We have always needed places of refuge and protection from others and from ourselves. Without them, our individual and social wellbeing is threatened.
The Abbey of Villers-la-Ville is a 40-minutes drive from Brussels, Belgium. Built in the 12th century, the abbey was abandoned in 1796 and fell into ruin. At the height of its power, it was said to host 100 monks and another 300 men who were not formally bound by the vows of the Cistercian order. Like many other places of its kind, the abbey functioned not only as a place of worship but also as a sanctuary.
Terminologically, sanctuary refers to a sacred place or a container of a sacred object. Its meaning has evolved to refer to places that offer protection to those who need it: heretics, political opponents, all sorts of persons persecuted for their beliefs or practices.
Sanctuaries were usually designated areas within or around churches and abbeys. Under certain conditions, people could take refuge within their walls. They were hosted and fed until the danger passed. They were protected until they could return home or continue on their way.
For most of our history, the idea that persons have individual rights that need to be publicly protected was a weird notion. Rights were a result of status or function, and compliance with rights was subject to the whims of local or central power. In fact, long after individual rights have been recognized by law, we’re still a long way from ensuring that they are actually respected.
The idea of sanctuary derives from a basic need for understanding and empathy. Its premise is that we can all be subject to persecution or oppression. We may not fully understand the others’ ordeal, but we realize that they need protection. We also realize that we could be in their place. That is why we need places of refuge that can accommodate different individual circumstances.
Sanctuaries are complex institutions. They may have moral authority, but they often do not have the legal and political power to enforce compliance. Even when they have some degree of political power, as in the case of US cities that disregarded Trump’s sociopathic immigration policy, they need to confront a higher political power.
Nevertheless, sanctuaries work. They rely on acts of courage and kindness that build upon one another and become examples for others.
But oppression is not always external. We also need to take a break from ourselves – from our relentless self-criticism and blaming. We need shelter and protection from our demons. We need a space of acceptance and non-judgment where we can rest and recharge.
Inner sanctuaries are difficult to create and maintain. For some of us, childhood offers good premises for emotional self-regulation and a solid sense of self-worth and agency. For others, these premises are shaky. They struggle with trauma, depression, and low self-esteem. Reinforcing these premises is the work of a lifetime.
Most forms of therapy and self-care rely on the creation or restoration of this inner sanctuary. Before we can do something about our problems, we need to stop identifying with them. Before we can act, we need to restore a sense of autonomy and agency.
As our circumstances change, our sanctuaries may need to change too. They may need to be reinvented. But our need for spaces of refuge and protection – whether from outside persecution or the ghosts of our mind – is here to stay.