Place of mind: What, exactly, is a sacred space?


They’re found inside the home and outside in nature. Some are centered on personal objects while others focus on natural elements. They’re used for prayer, meditation or relaxation. They’re called havens, sanctuaries and retreats, and above all they’re considered sacred spaces. What, exactly, is a sacred space?

“A lot of it has to do with intention, what we’re trying to do in creating [that space],” said Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., RN, FAAN and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. “What we place in that space or how we create [it] is all designed to give us an experience that is meaningful.” Those meaningful experiences are rooted in a sense of connection. Sacred is often equated with holy and its religious associations but holy also comes from the Old English word for ‘wholeness.’ In this sense, a sacred space helps achieve completeness within nature, community and oneself, even for those who don’t expect it.

Inward and outward spaces

Kiya Pressman wasn’t thinking about sacred spaces in her Shorewood garden-she just wanted some privacy for her children. “[The yard] felt like a stage because everybody passing by stopped to see the kids playing,” she said. Ironically, her efforts yielded such a lovely place that it drew even more attention from both neighbors and local wildlife. Although she doesn’t call it a sacred space, Pressman’s garden embodies her idea of what that means: a connection with the living world. “Now it’s even more public! It’s a place where people connect with beauty,” she said. “It feels so much more private but also it feels like a place to connect with other people [and] animals, and to me it does seem like a spiritual place.”

For more information about Julia McFadden’s designs, go to
For more information about UMN’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, visit its website at
“The Inward Garden” by Julie Moir Messervy was re-released this year.

While Pressman found meaningful connections with others, some women use their sacred spaces more inwardly. “They’re looking for a place [where] they can quiet themselves, they can reflect,” Kreitzer explained. “For many it’s a way to get in touch with that inner self.” Given the busy lives many women lead, a fixed locale, such as a garden or a room in the home, makes it easier to find opportunities for reflection. But creating a sacred space in one place is not always an option. Liz Laudolff, a fifth-year anthropology major at the University of Minnesota, shares an apartment with three roommates. Because her living arrangement is transitional, Laudolff has created a portable sacred space using a beloved childhood object. “My security blanket [is something] I could apply to any space and it would become a sacred space,” she said. Laudolff is often stressed but tries to hide it from others; the feelings of warmth and security she draws from her blanket provide relief from the tension she feels.

For Laudolff, a single object is her sacred space but for others, it’s what they do, not what they have, that gives their space purpose. “Ritual, which is just a patterned way of doing something, provides a way to move into a deeper place or process,” Kreitzer said.

Judy Zank of Minneapolis understands ritual. Every morning, she draws three Tarot cards from the two decks she keeps on her fireplace mantel. “I don’t really study them, I just let them kind of wash over me. Then in the evening I see how the symbols played out in my day to day life.” She also practices transcendental meditation to regroup herself, facing the appropriate direction to honor the sunrise or sunset.

Where to start?
Although the reasons for having a sacred space are deeply personal, many women can relate to them and may wish to create their own retreat. But where to start? The elements of a sacred space are unique to each person so there’s no simple checklist for creating one. Fortunately, there’s a growing number of residential and landscape designers who’ve incorporated the concepts of sacred spaces into their work.

Julie Moir Messervy, an award-winning landscape designer and author, has put a lot of thought into how to make an area a sacred space. “For me, it’s making the space feel contemplative by putting the right elements into it so that people not only enjoy it but find solace in nature and their relationship to the beyond,” she said.

In her recently re-released book, “The Inward Garden,” Messervy outlines a process for designing their outdoor areas. A key step is identifying with the ‘archetypal vantage points’: sea, cave, harbor, promontory, island, mountain and sky. “They’re really a connection to the bigger sense of nature, by creating it in our own backyard,” she said. “They set you in space in relationship to nature … in a place where you feel good.”

The concept of recreating the large within the small is familiar to Julia McFadden, a residential designer and founder of theartofplace, a Minneapolis design firm. She wrote her master’s thesis on sacred places and spaces, and makes a clear distinction between them. “A sacred space is generally manmade, a room of a house or even only a portion of a room,” she said. “[A] sacred place is a locale that can be naturally occurring … but may also have been altered by humans.” McFadden identified three architectural elements of sacred places: entries or paths, a sense of rhythm, such as a pair of trees, and the presence of symbolic forms, such as a pattern of stones. These attributes are then recreated in spaces-a doorway, for instance or a group of photographs. McFadden believes that everyone at some point has experienced a sense of unity through nature. “I think that makes an imprint … a sacredness that they carry with them,” she said. “Tapping into [it] is what you might bring to the space that you’re trying to recreate.”

Both Messervy and McFadden emphasized that the key to creating sacred places and spaces lies within individual experiences and meanings, making a ‘how-to’ list all but useless. Still, as Kreitzer pointed out, “It’s important to give people ideas but not prescriptions.” So for those interested in creating a personal sacred space, some ideas to consider about its design:

Find your space
Look to nature for inspiration-the seven archetypes in Messervy’s “The Inward Garden” is a good start. If a secluded cave is appealing, a quiet alcove may suit you. Love the sound of water? Consider a fountain for your garden. Try to relate your indoor and outdoor spaces. For example, a large picture window allows Pressman to enjoy her garden regardless of weather or season.

Fill your space
Objects and elements help achieve the purpose of your space. In Messervy’s landscapes, they come in two forms-events are incidences, such as a rosebush in bloom, that make you pause for a moment, while the focus is a view of an object or scenery that holds your attention and leads to contemplation. A plant or sunlight from a window can bring nature inside, McFadden said, and also serve as reminders to slow down and engage your environment. In a spiritual retreat, statues or icons serve as centerpieces for prayer while a bench or pillow facilitate meditation.

Use your space
Kreitzer said a ritual can be as simple as entering your space. For others, it’s more involved: In addition to her Tarot cards, Zank looks into a small mirror each morning to remind herself to be grateful and mindful throughout the day, while Pressman described gardening as her “exercise for the body and soul.” Messervy encourages both physical and contemplative movement in the landscape: A stroll journey is the actual walk along a path, culminating in a mind journey where you stop for reflection. Call it ritual, movement or activity-they all help to reach your purpose, whether it’s prayer, meditation or relaxation.

Sacred spaces may provide you with a getaway from the stresses of modern life. But you may find that the place where you go to disconnect from the world is the place where you’ll find an even deeper connection.