Sacred Places

They are as varied as the human sense of the sacred and as various as the world's many spiritual traditions. Sacred places range from entire cities to that special room in your home, and can be man-made or part of nature. Often associated with saints or holy figures, they are places that draw pilgrims--sanctified, in some cases, by great churches, mosques, temples, or shrines. And because the sacred is associated as much with sorrow as with joy, they can also be cemeteries, battlefields, or other sites commemorating great loss.

Yet for all their many differences, sacred places share a distinctive, almost sacramental character: They are outward and visible signs of an invisible, numinous order. All play a part in the common human effort to define the cosmos, to name the divinity or higher principle behind it, and to locate the self and the community within it. They also partake in the ambiguities of the religious life. For just as sacred places often elicit the best side of the search for meaning, so too can they be caught up in what goes wrong. Think of Jerusalem, where over the centuries, the peoples of three different great faiths have come to fight almost as much as to pray. For better and for worse, sacred places are part of the complex web of our collective spiritual heritage.

In this special issue, we explore the history, significance, and enduring power of places here and abroad that people consider sacred.