Recently, I visited a Japanese garden with my students. It was a good way to socially distance while enjoying some embodied, face-to-face experience with each other. Mostly, we talked about Japanese garden design: for example, how it integrates Buddhist and Shinto architectural elements, how it highlights precious natural objects (such as exceptional trees or rocks), and how it yields paths that give one a heightened experience of time.
But also – just a little – we spoke of the holy.
Every culture in the history of the world has reckoned with the holy. Their artisans have made containers for it, or pointers toward it. They have tried to trace its outlines or receive its imprint. They have made gifts for it – beautiful monuments to its glory. Or sometimes, in zeal for its purity, they have destroyed things in its honor. They have set apart spaces for it to dwell in; they have worked to summon it; they have presented themselves to it in service. In the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean, they built temples on high points, with interiors sealed in darkness: these were inner sancta where the ineffable might descend. In the Americas, their holy spots were sometimes low places, centered on sacred tunnels from which original life had sprung. In India and elsewhere, they sometimes cut their sanctuaries into living rock. Everywhere, they figured the holy in different guises: sometimes as perfect humans, sometimes as magnificent animals, sometimes as otherworldly chimeras, sometimes as shadows or voids. And their interest in the holy did not come from misdirected curiosity about natural forces and their causes (as if all gods were “gods of the gaps”). No – they feared the holy and knew their own smallness in the face of it. They were pious (to use a word favored by the ancient Romans). They gave due respect.
In Japanese culture, which has animist roots, the holy is seldom sequestered in a human-made space as it was, for example, in the ancient Middle East. Rather, the holy is discovered in nature, and there it is adorned. One can pass toward the holy under a wide autumn sky, beneath a red gate (called a torii), and there, though one’s view scarcely changes, and no walls surround, the holy at once seems uncommonly near. My students and I, too, passed through a gate on our garden walk; and though it was not a sacred red one like the famous gate at Itsukushima, we practiced mental techniques of passage – of moving from noise to quiet, from public to cloistered, from exposed and conflicted to consecrated and set apart.
Mystics write of an impulse in the soul that cannot help but ascend toward the ineffable, which it desires and thirsts for like water. But how, in this earthly maze of seemings, can the soul climb? The holy is none of these things we can see and touch; it is bigger than them – brighter, sharper. We cannot see it and map it because of its brightness, but we can grope toward it, modestly averting our eyes. We do this with natural handholds (but let us not mistake the aid for the prize!).
Some of these handholds are torii gates, and inner sanctums, and rock-cut grottoes. Some of them are wending paths and labyrinths. Some of them are high places and low places – mountaintops and caves – graced with reverent ornament and other works of our hands. But first among these – in both rank and time, for He comes from outside of time – is the one called Christ. He is the aid who is also the prize, and through him, in the light he casts forward and backward and far, we see that the world and its fruits, art and nature entire, have the promise to lead the soul upward to its desire.
May our Father open our eyes to see the handholds He’s provided, and may He clothe us with his own holiness, that we might ascend to His delight.