I recently watched an episode of a BBC TV series Pagans and Pilgrims on the subject of shrines. In the course of the programme the presenter visited a number of shrines around Great Britain – from a starting point of being openly quite sceptical about the role of shrines, he explored why they have such profound meaning for some people. If you want to see the conclusions he reached, I can highly recommend watching the programme, which is available via the link above at the time of posting.
I have to confess to always having had a fascination with spiritual sites and shrines. Despite my changing and varied attitude towards religion during my life, my interest in such places has remained strong, and the programme caused me to reflect on why that might be.
I’m not sure it’s got much to do with a religious upbringing. My childhood experience of religion was very much in a Christian and Methodist context, but my reaction to spiritual sites is largely independent of their denomination or religion. So although a Christian grounding may arguably have opened my eyes to a spiritual mindset, there’s clearly something more profound going on here.
Sometimes, of course, it could be argued that it’s the grandeur of some of these sites which is striking and absorbing. Those who consider themselves to have no spiritual inclinations can still be awed and absorbed by the soaring architecture of a gothic cathedral, for example, or the scale and intricacy of an ancient mosque.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story, not least because sometimes the most moving places are those that are remote, simple and small in scale. When I was travelling in Romania last year, the simple roadside churches were often just as absorbing as the larger offerings in the big cities – so it was not size, scale or grandeur which was the defining factor.
I suppose for me it is a sense of continuity with the past which makes shrines and other spiritual sites so significant. The sense that you are in a place where for an extended period, and perhaps under difficult circumstances, people have come to find space, reflect and perhaps try to find some sense of inner peace. For some, there may be a specifically religious element to that; for others it may be just a common element of the human condition in which we try to make sense of the confusing world around us.
I would suggest that a physical space which connects us with the past and our ancestors reassures us somehow that we are not alone with our questions and struggles, and that we are all ultimately connected in the eternal journey of humankind.