The Sacred Hearth as Sanctuary

Most people commonly associate the word “hearth” with a fireplace, open fire, or stove. But the feeling that hearth evokes is its great value. It enfolds us in communion, interaction, sharing, comfort and safety. It speaks of storytelling, the passing on of wisdom and skills, the processing of ideas and issues, the simple feeling of being embraced and appreciated by like-hearted and like-minded others. The concept of sanctuary is ennobled by the symbol of the Hearth. The Hearth is both the spiritual form of sanctuary and sanctuary itself with spirit.

In a very practical yet spiritually bonding ritual, our friends Sharon and Steve re-enact all the symbolism of the Hearth described above. Every evening, rain or shine at their country home, Steve lights a fire in a shortened burn barrel, around which they huddle for an hour or so. Here they embrace affectionate conversation, dreams for their lives and land, and gratitude for their relationship. Their days are exceedingly full and exhausting with work away from home, but this Hearth ritual, by their own admission, provides them with much needed respite for their relationship.

In another example, a father describes taking his son regularly to a local living memorial: a 2000-year-old oak tree. This tree acts as a type of Hearth for the community, where multi-generations of families have played and been held in its outstretched arms. David writes: “The eyes of the visitors follow the same path over the tree, seemingly trying to see past its leaves, bark, and wood to something meaningful that surely must have been hidden there — something spiritual and eternal. The hidden ‘something’ that these visitors sensed was, I believe, the life-giving presence of God which flows through the tree’s trunk and branches.”

My favorite Hearth is on a parlor bed by an upstairs corner window that looks across woods and meadows. This is where I meditate, compose music, write poetry, journal, read, play guitar, and sit in stillness and silence. On a rainy day, it is heaven. In the morning, sunrise through the windows reawakens me to the glory of life anew.

Hearth is a reminder that our heart is always trying to find a sacred sense of home. The journey, as is the actual sense of sanctuary, is broad and diverse and in need of protection. The Psalms (91:4) encourage us: “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.” The image here is that of a bird that senses danger and then protectively spreads its wings over its young. This gesture is so deeply instinctive that an adult bird will spread its wings even when no fledglings are around. Similarly, in our human soul is the instinctive desire to seek the warmth, safety, and comfort of some form of harbor or hearth: a special place, dear friend, or Spirit in which we can hang our worldly cloak and just peacefully be.

Keeper of the Hearth

In the word Hearth, there are numerous words that remind us of a more noble way of living and being of service on Earth. First, in fact, is the very word, earth, to remind us that this Earth and the earthen soil out of which everything grows is a profound sanctuary itself worth honoring — one of the most privileged sanctus sanctorums in the universe. If you ever feel forlorn, reach for the nearest Nature you can find and, as William Blake reminds us, “Find God in the face of a flower and eternity in an hour.”

To hear the Spirit of the Earth takes a keen, soulful type of listening. So, in Hearth the words ear and hear remind us of our duty as stewards — Keepers of our places of sanctuary — to be aware of not only our needs but those of others, both human and Nature alike. This type of listening is much like fine tuning the reception of a favorite radio station: we must filter out the static of the world and its random chaotic energy that vies for our attention. When we sit in our car stuck in traffic, rage will not move us. This is the time to tune in to our soul, to comfort it with prayer, inspiring music, refreshing reverie. At such times our car can become a mobile hearth, a living temenos (sacred boundary or protected place), giving us unexpected solace and distance from the world. Here we can steward an inner kingdom of peace and sort out the values and dislikes of our life.

Hearth also contains the word art. The business of the soul in the world is really about the art of living amongst creation, and in beautifying and stewarding the Earth. I have personally found that the art of living has much to do with our way of behaving. For example, years ago I internalized the noble qualities of Friend, Guest, and Host to help conduct my artful dance of life. We should always attempt to show unconditional Friendship. We should respect others and our surroundings as if we were a Guest on a sacred pilgrimage. And we should offer our service and attention in the true spirit of an accepting Host. Think about these qualities of stewardship as you consider yourself to be Keeper of your personal place and sense of sanctuary.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, within Hearth is the very word heart itself. Both our spiritual strength and vulnerability are tied into the state of our heart. Most people need sanctuary because the world has broken their spirit or unraveled their heart. But this heart is our Sacred Chalice from which we can drink the divine nectar of love and reverence for life, and from which we can talk to Spirit or God. When we embrace life with heartfelt energy we are led to our Higher Self that is hopeful, reverent, gracious, humble, honoring, respectful, forgiving, joyful and peaceful.


In our quest to find peace on Earth, there are worthy questions to personally ask:

  • Where is that place and time in my day in which I feel more myself than in any other place or time?
  • Does such sanctuary deepen me, allowing me to touch the fabric of my soul, and the soul of others, with reverence, serenity, peace and love?
  • Does such an island of grace hold a vital Spirit that opens me to wonder, healing, and celebration for life?
  • Does such a Hearth, like a sacred mandir, or holy temple, reconnect me to something greater than myself?

It is possible to easily answer these questions if we make room in our daily activities to practice the presence of sanctuary. Sanctuary is like coming to the communal well. The thirsty soul is received as a reverent friend and guest. In holding a very special place or moment in time sacred, we grant power to that place, to that wayside moment. Our act of holding sacred is what is of primary importance, not where or how we choose to carry out that act.

The true power of a special place and sacred time of our making lies in its marshaling of our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs about bringing more beauty, hope, kindness, joy and peace into the world and our personal lives. This is the benefit of seeing our place of sanctuary as our Sacred Hearth.

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
Sanctuary & Temenos — Sacred Boundary for the Soul

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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