The Value of Sanctuary in Daily Life

One of the most appealing features of everyday sanctuary is its universality. It is both a place in the world and a feeling of inner safety. It is a home or temple, cozy corner, garden, or deep woods; it is the arms of a loved one or friend and, yes, it is even a moment of time at our workstation or while standing in line. For many people, sanctuary is their refuge in God.

In every instance, sanctuary is a harbor for the soul, and the soul giving harbor. It is an extraordinary opportunity to love and respect ourselves and the world anew every day.

I find the feeling of sanctuary — given and received — to be the most comforting experience in my life. I know that by embracing my sacredness and that of the world, I am prepared to acknowledge the value of sanctuary for myself and all other places and beings. There is respect and love here to embrace anew for others and myself.

The Franciscan mystic Jacapone da Todi once wrote these beautiful words:

Love above all language,
Goodness unimagined,
Light without measure
Shines in my heart!

When I read this I imagine myself enveloped in an impermeable cloak of grace filled with love, goodness and light — A boat moored in a serene harbor. The intoxicating freshness and vitality of the first warm sunny day in Spring, or the haunting musk of misty woods. My beloved’s embrace after a long absence, or the sympathetic touch of her hand on top my own. Standing in line pouring out a silent prayer for each of the other harried shoppers and the clerk. Reliving the mesmerizing gaze into my eyes of a wounded dying deer as I sit next to her on the side of a country road, admiring her beauty, telling her how much I love her.

Sunbeams at Cortesia Sanctuary

This is the feeling sanctuary can evoke — to realize the immense glory of being human on Earth — almost as if a new kind of light is allowed to stream through the curtains of our everyday ordinary activities. I know exactly what this feels like, as St. Augustine describes it:

I entered into the secret closet of my soul, and beheld within the mysterious light of my soul the Light that never changes, above the eye of my soul, above my intelligence. . . He who knoweth truth knoweth that light: and who knoweth it, knoweth eternity. Love knoweth it.

In the sacred space and time of sanctuary we are often able to see and feel our inner and outer worlds without interference from judgments, opinions, criticisms, fears, and desires. Released from these burdens of the ego, we may also feel the peacefulness that is unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance, even if for a few moments. We embrace more clearly the principle that all are sacred at play in a sacred world and universe.

Evoking Wonder, Healing & Celebration

What is it about places, people, animals, and experiences of sanctuary that endear the soul’s daily journey? I believe it is because the states of wonder, healing, and celebration are repeatedly evoked. There is opportunity in every action to show what we love and hold sacred, but we are more clearly assured of this if we experience wonder, healing, or celebration, both for ourselves or as a gift to others.

Reflect upon those circumstances that most draw you toward sanctuary:

  • What reoccurring experiences especially lend toward the need for an island of grace amidst your worldly activities?
  • Are you drawn toward certain places or people that emit the feeling of a safe haven, if but for moments in your day?
  • Can you acknowledge the need in your life to experience awe and wonder over the miracle of creation?
  • Can you acknowledge the daily need for bodily, mental, emotional, or spiritual healing and regeneration?
  • Can you acknowledge the need to reverently celebrate life?

Giving Oneself Permission

Over my many years of counseling others, I realized that it is often very difficult for people to take action on their needs unless given permission. Even if I could just say “it is okay to feel shame or sadness or anger,” the individual would more easily surrender deeper into those feelings.

One time, in a state of playfulness, I came up with a few “assertive rights” that I thought would make life a little easier. The first assertion, for example, was the right to do nothing. I simply felt that people needed to give themselves permission to not have to do something, resolve something, or take action on something right away. The second assertion was the right to procrastinate, and the third was the right to be uncertain. I immediately saw a type of empowerment take place in my clients — they were given permission to take responsibility for their life in a different way. In retrospect, I now see that I was indirectly promoting sanctuary by their taking a little time and space away from worldly or personal preoccupations and finding that space within to love and accept themselves (and life!) anew.

To acknowledge sanctuary as a necessity of life is to give yourself permission to seek wonder, healing, and celebration within yourself and others. You need to find refuge in special places. You need to create those special places and experiences that enrich your soul. And, you need to be open to giving your time and energy to others as occassional havens. The task need not be difficult if you are to love yourself and the world anew each day.

One woman, for example, has engaged in a lovely ritual of sanctuary for years. Each evening she lights candles in her bathroom and takes a long soak. In fact, so precious is this time to her that the bathroom has been remodeled to evoke enchantment: cedar walls, skylight, cascading plants, altars, mirrors covered with inspiring images, incense, and good literature.

Similarly, a man carries out his unique ritual early each morning for an hour or so before he heads off to work: sitting in his easy chair with a large cup of coffee reading great works of literature. Both these people believe that after their rituals they reemerge with the world as more heartfelt individuals, merely because they have created the space for sanctuary in their lives.

The Grace of Nature

Nature is perhaps the most common resource for acknowledging sanctuary for ourselves. Walking:

When I would re-create myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature.

Like Thoreau, we too can acknowledge the value of sanctuary in our life through the sanctum sanctorum of our yard, garden, a nearby park, or other natural settings.

I received a letter recently from a single mother and her three children who live in Detroit. She described her family’s simple way of giving back to nature right in their own tiny backyard: researching and planting the types of flowers that would attract butterflies. Within a year the yard had become a haven for wildlife, not just butterflies. But the real thrill was discovering how much their efforts created family solidarity amidst tight economic conditions.

On another occasion, I received a call from a woman in Michigan. Inspired by an article about sanctuary that I wrote for a national magazine, she described how her cul-de-sac of neighbors created a special place in a small unused parcel of ground by the street. The impetus was to honor, by planting a tree, the life of a neighbor’s husband who unexpectedly died. But neighbors saw it as a wonderful place to gather and chat, so a couple benches were set by the tree. And then children were inspired to plant and maintain flowers. She described how a tremendous sense of solidarity and pride had grown between the neighborhood families, and that special place was a key daily wayside.


Give yourself permission to create a beautiful path between you and the world, between your personal sense of sacredness and sanctuary, and the sacredness of all beings and places on Earth. On this path, give yourself permission to look for wonder, healing, and celebration.

Consider this affirmation: In sanctuary I love and respect myself and the world anew.

This affirmation is your light as you journey. Be willing to share your discovery of sanctuary with others. Light their flame, give them your wonder, healing, and celebration.

The grace of sanctuary is that it rekindles your sacred connection with the world each and every day, and leads you to a profound and enduring sense of peace. Be inspired anew in your efforts with this profound thought from Victor Frankl:

What is to give light must endure burning.

To understand more about the concept of sanctuary in daily life, read this blog post:
The Grace of Daily Sanctuary

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

For more inspiration, please visit our website:

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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