I guess the first thing that pops into my mind with the word sanctuary are churches. Traditionally it would seem from books and films that churches provided sanctuary to the persecuted and the poor but now I am wondering if it was monasteries that did that, rather than churches because where would the people stay in a church? Most if not all the monasteries were destroyed in the time of Henry the Eighth when Protestantism took over from Catholicism as the state religion though it was more of a breakaway from the Pope’s control than a radical change in practise in the sense that the Episcopalian service is very similar to a Catholic mass (I think printing the Bible in English was extremely radical though). Unfortunately my knowledge of monasteries comes from reading Brother Cadfael which I hope is basically sound though I don’t suppose there were many ex-soldier monks healing the sick and solving murder mysteries in the church.
More generally I would think sanctuary is a safe place for those that are persecuted. People tend to get persecuted when they are in a minority group, and there is a sense of imbalance here, the persecutors have some sense of authority in this picture. Catholics were persecuted under the reign of Henry VIII but when it was Mary’s turn to take the throne, she took revenge and persecuted the Protestants.
People find sanctuaries; find peace and safety in different places. I will tend to be most peaceful when I am on my own, where I have space to think, feel myself breathe, and be without judgement. The countryside and other open spaces would tend to be my preference, but my small garden can do at a pinch, just make sure there are no other humans around (sleeping babies are ok). My wife on the other hand needs people around her, the more the better I think, she prefers cities to countryside, and London to other cities; being on her own is difficult and scary. Sanctuaries need to be free from annoyance though which can be challenging to let go of. Gardens can be overrun by weeds, plants attached by aphids, cherries eaten by blackbirds. The countryside can be interrupted by low flying fighter planes, music festivals, and wind farms. Finding a sanctuary means letting go of the annoyances we take there.
Perhaps the hardest place to find sanctuary is in our minds. We humans are extremely good at persecuting ourselves; I am a professional self-critic, I can do it without thinking. My mind sanctuary, is where I am floating on my back in a mountain lake, looking up at the sky and mountain peaks, feeling the water lap against my body, the sun on my skin, and hearing the breeze in the trees.
I think external sensations can induce calm, or a connection away from the terror that lurks inside, but in an ideal life we can find sanctuary within ourselves. Meditation and mindfulness can help achieve this, but for many people an activity is required to make a connection with the calm outside. Cycling and swimming are two things that work for me, their repeated rhythms perhaps provide that meditative quality for my mind to free itself, to give it freedom to wander wherever it wants. The other method that works for me is to write, to express myself and my thoughts; freedom to start with a single word and trust that it will lead somewhere possibly to a new insight. Generally I need a sanctuary, a safe place to write, but writing can also take me to an inner sanctuary and peace.
I think though that sanctuaries can sometimes only be found through external help. Sometime we need another person to stand guard and protect us when we are vulnerable and helpless. We need someone to question our assumptions and point out our inconsistencies. We need someone to give a wider more distant view to a situation. Before my liver transplant, hospitals were sanctuaries to me; I gave up my worries when I went into hospital, I was now safe, and had others caring for me. I don’t think this is a standard view of hospitals though.
Sanctuaries are not just about places; they are also about the people in there, and what we, the person seeking sanctuary carries inside.