a labyrinthine journey 



First steps
by Geoff Dunlop

This website is dedicated to exploring the sacred in its many complexities and contradictions. Although many people may dismiss the sacred as irrelevant, even meaningless, many more associate it with the things they most value, an encounter with the very meaning of life. In English, unadorned dictionary definitions can't get close to the richness of the word and the wealth of its manifestations. The two bare definitions in the Oxford dictionary appear to contradict each other.
















The original Latin word sacer translates into English as "holy" or "purified", as in a religious ritual. But dig deeper into the word and its root translates as "set apart" or "restricted", which we can extend to the highly valued, the exceptional. Even in an age when religion is so often contested or rejected, the word sacred retains its power and purpose, through its persistent reference to what individuals and societies believe truly matters.

"Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again."


JOSEPH CAMPBELL writer, mythologist


“To theology only what it holds sacred is true, whereas to philosophy, only what holds true is sacred.” 


This website is not so much about definitions as descriptions ...  what people do, and why, as much as what they believe. It does not dismiss the significance of religion but deals it as one dimension of the urge people have to make their lives meaningful, connected to the deeper truths of existence, and the search for purpose in life. In my own life, as an artist, filmmaker and writer, travelling the world widely, I have become fascinated by the intensity, passion and inventiveness, that people and peoples commit to their sense of the sacred, through rituals, objects, relationships and places.  My personal journey of discovery has not exactly defined my life but it has frequently influenced its direction. Because we humans are so different from each other, and yet so alike, the sacred can act as a mirror for looking back at ourselves, in all our amazing diversity. 















































































I wonder whether I can really know myself as I was as a child, but I believe that I was drawn towards the sacred from an early age. I remember - or do I imagine? - that I would embrace the rising intensity of feeling, as if it were a physical force. The clearest memories I have of those waves of emotion come from when I was nine or ten. At the time, as well as playing cricket for England, alone in the back garden, I was a choir boy at the local parish church. The setting of this monument to Victorian piety was an ever-expanding suburban area west of London, where housing estates for the workers and heritage homes for the upwardly mobile were consuming the Thames Valley landscape like plague upon plague of locusts. One district, named Early after its previous association with sea eagles, could now boast that it had become the largest housing development in Europe.


Yet on one bleak and black night in February, I was invited to transcend the mundanity of my surroundings. Precisely forty days after Christmas, I and my chorister friends became participants in the ritual of Candlemas. This was a unique nighttime service dedicated to the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, and to the Purification of his mother, the Virgin Mary. But it was not the religious significance of the ceremony that gripped me, it was drama of it. I was so engulfed by the occasion that the power of the experience remains vivid within me, more than half a century later.














































The appointed time for the service was unusually late. I like to think it was after midnight and that the snow was deep outside, with our protection being only the cold stone walls and overworked heating. That's probably an exaggeration of my own making, but I can be certain it was well past my bedtime. Given the lateness and the season, the church was surprisingly full. Clearly something special was about to happen.


The low hum of expectant conversation within the congregation was stilled by the priest. And the church was cast into darkness. Then we, the priest and the choir, entered the nave, with each of us carrying a candle that emphasised the prevailing obscurity. I can't remember what we were singing but I know it wasn't one of the often turgid hymns we'd offer up at a standard Evensong service. It was magical music, from a far distant time. We trebles were like birds, or even angels, soaring above the earthly voices of the tenors and basses. I knew I'd never forget this, a moment when my physical and (a word I find hard to write) spiritual being were in total harmony. Like the sounds we were making, I was in a state of vibration.


As I remember it, the progress of the procession, all around the church, was slow. We would stop every few yards for prayers and blessing. I have discovered this from a Church of England order of service for Candlemas:

"Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people. As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified, as we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognized him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory. In this eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion."


























































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Even as a child the Biblical references escaped my attention. I had already heard these stories far too many times. As for the implicit Theology, it had always seemed as mysterious to me as Maths - another language I would never properly learn. I was here, in the semi-darkness, for the companionship of good friends (the communion, you could say), the extraordinary sounds and for the wafting smells of the incense, so exotic, so strange. I was here to stand beside Alan -the star of our modest choir- as he used his young tenor voice to make amazing patterns throughout the darkness. For me, the heart of the ritual was not to remember something that may or may not have happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, but to be intimately involved in the other purpose of this service, the blessing of the church's new candles, that would burn for the rest of year, apart from another 40 day stretch, the austerity of Lent. 


By far the most impressive of these candles was the beeswax Paschal candle, the tall, fat one that would stand for the rest of the year beside the altar. It remained unlit throughout Lent, but was brought to life on Easter morning, to declare an end to the darkness of winter, and to lighten the souls of the congregation. When I was in the choir stalls on Easter Day, and into the summer months, I would look at what I now see as this great burning lingam (long before I knew what a lingam was) and feel a sense of glory in the glow this candle gave out. Throughout Christian history the Paschal Candle has helped a special status.... {etc} 


One precept of Christian Theology that I had managed to grasp as a choirboy was the compelling symbolism of the contrast between brilliant light and deepest darkness.... 









































































































































































































































































sacred adjective 

1   connected with God or a god; considered to be holy


  • a sacred image/shrine/temple

  • sacred music

  • Cows are sacred to Hindus.

2   very important and treated with great respect

  • Human life must always be sacred.

  • For journalists nothing is sacred (= they can write about anything).

  • Some companies offer five-year plans but there is nothing sacred

     about this length of time (= it can be changed).

                                         Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

Screenshot 2021-07-12 at 02.28.18.png
St Anne, the newborn Jesus, the Madonna.png

The newborn Jesus with the Virgin Mary and St Anne

Georges de la Tour, Musee de Rennes

Detail of the young Jesus holding a candle, from Saint Joseph the Carpenter 

Georges de La Tour (1593 - 1652)  

Musée du Louvre, Paris.

First light


Presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem

Taken from the Menologion of Basil II, a service calendar of the

Eastern Orthodox Church, produced  in1000 CE


Geoff Dunlop