There is a world of variety in what different belief systems find sacred, some have passages of rites, others have sites of worship or holy animals and without a doubt all have a list of defining principles to follow. Great thinkers have struggled with the definition of the truly sacred. But it should be safe to say that in the multicultural melting pot of the United States, there are places of impossible beauty that are undeniably sacred, no matter what your religious background is, these sites will instill a feeling of awe at being in the presence of a higher power. Whether man-made or a natural wonder, they can be considered sacred because of what history has unfolded there or simply the depth of faith their natural beauty displays.
10. Sakya Monastery -Seattle, Washington
Sakya, meaning “grey or pale earth”, is one of four major branches of Buddhism. The monastery was a Presbyterian Church from 1928 until converted in 1975. The name resonates with the original Sakya monastery now in China, built in the 13th century containing some of Tibet’s greatest art works. The saffron robes, beaming Buddhas and the gentle teachings give it an aura of peace. Its devotion to the preservation of Tibetan heritage and culture in the face of the overwhelming power of the Chinese government is striking. The Head Lama has reflected that “the changes in Tibet are an example of the true nature of human existence: all is impermanent, and everything changes” adding to the sense of being in the presence of a heavenly power far beyond anything a mere earthly superpower can muster.
9. Cahokia Mounds -St. Louis, Missouri
Over a millennium ago, Cahokia was a huge settlement cross the river from what is now St. Louis. With an estimated 40,000 people in and around it, it is believed by many to have been the largest city in the world at that time, certainly the biggest in North America before Columbus. The High Priest literally ruled over the center of Mississippian Native culture from Monk’s Mound (so named by Trappist monks centuries later) where the Sacred Fire burned. In shades of England’s Stonehenge Monk’s Mound and the burial site of the Ruler-Priest are aligned by the stars. In fact, a circle of wooden poles nicknamed Woodhenge was used as a solar calendar. There are dozens of mounds once used for ceremonies, burials, sacrifices and with them the tingling feeling that ancient spirits still roam over them.
8. Unity Temple -Chicago, Illinois
The renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built the Temple after the Unitarian Church of which he was a member was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes in 1905. Its replacement, too, appears to be an act of God, like no other church on the face of the earth with a complete absence of anything resembling tradition liturgical shapes and textures. Instead of soaring domes and gold leafed chapels there is a mesmerizing geometric precision. Wright saw it as a “democratic’ religious space for the worship of God and a “meeting place, in which to study man himself for his God’s sake.” Like a late Mozart symphony, it seems like a masterpiece that could only have been achieved with the help of the angels. Modern and unconventional it may be, but it still induces a powerful urge to fall on one’s knees in wonder. It is designated a National Historic Landmark and attracts visitors from around the world.
7. Crater Lake -Medford, Oregon
With a depth of 1,949 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest in the country and Top Ten worldwide. It is an underappreciated scenic gem with one-tenth the four plus million visitors the Grand Canyon gets. The Klamath nation still regards it as a sacred site, created long ago by a terrible battle between the Chiefs of the Above and Below Worlds that completely destroyed the mountain that stood there. Scientists believe that Mount Mazama imploded some 8,000 years ago after a series of cataclysmic eruptions to form a caldera or volcanic depression, which became the lake with an unforgettable shade of blue seen only here. New Age spiritual adherents believe that the lake is a major vortex site and the source of positive energy from the earth’s natural power grid.
6. The Islamic Center -Washington, D.C.
The mosque and cultural center has been ensconced on Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue in downtown D.C. since 1957. It was one of the earliest mosques in the country and for a time was the largest in the Western hemisphere. The interior is lush and imposing, recalling the legendary works of the great Ottoman architect Sinan, called the Muslim Michelangelo. In happy historical coincidence, it was in fact built by an Italian architect. There is something about great mosques that are piously humbling but artistically uplifting. It was there that President George W. Bush read the Koran just six days after the terrorist attack of 9/11: “In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule”. As the place the President of the United States reached out to a shaken Muslim community, invoking the words of the Prophet and the souls of the victims, in the name of peace, this must forever be a hallowed, sacred place.
