The Grace of Daily Sanctuary

Have you ever felt the need to just crawl into a little corner of the day to comfort yourself? Maybe the tensions of work suggest you push away from it to soothe your aching mind. Maybe you would feel better about a recent argument with your spouse if you had just a little time and space alone to yourself. Maybe you just want to sit still — very still — by a window, in front of a personal altar, amongst some woods, in your favorite chair, or amidst your garden. Perhaps alone time in a special setting, even if for a few minutes, is all you need to regenerate yourself.

  • Where do you go where you feel more yourself than any other place?
  • How often do you give yourself permission to go there?
  • What does sanctuary mean to you?

We can all relate to experiences that pull us inward to find renewal amidst worldly activities. Consequently, we need to give ourselves the grace to find those islands of time and space to reclaim an inner sense of peace or empowerment. We need daily waysides to “recharge the batteries,” receive creative inspiration, engage in quiet reflection, or to offer comfort to another. In short, we need to value certain periods of time and places in our life as if they were sacred gifts we make for others and ourselves. The alternative is the feeling of living a “half-lived life.”

One word best describes the need for soulful revitalization: Sanctuary.

The care of our own sense of spirit — the loving care of our soul — is perhaps the most challenging aspect of living on Earth today. Each day should be about finding balance between our absorption with the world and the need to find relief amidst it. If we do not find this balance, we are apt to feel distraught. Many people claim that the chaotic and often insensitive nature of life today provides few opportunities for finding solace. “Where is the time and space in my day,” people plead, “in which I can replenish myself?” This is a cry of the soul in daily need of sanctuary — a feeling of momentary refuge from the world.

So as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land,
so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy,
but encompassed by all of the horrors of the half-lived life.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick


Susan was convinced that her day held little opportunity for solitude. A working mother, Susan consistently found herself coming home to engage in the “work of family,” as she called it, until she collapsed exhausted into bed late at night. She knew her family depended on her to get dinner ready among numerous other responsibilities. However, her unspoken desire before she had to do all this was simply to have some uninterrupted time and space to regenerate herself. And the place she wanted to do this most was in her garden, if only for a half hour or so to reflect upon the beauty and peacefulness of Nature she had loved her whole life.

When people are introduced to the concept of sanctuary and how it can empower their daily lives, it is like being reacquainted with an old familiar friend. You see, we all have used time and places in a special way that reconnects us with our inner spirit, even if we hadn’t thought of it in terms of sanctuary.

I remember as a boy sitting in my backyard beneath a young birch tree as a means of escaping my family’s conflicts. It was there I could collect my thoughts and feel a calm begin to salve my aching heart. I would often sit for an hour or so watching the play of nature around the yard. As I got older, this ritual included writing poems or stories, praying, or simply playing my guitar. This outdoor haven served me for many years, until I was old enough to leave home. There is no doubt in my mind that I was creating a personal sense of sanctuary that serves me well today.

Most of us, whether we are aware of it or not, have certain common roots to sanctuary going back to childhood. Our bedrooms, for example, were like private refuges from the day — places removed from the constant vigilance of an adult world full of rules, obligations, demands, and prying. How many of us remember that special sense of control we felt in our tree house or a fort made out of cardboard boxes?

These memories are invaluable in reassuring us that sanctuary has always had a role in our life. Yet as children, even before we begin to understand the value of a bedroom as necessary privacy, we are introduced to the basic premise of sanctuary as a safe haven in the arms of our parents. This initial matrix of unconditional love and acceptance, from the womb to the familial embrace of our mother or father, is one of the purest forms of sanctuary imaginable.

In our search as adults for the sacredness of time and place, we might do well to model our intent after those first few years of life where we lived on an isle of grace. Of course, this may not have been the case with all infants, for many adults today suffer from the wounds of unwarranted child abuse or emotional abandonment in which their sacredness of being has been deeply affected. Nonetheless, there is not one of us who can deny the powerful feeling of comfort we experience being held in the arms of our partner, lover, friend, caretaker, or parent. A true Tahiti amidst the oceanic swells of the world!


Most people probably have an intuitive sense of what sanctuary means to them. In many ways, the contemporary interpretation of sanctuary reflects its use throughout history, demonstrating a constant in life for which everyone must find practical use. Basically, sanctuary can be characterized in three ways:

  • A haven for Nature, animals, plants, sick or diseased people, outcasts or refugees
  • A special place or experience we may withdraw into for safety, comfort, peace, solace, and regeneration of body, mind, and spirit
  • A feeling or need for personal space and time within the comfort of ourselves, others, or a religious belief or deity

These characterizations suggest that sanctuary is physical, psychological, and even spiritual in scope. Aside from being a special place, sanctuary also incorporates the elements of an experience that satisfies the human need for solitude, safety, comfort, peace, and regeneration. Furthermore, sanctuary has emotional power that both incorporates time and transcends it, allowing communion with Nature, animals, other humans, our own inner self, or a personal God.



