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Remembering the Sacred Center

"Women and Children in the Woods with Vesuvio in the Background," Gonsalvo Carelli (1818- 1900), Italian

"The city is the image of the soul, the surrounding walls being the frontier between the outward and inward life. The gates are the faculties of the senses connecting the life of the soul with the inward world. Living springs of water rise within it. And in the centre, where beats the heart, stands the holy sanctuary." - St. Catherine of Siena

One of my first academic assignments was in Social Anthropology. I was assigned Eliade's "Sacred and Profane". I chose the parts about the Sacred Space or the Sacred Center as the core of my own work. For that purpose, I immersed myself into the traditional Balinese architecture, which follows a number of cosmological rules. The whole town or village, has to be composed in harmony with those rules. The result was that a town looked almost like a yantra - with four gates to enter city and with a temple in the very centre of it. The concept is not unique to Bali. In many cultures, humans have structured their towns and villages with a cosmological harmony in their minds.

It is not hard to find critique of modern architecture these days, and at the stage we are, it has exited conservative or reactionary political circles and has become part of a general discourse as more and more people find a modern city to be made for cars or companies, but not for humans. A lot is spoken about the lack of beauty or simply the general anti-human face of the modern city. However, the ancient city was not just a city of visual beauty. Many things can be sensory pleasing and there may even be a debate on what pleases the senses if beauty and aesthetic are reduced to merely a sensory concept. The old city, besides a sensory aspect, which itself was based on Sacred Geometry, had a concept of Sacred Space and Sacred Center built within the very idea of the city. The Sacred was not separate from any aspect of life, architecture and city planning included.

Within every Christian city, town or village, there is a church at the very Center of the city, town,or village; just like a Balinese village may have a temple, and Muslim town a mosque. The place of worship is the Center of the the dwelling, and as such, it is the Center of life. When people gather in a place of worship in order to perform prayers, they come into a space which unifies every other aspect of life. It sends a message that everything else is turning around the Center. Often, in a Muslim or Christian town, near a church or a mosque, one may find a library or a theological school, a place of learning. It was not rare, that these towns or cities, just like the Balinese village mentioned earlier, had four gates through which one could enter it - one for each cardinal points of a compass. In a Muslim town, there may be a public bathhouse or a fountain with water near a mosque. One may find cafes in which people gather after a prayer. The spaces provided for trade were not in the closest vicinity of the places of worship. Trade is valued in many religions: Jews, Hindus, Muslims and certain Christian denominations may have quite a positive perspective on trade and acquisition of wealth, but still it is not the first thing to be near a place of worship. In a school or library, one comes in possession of Sacred Knowledge and through it ends the ignorance. A human being builds a city according to one's own image. When in possession of the Knowledge of the Unity, he builds a city in that image. Ibn Arabi tells: “You are the clearest and most magnificent denotation of God, for you have it in you to glorify Him through yourself. . . . You are His greatest name. The Sacred Center within a city was a Sacred Center of a community, the same way that within every individual human, there is also a Sacred Center. This Sacred Center is the awareness that is always a subject and never an object, it is always the experiencer and never the experienced. It is that part of the Self around which every other self is moving around. This Center is the magnet that pulls everything in and keeps everything else from falling apart. It is the temple inside of a human.


The Sacred Flame

"The Vestal Virgins Making an Offering in a Roman Temple", Wood engraving, 19th century.

In Ancient Rome, a significant place was given to a deity that was barely visible in myth or stories. The deity's name is Vesta (Roman version of Hestia), the goddess of the hearth, home and family. She was barely depicted as a statue or in any concrete form and was simply represented by the fire. Her temple was in the Forum Romanum and only her Vestals were allowed to enter. Her priestesses would swear a thirty year long chastity vow and dedicate almost their entire lives in the service of the goddess, and most importantly, in making sure that the fire does not go out. A Vestal, once she took the vow, was no longer under her father's legal patronage. if she broke the vow of chastity, she would be buried alive. The punishment for allowing the fire to go out was whipping. Despite being an introverted, virgin goddess who kept away from the events worthy of exciting mythological stories, her cult was so strong that it was still active even during the rise of Christianity.

From this brief historical story, it is not hard to conclude that Vesta's cult was extremely important for the life of the city. Vesta represented the Sacred Center, and beyond that the Sacred Space. Her fire kept the home and the city intact; the flame going out was a sign for great misfortune. Beyond being in the temple, Vesta was in every home as a hearth. Before televisions came into our homes, hearth was that which we gathered ourselves around. Even when they didn't make large constructions, it was fire around which humans sat and gathered. Fire is the first, elemental symbol of the Sacred Center. There here where fire lights, there is light and things can be known and looked at.

The Greco-Roman mythological foundation also tells us the story of Prometheus, who stole the fire from gods and gave it to humans. Fire can be seen as the first piece of technology given to humans if observed from that perspective, but fire is also the spark of awareness and consciousness. The fact that it was stolen from gods, tells that this spark itself is Divine in nature. The stolen fire is the Sacred Centre or Divine inside of a human.

