One of my favorite passages from sacred writings is the story of Moses, still tending his father-in-law’s sheep, an ordinary day in an ordinary place, suddenly encountering God, the ground he stood on now consecrated into holy ground, admonished to “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” All of the world’s religions speak of holy ground. For Muslims, even the simplest prayer rug in the humblest of places becomes holy ground to commune with Allah. Buddhists may have a transcendent experience at a stupa. The concept of holy, or sacred, ground transcends religion and in a secular sense, people commonly find themselves encountering a different spiritual plane in all kinds of places. The experience may sneak up on you but requires open eyes to be receptive to it.
Some years back, my wife had an appointment with a specialist at Southwestern in Dallas where we would receive more news about a diagnosis that would forever change our lives in so many ways. While she was waiting to be seen I went back to the medical school auditorium where I spent so many transformative hours all those years ago. The room had many technology upgrades over the years, but it was still much the same. I considered my own time there and the fact that the doctors Maryann were seeing next door all would have either trained or taught in this same room, and I had a sense of an almost mystical nature of this ordinary room, of all the lives changed for those who passed through its doors. Similarly, a patient of mine recently described such a feeling when visiting the military cemetery at Normandy. These spaces can outwardly be ornate or very ordinary, ground that becomes extraordinary and carries with it a moment in which we seem to commune with something beyond ourselves – a favorite place in nature, working in a food bank, quietly nursing a baby.
So, how might we describe holy ground in ways that may be recognizable, even familiar, to all of us regardless of whether we appreciate its presence with religious, spiritual, or purely secular eyes? Some describe it as a “thin place,” something the Celtic tradition describes as a place where the space between the material and the divine becomes very small, where the concrete merges with the infinite, where our tangible, practical world is suddenly enveloped with mystery and intangible truth. Where, for a time, we feel untethered and are united with a hidden world and souls around us. As with Moses, or the prayer rug, the stupa, even an auditorium, the terrain itself may be ordinary, but what happens upon it, or what it comes to signify makes it sacred.
In health care, presumably there was an original sense of calling to heal, a calling that you answered years ago and still follow. For all of the things that get in the way of us pursuing it well, we are still incredibly privileged to inhabit the holy ground on which we meet our patients, people on a common journey with us, who literally and figuratively bare their bodies and souls before us, with trust – with an assumption that we will come to them with humanity, compassion, and fidelity, to stand on this ground, and as we do it we agree to leave behind the encumbrances and baggage that we all carry. For the moment, we leave it all at the entrance to this sacred and mysterious space.
Pause at the door, take a cleansing breath, and enter the exam room, hospital room, ER cubicle, or operating room. Take off your sandals. You are standing on holy ground.
Brian Sayers is a rheumatologist.
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