The secular or profane quality of sanctuary embraces the idea of worldliness: a safe haven, often characterized by enclosed boundaries. This may be a garden, building, room, piece of land, or other natural location, such as a tract of forest, wilderness, or an isolated estuary. Some Occidental mystics suggest that the Garden of Eden is humanity’s first paradisiacal sanctuary, and every human has the inherent longing to return to both this psychological and physical place of beauty, peace, and safety.

Human interest in gardens speaks to the deep subconscious need of sanctuary. The first gardens 2400 years ago in Persia, for example, were fenced to protect crops and livestock from invading marauders. Increased security allowed the integration of water features, sitting areas, flowers, and the creation of garden rooms. In fact, the word paradise comes from the similar ancient Persian word meaning “beautiful fenced-in garden.”

Sanctuary can also be identified with a place of refuge (which may embody both secular and sacred aspects). For example, a human or animal whose life is at risk may find harbor in a setting removed from harm or unneeded attention. History denotes this common use of sanctuary, as in the special cases of colonies for lepers, fugitives, endangered species, or special tracts of Nature such as a forest, wetland, park, or even one’s backyard garden. Through the efforts of such organizations as the Audubon Society and Wilderness Society, thousands of people have been guided to create backyard nature sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries, wildflower sanctuaries, and the like. Similarly, many communities have created special shelters for women or children suffering from familial abuse.

These pure intentions to provide safety and comfort to others and Nature are rewarding, but we can personalize the gesture of sanctuary even more. For example, many of us know first hand what it means to offer momentary asylum to an animal (perhaps a wounded bird or sick pet) in the palm of our hands or the stroke of our touch, or to a friend or family member who needs the comfort of our compassionate caring, listening, or holding.


The more sacred or spiritual side of sanctuary embraces the dance between humans, Nature, and the Divine. Here we find natural places of power (mountains, forests, springs, rivers, etc.) and architectural structures such as temples, shrines, memorials, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and the like.

The Greeks, for example, often built healing centers near the juncture of two rivers. Springs have often been sacralized at their source with a grotto sheltering the perceived holy waters so that pilgrims may partake of the liquid blessings. Native cultures have rich legacies associated with natural landscapes that create an elevated spiritual relationship with both the land and a deity.

The question is how natural geography seems to elicit such elevated energy. Some theorists suggest that there are energy grids (ley lines, for example) of intense electrical energy at such locations. Others offer mystical possibilities, that certain places are the havens or homes of ancient deities. And still more theorists suggest that the frequent honoring of a place by humans with intense reverence and devotion intensifies its surrounding life force or ether. Undoubtedly, each of these points of view has merit.

Inspired by Nature and a desire to know God, humans have also created architectural religious monuments in which people may worship, pray, or meditate. In fact, the main room or building for such activities is often called the sanctuary. The examples of both natural and human-made places of profound energy, as recognized places of sanctuary within a culture promote the basic interpretation of sanctuary to be a special place. This place elevates the feelings of peace and safety, internal comfort, regeneration of body, mind, and spirit, and the presence of an overarching force of which most people recognize as God, Great Spirit, or other interpretations.

The greater perfection a soul aspires to, the more dependent it is upon grace.
The Practice of the Presence of God
by Brother Lawrence


It has often been cited that we have a hierarchy of needs that drive our life — love, freedom, dignity and the like. In an unpredictable world, we need more constants, more safe reference points. The commitment to find daily refuge amongst our activities, in order to revitalize and sustain our spirit, takes effort and devotion. I am convinced that the “packaged” feelings of peace, safety and comfort that sanctuary offers, elevates the concept of sanctuary as a critical human need.

Being in the world but not fully of it is actually very empowering. By choosing to select time and space in our life to regenerate our unified mind-body-spirit is an investment in personally chosen grace. It gives us an isle of refuge amidst daily activities and helps to re-beautify our relationship with life.

Copyright 2011, C. Forrest McDowell, PhD
Excerpted from book-in-progress, Islands of Grace: Finding Sanctuary in Daily Life

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About C. Forrest McDowell, PhD

I am blessed to be a co-steward for over 30 years of the beautiful 22-acre Cortesia Sanctuary outside Eugene, Oregon, with my partner, Tricia Clark-McDowell. My lifelong interests in wellness care, psychology, nature, music composition & performance, writing, and meditation fuel my celebration for life. My form of service is founded upon the elemental practice of kindness and reverence for life. Of course, to understand the value of deep respect for life, we also have to accept irreverence as part of human nature and to know that it can be very disruptive and destructive to peace, safety, beauty, joy and love.
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