When a human being comes in knowledge of the Self beyond every other self, that human being sets his or her own flame ablaze. It begins to burn and lights up everything around. It gives a Center and the Center gives the ground and basis for every experience. In life, countless things may desire our attention, we will be pulled away in many directions and often, for a soul that has not found her Center, those moments of life will be extremely difficult. Without fire, there is perpetual darkness and one is like a blind person walking through a room, hoping they don't step on blades and snakes. When a fire is lit, the many different voices, the many small gods or selves we all have may gather around the fire and sit down. Coming into awareness that our true identity is the Center and not the guests around it, we can allow each guest to speak and then decide, which guest to give the fire and set in motion. As long as they sit around the fire, in the Sacred Space, they are known - the different aspects of the psyche cannot terrify us because we know who they are.

Coming into knowledge of Center is extremely important in this era because we have lost the collective Center, at least in many parts of our world. We are, more or less, atomised and alienated individuals, each living a life of complete separation - not just from Divine, but from family, community, roots, and finally from our own selves. Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst says: "Without the Church to mark out those strong boundaries between impersonal and personal, sacred and profane, God and Devil, we have to be extremely conscious in order to protect ourselves from the demonic within and without."


The Circle

Enjoying coffee, painting by unknown artist in the Pera Museum

"If served properly, coffee is always prepared for the individual, although normally drunk in company. The overall presentation is made on a circular tray (tabla), with a glass filled with water, an empty porcelain cup (findžan), and a vessel with a handle in which the coffee has been prepared (džezva). The tabla signifies the totality of existence. It is circular, drawing attention to the center. The very same center may serve countless circles: all of which are distributed between the center proper and absolute infinity. Moreover, the tabla is yellow and shiny, pointing out that things are signs through which the unity of Intellect or of the Enlightenment that comes from God as the Light is filtered and revealed. The glass of water refers to the purity of existence in which life is revealed. It corresponds to the authentic and original purity of the human soul. The world as a whole is an image of the human soul, while the findžan is a reminder of that relationship, and the džezva signifies all human action which serves to darken or conceal the unity and purity of the created world and of the human being within it. There are three signs placed in front of us on the tabla, as the symbol of all existence, perfect, given to us that it might reveal the perfect Lord. The first is the water as a symbol of that which God gave to us through His prophets, as Jesus the son of Mary says: “But whosoever drinketh of the waters that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” - "Maintaining the Sacred Center - The Bosnian City of Stolac", Rusmir Mahmutćehajić Rusmir Mahmutćehajić, a Bosnian teacher of sophia perennis (among other things), known for translating the works of René Guénon into Bosnian, in a whole book dedicated to the concept of Sacred Center and explaining how it is reflected in his town, Stolac, describes the Sacred Center in the way coffee is traditionally served in Bosnia. In the same chapter, he explains further the symbolism, by explaining how the coffee is taken: "The act of drinking starts with the water, so that the mouth and throat are washed to begin with and prepared for the coffee. Then the coffee is poured from the vessel with a handle using the right hand to fill the porcelain cup, whose pure whiteness is transformed into a dark disc edged by a thin white circle. According to this doctrine, the circular tray signifies the Well-Preserved Tablet or the Mother of the Book; everything that is in existence has its prototype on that Tablet; this is what gives perfect sense or meaning to everything in the world and the self. The water corresponds to the treasure house of life which is raised up in its relationship with Spirit, while the vessel with coffee corresponds to the brand as the symbol of enlightenment and understanding, which are subject to the Will."

It is probably a well known fact that when Muslims perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, they move in circle. In many other customs or even folk dances, circle is a common way to move. Our clocks, before they were digital, were most often circles. We sit in a circle around a fire even now if we go camping. The movement of celestial bodies is that of a circle. The circle is a symbol of Unity, of the Great Round. It tells that everything returns exactly where it began. Human being has fallen into forgetfulness of the Sacred Origin that the human came from. However, whole human life, consciously or unconsciously, is spent seeking the lost Paradise. We endlessly hope that a thing, a person, a job, will bring the Paradise back and we are frustrated every time they do not. We may even want to punish them or find them responsible for not providing us with the Paradise. But the Garden and the Tree that is the Center of it is within. Once we see the Garden inside, it is easy to recognise the glimpses of Paradise in the external world. When a fire of desire to know has been lit, a human being begins to move towards the Self, that is, towards the Unity and the Paradise. Reaching it, a human being becomes once again what the human being was before forgetting. A little coffee ritual described above, to a person who has become aware of the Unity, becomes a Reminder. Our external world reflects what we are within. If we as a collective are in the state of forgetfulness, no amount of preaching or intellectual criticism of how the surroundings are alienating or anti - human will do. Our cities, our communities, reflect our collective state of being. We are alienated from ourselves, the external world is but a mirror of that alienation. To change, a human being must remember because all knowledge is memory.


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