Sanctuary & Temenos — Sacred Boundary for the Soul

Our soul has a boundless desire to take in life. However, when we need a sense of safety, security, comfort, replenishment, solace, peace, and relief from worldly activities we are naturally drawn to boundaries. Boundaries of time and place are like islands of consciousness that are true safe zones for the soul. These safe zones can manifest as sanctuary or refuge from the world, if but for a few moments.

Safety and peace need enclosure, an “interior castle” as Christian mystic Teresa of Avila puts it, or as the ancient Greeks called it, temenos. Physically, temenos is characterized as a sacred, protected or enclosed place, as in the space surrounding a temple or an altar. Psychologically, Carl Jung characterized temenos as the safe, private inner space deep within us, i.e. our sense of self independent of the world. In short, temenos — be it physical or psychological, profane or spiritual, within or without — affords a sacred boundary for the soul. Thomas Moore offers a practical characterization:

When we choose a seat or standing area on a bus or train, when we arrange space in an office or workplace, when we decide where to put a garden, or chairs on a porch, where to sit on the riverbank to have lunch, where to play with the children — all of these decisions have to do with temenos, marking out a space appropriate for a certain spirit that breathes life into our activity.

When I see to a person troubled or at odds with life, I wonder what is the state of temenos in their life. How have they created a way to find both physical and psychological space from the world? How have they found refuge that allows the practical value of temenos to regenerate the soul?

Temenos and Spirit of Place

Our interior system of temenos, like rooms and gardens of the soul, is enriched and enchanted by the furnishings of our thoughts. We often come to a place in our day, for example, when we feel a need to let go of worldly thoughts and enter into a more sparse, relaxed, and peaceful inner space. At such times this interior temenos becomes interior sanctuary, as in a daydream, the recitation of a mantra, the silent outpouring of prayer, or quiet reflection. We feel, in short, momentarily walled-off from the world.

For the ancient Greeks, it was important not to pollute the temenos. Why? Because within the boundaries of a certain place, there exists an elemental spirit. Boundaries not only serve to contain energy, they also insure that we have access to the Spirit of Place. Let me give an example.

Entrance threshold to gardens at Cortesia Sanctuary

One day a group of Japanese tai chi students visited Cortesia Sanctuary with their master. All of these middle-aged women had been studying with this master for years, so they brought with them a certain level of attunement. They stood just outside the formal entrance to our gardens, in front of the naturally vine-woven gates, above which reads a sign “Spirit and Nature Dancing Together.” Then each woman was escorted through the gates to a nearby bench where her hands were reverently washed in a special bowl of water and then dried. Each visitor was then led to a chair on a nearby deck, next to a small waterfall, where they were joined by their friends one-by-one. Increasingly, the wide-eyed women began motioning with their arms and chattering in agreement. An accompanying interpreter said that they were marveling at the tremendous difference in the energy outside the gate and within. They were experiencing a strong spirited energy, much like the chi energy they were so familiar with, which was apparent just as they passed through the psychic veil and physical space of the gates. The Spirit of Cortesia Sanctuary had touched them.

The entrance threshold to a special place can help us understand the gathering or awakening of not only the Spirit of Place but also the Spirit housed within ourselves. When places are created solely for function and practicality, temenos suffers. Thus the value of thresholds: they allow us to clearly move from one sphere of life to another.

We can utilize the practical potency of temenos in our community. For example, a favorite restaurant, or a favorite corner table, can emit a temenos (perhaps well-designed by the owner) that enfolds and enchants us as if we were removed from the world. Similarly, a sensitively designed doctor’s office can hold the compassionate Spirit of Healing in furniture, lighting, and decor. Here the feeling of sanctuary from illness is much easier to access than in an office that is officious and sterile.

A favorite example of mine that reflects temenos and entrance into a feeling of sanctuary comes from a young woman executive in New York City who wrote thanking me for the inspiration she received from an article describing my work. Mary had decided to begin taking lunch at a specific bench in Central Park. She affectionately called it her “Sanctuary Bench.” This daily ritual opened up tremendous healing and wonder, helping her to cope with a stressful job and a deteriorating relationship. Her bench allowed for reflection, contemplation, and, beautifully so, just simple observation — of people, animals, and nature — without judgments. Mary’s sincere desire for peace and emotional safety created an entrance point into sanctuary via this bench. She imbued this “island of grace” with her spirit, and I daresay even called up the spiritual energy of that particular spot in Central Park. In her email she described her feelings in becoming the Keeper of the Bench: how she took care to clean up the area surrounding it, offer respite for others, and to beautify it with her peaceful energy.

We can shape temenos to be wherever we are. The difference in places, or within ourselves, is the degree to which we are able to attune with or invite Spirit in, or feel invited in the first place. For example, each time I visited Jake and Sally’s house, I felt uncomfortable at the recessed front door. It seemed officious and cold, as if I had my backside exposed to the rain and my front side facing a formidable wall. I always felt like an unwanted solicitor. One day I arrived to find a storm door installed, thereby enclosing the porch. When I stepped into the space it radiated more than the natural heat from the sun — it now had strong temenos. A vibrant orchid sat in a well-chosen pot, a couple pairs of shoes sat in the corner, a Japanese art piece hung on a sidewall, and a small boulder inscribed with their names sat by the door. The Spirit of Welcome I had so missed before now clearly met me at the door.

I have walked in old growth, cathedral-like forests and felt a deep presence and acknowledgment of Spirit within the natural temenos. However, I have returned to the same setting after industrial-style logging destroyed it: the stark moonscape howling with a deeply wounded Spirit. It is the same feeling one has when entering a home that has been violated by theft or vandalism. The temenos has been altered, fractured and polluted. This same feeling of insult to the soul is also evident in the trauma of rape, physical and emotional abuse, or murder.

We need a strong sense of daily sanctuary in our life to buffer us from the world. We need to sacralize places and moments, if but to simply draw sustenance from how such places and moments are remembered and held in our hearts. We need to hold time and places sacred, because we need to hold ourselves and all else sacred in order to be whole. We lessen the soulfulness of all places, time, and ourselves when we take without giving and come to them without reverence for life. The positive regard we express towards them nurtures them, and the Spirit of Place in turn nurtures us.


Sanctuary exists as emotional places and states of mind within us, and manifests as physically desirable places at arms length in our busy life. Whether on the interior or exterior plane, some energy force greater than ourselves is present or called-up in sanctuary. Most people would comfortably characterize this energy as “spirit.”

However, before we can access the spirit of a place we must feel we have one of the most basic needs sanctuary affords us: a sense of safety. This is a profound yet illusive quest in most people’s lives, because a sense of safety must contain or support that greater need for peace — peace of mind, soulful peace, bodily and emotional peace.

The relationship between daily sanctuary and peace is so interconnected that we need to understand how temenos (sacred boundary) and the Spirit of Place afford us refuge. Alfred Lord Tennyson once quipped:

In this boundless universe
let us this thought rehearse:
we can be boundless for better
or boundless for worse.”

The irony of our need for daily sanctuary is that, within our bounded refuge — wherever it may be, or for however brief moments — our soul is regenerated to reemerge with the world, boundless for better.

To understand more about the concept of sanctuary in daily life, read these blog posts:
The Grace of Daily Sanctuary
The Value of Sanctuary in Daily 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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