tradition and modernity. Its exterior is made of gold-colored stone and alabaster windows, and the design is very angular. Within the walls of the cathedral, there are multiple gigantic mosaics of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as several tapestries displaying hauntingly life-like saints. For me, however, the truly sacred aspect of the cathedral is its grandiose organ with 164,000 pipes. Of course, organs are not unique to Catholic communities, but this organ was built to overwhelm your senses. As I entered the main room of the building, a young man began to play the instrument, and at that moment, I felt the presence of something much larger than myself in every tile, pew and candle in that room. The booming sound rang in my ears and shook my body, and even though I had only slept a couple of hours the night before, all of my senses were awake and alive in ways they had never been previously. In my eyes, it was the attention that the room commanded and the power it possessed over my mortality that truly made it sacred. The fear that I felt moved me and revealed the sanctity of the space.
Our next stop, the synagogue, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, provided me with a very different kind of experience. Wilshire has been my home for nearly ten years now and is the most significant component of my Jewish identity. I felt pride when I entered the beautiful sanctuary embellished with gold details and colorful murals depicting the history of the Jewish people. The sanctuary is a sacred space because of what it means to me and my family specifically. I become a bat mitzvah there, I have sung into the microphone on the bimah every high holy day and Shabbat service with my brother and I read from those Torahs each year. The place is sacred because it is safe; the clergy is family, the music is my story and the room is my home. The cathedral is holy because it made me recognize my powerlessness in the hands of God; Wilshire Boulevard Temple is holy because it gives me comfort and allows me to have control over my connection to Judaism. On an artistic level, Wilshire champions an architecture style that is rooted in Sephardic Judaism and European styles. The temple is a lovely harmonization of several cultures and kinds of Jews, and it is this colorfulness that is present both in the temple’s form and its congregation that makes me feel at home. Ever since the community was founded in 1862, Wilshire’s mission has been to bring people together from all walks of life and make them feel at home, and I believe that this loving acceptance is a defining factor of what it means to create a sacred space.
The final stop on the tour was the King Fahad Mosque. The Mosque is quite different from both the cathedral and the temple in its style; it is a building of simple form, and the inside of the structure is not as ornamented. However, the mosque felt incredibly tranquil and welcoming; in every corner there were people gathering, praying or reading holy texts. Everyone there seemed to be engaged in a holy experience of their own, and yet they were all so united when it came to the time of afternoon prayer. We watched as men and women flooded into their separate areas in the mosque and found a space for themselves on one of the vividly colored carpets. It was a miraculous occurrence. We looked on as the disjointed groups of men and women, who prayed in separated sacred spaces, moved together through the different positions of prayer. Each individual said their own words under their breath, but the bodies moved together, each person sharing in the hallowed space. The mosque was a new experience for me, and as I watched people connect to their faith, I realized that sanctity does not really come from the space itself. A cathedral, synagogue or mosque does not need complex, intricate designs and architecture to foster holy connections. It is the people that deem a place sacred.
A sacred space can be created anywhere.
I left my house on a Wednesday morning with no expectations for the day ahead; all I understood was that the tour was mandatory and was supposed to be an important and interactive learning experience. I returned home late Wednesday afternoon with an entirely new definition of sacred. Each space was physically different from the rest and each functioned in ways that were specific to that space and community. Even so, all three spaces brought me to realize one thing: a sacred space can be created anywhere. Each of us has our own definition of holy, our own belief system and culture, our own safe space. It is the way we choose to engage with these aspects of our identity and with others in our communities, especially those who are completely different from us, that determines the form of our own sacred spaces.
Abigail Yadegar is a junior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.