Sacred Space as Medicine


January 21, 2022

Inner Life

by Janie Brown, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Callanish Society

“I explained the nature of the ceremony, how it was created to allow every voice the opportunity to be heard, how it created a sacred space for every hurt, every joy to find expression and how it was a teaching way to show us how incredibly similar we all are, how alike, how joined.”

—Richard Wagamese

Twenty-eight years ago, I responded to a calling, one that led me to my life’s work. These calls can simply be felt as a quickening in the body, an impulse for action, or a clarity of mind or heart. When we respond with a "yes" we can begin to trust our inner voices. Mind you, I have also answered many calls from my inner self which did not so obviously change my life. In fact, some of my responses to what I thought was inner guidance turned out to be misguidance! You live and learn.

In 1993, I learned about Commonweal while watching the fifth episode of the Bill Moyers series, Healing and the Mind. As I watched the documentary of the Cancer Help Program retreat I felt a strong pull toward the people and the place, a calling toward something unknown and yet deeply familiar. I phoned Commonweal the following day and found out that the first Tradecraft workshop for healthcare professionals was scheduled for a couple of months later, to learn about setting up a retreat. I signed up. 

I thought I would mostly learn about the nuts and bolts of planning and running a retreat, which I did, and that I’d strengthen my facilitation skills, which I did. But it was Jenepher Stowell’s session on "sacred space" that touched me most deeply.

My family growing up was not particularly religious. My father took us to our local Presbyterian church on occasion, and my mother, being an atheist, preferred to take us on Sunday walks in the hills outside Glasgow in the wind and rain. In church I found myself pre-occupied with the scratchy woolen pew cushions, rather than listening to the sermon or feeling anything sacred. Pushing against the wind in the Campsie Glen, however, as we traversed mounds of sodden grass and jumped over burns (little creeks), my spirits were uplifted. I felt like I belonged to the world and to my family in a very different way than I did in any religious setting.

Janie in the Commonweal Chapel

At Commonweal, when Jenepher spoke about sacred space, I understood for the first time that there were ways to interact with certain places, spaces, and people that would and could invoke the energy of upliftment and healing. When we create sacred space, the medicine reveals itself. This was the beginning of my direct relationship with the sacred and the potential for healing.

I left the Tradecraft workshop with some new friends and a fire in my heart to create our own cancer retreat program in Vancouver, modelled after the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. Jenepher, Rachel Naomi Remen, Waz, and Michael Lerner all gave me the suggestion to find some good friends whom I’d want to spend a lot of time with, and then begin offering retreats. Callanish was born in 1995 and our first retreat was held in November.

Twenty years later, in 2015, Michael called to ask me what I had been doing since he last saw me at the Tradecraft workshop. I told him about our retreats and our centre in Vancouver and he said he’d like to visit. The day Michael entered our building was a day I won’t forget. He walked very slowly and quietly through the lobby and into our main group space. He stood in the centre of the two-storey room with its plain white walls, soft beige carpet, a ceiling full of skylights, and a table adorned with flowers and candles. His silence lasted for a long time and then he nodded. “I can go now,” he smiled. “I understand what you have been doing here for twenty years.”

The power of sacred space deliberately created indoors, or situated outdoors in nature, can be felt by most people. Like walking the hills with my family in the wind and rain all those years ago, or entering the sacred spaces and circles of Commonweal, Callanish and Healing Circles, we are reminded that we are connected to a vast and intimate whole, one that conspires with us to heal.

The teaching about sacred space as medicine that I received at Commonweal became the centre of our work at Callanish. The circle is the sacred space, whether on retreat, or in our city sanctuary. Each person, weighed down by sorrows and fears, enters into a community that, unbeknownst to most of them, is stronger than they could ever imagine. Circle by circle, the burdens of a lifetime are laid at the feet of people willing to listen deeply and not turn away. Over the course of days or weeks, vitality and joy often return, and hope emerges for new possibilities, no matter the circumstances. Even those whose bodies are ill and fragile can find a renewed sense of wholeness—an understanding that life, by its nature, has meaning, and that even death can be faced. Like at Commonweal, the community of Callanish imbues us with kindness and fuels our desire to be present and supportive of one another, no matter what.

This past two years through COVID we have deepened our work within sacred space by creating individual Healing Ceremonies for community members who have specific work to do. Through art and writing and discussing with each person over several weeks, a unique healing ceremony is designed to take place either indoors or outdoors. We have held ceremonies for grief and forgiveness, for reclaiming lost parts of oneself, preparing for death, and for celebration. We have discovered that we each have an innate capacity to create sacred space for ourselves to access the healing we need.

Thank you to Jenepher and Michael and all at Commonweal who continue to inspire and nourish so many of us. We have learned in your presence, in your circles, the power and beauty of sacred space as the medicine we all need.

You can find out more about Callanish Society on their website, and in the video, below.

More From Commonweal