5. Mount Shasta -Mt. Shasta, California
Part of the Cascade Range in northern California, Shasta is central to the Creation story for local Native Americans and remains a sacred place for them. They have lived there for 9,000 years and though their numbers have dwindled shockingly, descendants still conduct ceremonies in its honor. The towering extinct volcano, once an active part of the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire, stands over 14,000 feet. No other mountain on the continent has been ordained by so many groups with mystical significance. As with many Native American sacred sites, its spirituality has been adopted by contemporary belief systems. Buddhists built a monastery there with the belief that it is one of the Seven Sacred Mountains in the World. Many New Agers believe it to be a vortex emitting earth’s subterranean energy. More than a few believe it to be a refueling base for UFO’s. Some of it may seem sacrilegious, but in a way underline the beauty and power of a place whose beauty has been put here by a Creator for a higher purpose.
4. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary -Baltimore, Maryland
Maryland was founded as a safe haven for Catholics persecuted in England, but the pious Puritans took up the persecution in the New World to the point that in some places Catholics could be sentenced to death. It took 145 years after the Declaration of Independence to build this Cathedral in Baltimore, so when the Basilica opened its doors in 1821, it was a major landmark for the country. It is sublimely warm and welcoming inside. Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II have blessed it. He called it “the worldwide symbol of religious freedom”. In a sense it can be said that people died for this to be realized and so remains a moving testament to their faith and conviction in the face of intolerance.
3. Devil’s Tower -Crook County, Wyoming
It is as much as 70 million years old. A stunning geological formation, from a volcanic eruption, it has been shaped and scarred by a millennium of erosion. Known in contemporary culture from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, some twenty Indian tribes have said to had close and sacred encounters with this natural beauty for thousands of years. It is also known as Bear Lodge and Bear tipi. There are many different legends of how it was created by the Great Spirit Legend. The crevices down its side are said to have been left by a bear sliding down in futility after his erstwhile victims found refuge on top. It was the first site declared a National Monument in 1906 and is still a place for Sun Dances, vision quests and other ceremonial customs. Its commanding presence juts out of the Black Hills looking down on its domain- does it have a supernatural power and in its mystery lies the questions by the grace of whom?
2. Touro Synagogue -Newport, Rhode Island
The English settled Jamestown in 1607 and the Puritans landed famously at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The first Jewish settlers found their way to New York in 1654 and to Newport Rhode Island in 1658, likely fleeing persecution (as their ancestors and descendants have) in the Caribbean. The community thrived and decided it was time for a synagogue in 1759, so they chose Peter Harrison, who was considered the colonies’ greatest architect of the 18th century. Its interior is exquisite like a small English palace. Intensely symbolic, it was built so that people inside face east to Jerusalem and the number 12 is a recurring theme honoring the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It too is a historic site, but moreover it is a symbol of the devotion of a tiny group who lit a torch of hope for their ill-treated people in the New World.
1. Bighorn Medicine Wheel -Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming
They are scarce, with only a hundred or so remaining set in starkly, spectacular, settings. medicine wheel’s are intensely spiritual, places that were made for worship. The Bighorn is the grandfather of all medicine wheels, though its 10,000 foot elevation makes it a daunting destination. Its intricate celestial significance is captivating. It’s a circle with 28 spokes, the number of days in the lunar calendar and a sacred number to many tribes. The spokes point to the rising and setting places of stars near and distant, the Sun at summer solstice, Rigel in Orion, and Sirius, the Dog Star (whose apogee in August gave rise to The Dog Days of summer) in Canis Major. Medicine wheels are the New World’s Stonehenge. Despite their name, they were not used for medical purposes. They should more appropriately be called ‘sacred hoops’ honoring the gods and seeking divine wisdom to guide them in every facet of tribal life.