A Secular Hajj to the Holy Land

-Rich McClellan

Standing on the ramparts of the Old City, our Jewish Israeli-Canadian tour guide explains
the word “Jerusalem” translates as “City of Peace,” despite having been captured and
recaptured 44 times. By name, it’s a place of joy, renewal, forgiveness, and kindness, yet
everywhere we look we see soldiers with automatic weapons, barbed wire, religious
divides, and deep, structural disparity.

21 years prior, I was a student at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Here we
alternated days of classwork—Islamic Studies, Jewish Mysticism, Hebrew, Arabic, Old and
New Testament, Quran, Dead Sea Scrolls—with field trips to the places where significant
events transpired. While taught in a Mormon school, there was a profound appreciation for
the depth, richness, and spirituality of the place and the three sister-faith traditions
represented therein.

As I visited these sites and spoke with these people, the question was everywhere: “What
is sacred space?” Adherents of conflicting faiths all claim to “feel something” within their
favorite spiritual site; but truth be told the veracity of most sites is tenuous at best.
Still, I found something moving and meaningful in each religious site.

Backing up a bit, the telos institute (lower-case by design) is dedicated to catalyzing
transformative experiences for individuals and companies. The signature offering is the
“telos leadership venture”: a week-long, intensely physical challenge in an intimidating but
awe-inspiring natural setting, with professional coaching along the way. The idea of the
venture is to push people physically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally—all at the
same time—with an aim to bring about epiphanies and challenge paradigms.

Having experienced these ventures myself, I came to recognize in them something
familiar…those same feelings of introspection and wonder I have felt in many a church,
mosque, or ancient temple in countries all over the planet. No doubt about it, this too was
sacred space, and yet there was no ancient story from my religion (or anybody else’s)
which tied me to the place. I experienced what the Muslims would call “hajj” or a
pilgrimage—but to a site undesignated by religion—as had all of the individuals who joined
me on these ventures.

And so came my own epiphany: sacred space is an anthropological phenomenon. It exists
as a construct in our own minds and stemming from our own respective paradigms. A
community agrees that a place is sacred and then treat it as if it is sacred, and that
perpetuates the sanctity. Thus “sacred” simply means “special” or “set apart”. It is not
whether some specific ancient event happened there, but how such an event maintains
relevance in people’s lives today. The preparations for the venture, the deep introspection,
the conversations along the way, and the resolve to come out better…these actions had
sanctified this space in the minds of the participants.

Over the last decade telos has perfected this model in the Grand Canyon and expanded to
several equally stunning geographies following the same archetype…Patagonia, Iceland,
Escalante, Nepal, and so on. But when I was asked to lead a pilot venture in Israel I knew it
would be different. Unlike other telos destinations—which are starkly void of evidence for
humanity—one cannot go to Israel without taking stock of its political state, nor of the
thousands of years of tribal and religious conflict that have beget it. Religious or not, one
must comprehend religion to understand Israel.

Like other ventures, we found our geological wonders to overcome, spending three days
trekking across the massive Ramon Crater and to the Dead Sea. We struggled through
long days of hiking, sleeping on the ground, blisters, fear of heights, and all of the
elements that make such rich fodder for introspection. The memories that stand out most
are the times we felt most challenged, exposed, and awkward. These are the refiner’s fire
of sacred space…the moments where we learn something new about ourselves. To each
participant the geology itself becomes special: a place to be cherished because of its
impact on that person’s life journey.

But the rest was different from other ventures. Our journey continued on to Masada (the
site of the last Jewish holdout against Rome) and finally Jerusalem, the City of Peace so
beset by religious strife. My participants, if possible, represented as wide a spectrum of
faith orientation as this place, and my responsibility was to guide each participant on their
own journey of spiritual discovery in spaces that may or may not resonate personally.
There everything claims to be sacred, to derive its respective sacredness from privileged
access to the realms of spirituality as defined by a particular faith orientation.

But spirituality is the deeply personal quest to align our behaviors to our values. Like
sacredness, it is universal and transcends religious strictures—many of my most spiritual
friends are the least religious and vice versa. Religions may try, but cannot in good faith
claim a monopoly here. In fact, leadership development organizations like telos expend
much of their energy advancing the cause of spirituality, albeit using a secular vocabulary.

If spirituality and sacred space are indeed anthropological necessities, then as societies
diversify and communities co-mingle, we will find more inclusive ways to answer these
needs. We will make sacred space relevant in a secular world, bringing the metaphor of a
Holy Land not only to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also to agnostics, atheists,
Buddhists, and the rest. A secular Hajj.

On our venture, such inclusion began with honest and knowledgeable discussion of the
history, culture, and traditions of the place—bringing curiosity, respect, and deference to
each space, acknowledging its sanctity to someone and its capacity to be sacred to
anyone who wants it to be. On this particular visit, I connected with the Western Wall in a
way that I had not before. Not because I was co-opting or appropriating its spiritual significance for myself, but because I was able to feel its relevance and power for the
people to whom it is so deeply meaningful.

Sacred space in ancient and modern religions serves as a place to review our values and
renew our commitments. But we cannot go back to a place like the Holy Land or the
Grand Canyon on a regular basis. So in our daily lives we designate our own sacred
spaces: time in the car, on the treadmill, in a choir, or with a book. With our friends,
colleagues, and families, we find ways to set aside both space and time—treat it as
different, as a unique place for us to re-orient ourselves on the person we are striving to

But we are mistaken if we believe that our sacred space will exist without pain, that
happiness ever truly and permanently abides, or that peace remains absent of conflict. We
realize our own potential one epiphany at a time, one recovery at a time, one step forward
at a time. And yet we never truly arrive. For the Holy Land, the dream of harmony has been
sought for millennia, even lived sporadically, but dashed asunder and re-imagined again
and again. Nevertheless, it is and always has been the City of Peace.