A few days ago here on the blog -- for reasons that I hope were obvious in the context of my subject that day -- I gave you a link to a webcam that looks at a park at the center of the business district in my hometown's downtown.
That business district is organized around what we Woodstock, Ill., natives call The Square -- four streets that form the boundaries of the central park.
But it's also true that for me The Square has always played a central role in what religion scholar Diana L. Eck calls our "imagined landscape." What I think she means by that is that in our own minds we place ourselves in a certain geographic and mythologic context -- one that changes and evolves as we move through our day and our days.
For instance, if, like me, you grew up in a small town there is always some part of that experience that connects you to it. I am, as I write this, about 500 miles away from my small hometown, though despite that distance I am connected to it just as I'm connected to the other places where I spent parts of my boyhood (including two years in India) and parts of my adult years.
Thus, I am always (relentlessly, almost by instinct) placing myself somewhere in this imagined landscape as a way of acknowledging my current context, its connection to my past and its possible future direction. In other words, I am -- as someone once said of poetry -- a real frog in an imaginary garden.
Eck writes about this in her engaging book India: A Sacred Geography, (I introduced blog readers to the book earlier this year here) in which she makes the point that what overlays India in the religious imagination of its people is a sacred landscape connected to their religious history.
But, she writes, "let us recognize that to speak of an 'imagined landscape' is not to speak of something fanciful, for the imagined landscape is the most powerful landscape in which we live. No one really lives in the India displayed on a digitally accurate map, or in any other two-dimensional graph of the world. Such a map can locate our hometown. . . There is no question of the utility of such a map. But all of us, individually and culturally, live in the mappings of our imagined landscape, with its charged centers and its dim peripheries, with its mountaintops and its terrae incognitae, with its powerful sentimental and emotional three-dimensionality, with its bordered terrain and the loyalty it inspires, with its holy places, both private and communally shared."
What Eck doesn't say here, but I think she implies, is that we would all do well to acknowledge that each person's imagined landscape is different and we should respect that and not try to overlay ours on theirs. Respect does not mean we agree with someone, just that we acknowledge the right of others to live in the world as they understand it, not as we understand it. (Religious zealots, I'm talking to you.)
* * *
MOVED TO SPEAK TO GOD
Before the peace of Christmas gives way completely to the madness of the coming New Year, I invite you to read this lovely piece about a woman who grew up in a church family, drifted away and then, as an adult, felt deeply drawn to be in a church to pray. If any of you feel that same need, know that my congregation will always welcome you.
* * *
P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.