Have you ever walked into a place and immediately became aware of its sacredness? I remember standing outside Seville Cathedral in Spain a year ago; it was nine in the morning and I was waiting to enter the doors amongst a mass of people. The city was alive and buzzing around me as I stood. Thanks to a little luck and good planning, I was able to be one of the first people into the cathedral. The second I walked through the doors I could think, breathe, and be. My face turned towards the heavens, following the sound of my footfalls as they echoed up into the highest arches. I could smell the remnants of incense that had been carried through the grand halls, welcoming the Divine to this place. At this moment I understood why these places are called sanctuaries. I understood the desire to be shielded from the world in its strong walls, surrounded by reminders of the holy.
Yet, sanctuary, this sacred and peaceful word comes with baggage. It implies that these holy places are confined, restricted, and separate. I think this does a disservice to both our world and its Creator. I believe that holy spaces surround us…
It’s 4:15 a.m. I am acutely aware of this fact not only because the clock on my computer tells me so, but also because I know I have a paper due in a couple of hours. Somehow I constantly find myself in this position, writing like a madwoman late into the night, carried off by the whims of my brain and the intrigue of potential rabbit trails. For the third night in a row, the morning calls for prayer call me to wrap up my paper and bolt outside to my favorite spot so I can enjoy the meditation in the open, unadulterated by the structure of my home. I sit on our porch and watch the world begin to wake up– but just barely. The sky is still dark, subduing the whitewashed walls and outlining the ancient Portuguese watchtowers perched on top of the mountains. I close my eyes so I can be in this moment. I feel the balmy breeze brush my forehead, cooling the beads of sweat that are beginning to form. As the final call drifts away, I hang onto every note and feel my heart tighten as if I just finished my favorite book or said goodbye to a dear friend.
This feeling is familiar to me. I felt it when I heard the Qur’an recited for the first time, completely captured by the beauty and poetic cadence of the Arabic. I felt it during a conversation with a Buddhist monk about the ultimate Reality. I felt it when I sat in a random church in Germany and listened to an organ fill the air with breathtaking music. This feeling, this tightening, is the recognition of both the divine and the weight of the meaning of these rituals.
These rituals aren’t mine, and yet, I feel connected to them. I am intrigued by them and want them to be a part of my understanding. A couple days ago I was given words to describe this feeling: holy envy. This is a new concept for me. I hear the word “envy” and my body instinctively tenses up as it remembers hours of sermons that have taught me “thou shalt not envy”. While envy might not be inherently good, can it be used for good? Can envy also be redeemed?
I am not advocating for picking and choosing rituals and beliefs from different religious structures to create your own (syncretism), but I am also not saying that there is nothing of value in other religions. In fact, experiencing holy envy was very important for me. It sparked even more curiosity and opened my eyes to see new value in different ideas and mindsets. More than that, I believe holy envy creates space for us to do more than simply tolerate each other. I believe it can be a stepping stone to something much more important– recognition.
Tolerance is not enough. I tolerate people who chew with their mouths open. I tolerate being sticky from maple syrup at IHOP. I tolerate cilantro. But I do not tolerate my Muslim brothers and sisters. I recognize them. I recognize them as humans, as believers of a divine. Tolerance is putting up with something. Recognition is the acknowledgment of the value of a person and of your shared personhood and all that implies.
As you continue through the day, through life, I hope you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the sacredness of our entire earthly sanctuary. The Divine is all around us. See it with new eyes. And as you do, I challenge you to allow yourself to see others with new eyes too, recognizing the divine presence in them that unites us all.
Lord God, thank you for sanctuary. God, as we come into contact with those who are different from us, help us to greet them and recognize them as humans. Help us move beyond tolerance to see you in everything and everyone. Inspire us with holy envy, Lord. Amen.
Anna is a student majoring in Philosophy and Strategic Communications. In 2019, she studied abroad in Oman. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.