By Michael Xiarhos, Ph.D.
What is it that makes a place sacred? Essentially, we are talking about creation, that is the creation of the sacred place from profane space. Sacredness can be attributed to a certain place because of a singular event associated with that particular location: The Sepulcher in Jerusalem is a prime example of this. It is a traditional Christian belief that the Sepulcher was built atop the location of the two most significant events in the life of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Thus, the place maintains a unique sacredness impossible to recreate at other locations. Other places may not have a single event laying the foundation for its spiritual or sacred importance, but rather a series of events over a period of time, which if constructed into a single narrative can be used to build spiritual importance. We can see this idea come alive along the Camino de Santiago. The traditional road to Santiago which begins in southern France is over 500 miles long, and has along the way dozens of spiritually significant locations. These locations are generally important only as they relate to the greater Camino and would perhaps cease to be significant if not for their fortuitous existence along the well-traveled Way of St. James.
In both constructs listed above, sacred place was created; either by a single overwhelming event, or a series of events linked together. Creation is still the essential element here. Who is the creator of this sacred place? It is the continued devotion of the faithful which allows and maintains the sacred qualities of these places. Man’s devotion to the event(s) is what bestows sacredness on a particular location. Essentially if man deems a place to be sacred, it is sacred. This, according to Mircea Eliade is an intentional act of creation. Man desires a place of profound significance outside the normal world, a place more connected to God at which man can contemplate his own being and his connection to the God-head or the cosmic force, which ever the case may be.
Eliade argues that for a location to be considered sacred, there must exist a door or what he deems a vehicle of passage from the profane space to the sacred space. From this perspective, there is no reason Eliade’s creation thesis cannot apply to a purely secular location; a location which can transcend the normal-profane space into something approaching sacredness. Enter Fenway Park!
Fenway Park in Boston is old, it is outdated, it is uncomfortable, it is small, and it is widely considered to be a sacred shrine of baseball in America. With newer ballparks in every other major market, Fenway and by extension the Red Sox are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of ticket sales, marketing, advertising rights, and corporate sponsorship, however there is just something about Fenway Park. Michael Barer argues that while Fenway may be a cultural and communal phenomenon it is also inferior in almost every conceivable economic viewpoint. Its power and value however lie in the realm of the spiritual and its personal connection with the people of Boston and greater New England. Essentially it is about how the people construct the narrative of the events which occur inside the confines of the park, how they express their “sense of place and cultural identity” and about how they perceive the site. In fact the site, Fenway Park, is given sentient qualities by its patrons… the ballpark in a very real way is a living spiritual entity for the faithful.
Fenway Park offers something to the locals that no other place in the world can provide, a connection to its collective past through shared experiences, stories, joys, and tragedies. There is a profound exchange which takes place at the park, an exchange that is not of the material world, but something, to use Barer’s terminology, more ethereal. For over a century, Fenway Park has been the place where families meet, reconnect, and quite often pray together for the success of the much benign Red Sox. In many ways Fenway, like religion itself, defies logic. Michael Barer explains, “All Fenway Park has are cramped seats, poles that obstruct spectators’ view of the game, a daunting green wall in left field, a hand-operated scoreboard, and a slew of devoted patrons, pilgrims, and parishioners.” Throughout his study of the cultural importance of Fenway, Barer uses language normally reserved for the spiritual: pilgrimage, shrine, pray, homage, myth, parishioners, faith, and sacred. Language matters and no other sports venue in American society can elicit the same type of linguistic religiosity. Barer even calls upon the theories of Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method by calling the spiritual nature of Fenway a social fact.
Where does this place Fenway Park in terms of secular pilgrimage? John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow argue that in order for a location to be truly sacred and by extension for this discussion worthy of pilgrimage, it must exude a mystical force pulling otherwise rational people to its physical location. The act of traveling to the particular location becomes a response to that magnetism to such an extent the faithful are almost powerless to resist. Its power is manifested naturally and internally and offers no explanation or justification. Consider those ideas with the feelings of a devout member of Red Sox Nation following the teams World Series victory in 2004, “I needed to come to Fenway. We won last night, so I had to be here today…” Now consider this devotion with the fact that the team itself was not in Boston but in St. Louis and one can argue that Fenway itself is at the very least as important as the team.
As nothing can be intentionally manufactured to be so, Fenway Park was not made to be sacred. It opened in 1912 as a state of the art facility along the Fens in Boston. It opened its doors just days following the sinking of the Titanic, it helped see Bostonians through the Great War, struggled through Prohibition, delivered its greatest hero Ted Williams to the front lines of World War II and Korea, was the home of baseball’s last team to break the color barrier a full twelve years following Jackie Robinson, and was a source of hope for a city victimized by terrorists in 2013. Fenway Park has helped an entire region of the United States cope by providing an escape to a different reality, if only for a few hours a day. Combine these real-world events with the thousands of strictly baseball related happenings, and it is clear Fenway Park was made sacred through a series of interconnected events which share one essential commonality, Fenway itself. The physical structure can be copied and duplicated as it was for the Red Sox spring training facility in Florida, however you would be hard-pressed to find a member of Red Sox Nation who would make an argument that Jet Blue Park is on par with Fenway Park.
Like locations of more traditional religious sacredness, Fenway Park is sacred only so much as it is connected to these events and the physical presence of a divine figure. Clearly members of the Red Sox organization are not divine in the Christ-like sense, but there is connectivity to the team which does transcend time and space as membership in Red Sox Nation is a generational phenomenon for New Englanders. Additionally, as Muslims are obliged to make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, all members of Red Sox Nation are expected to make the sacred journey to Fenway to take part in that shared generational tradition. Also, like Christianity, there is an element of suffering which is required of a true patron of Fenway and a true member of Red Sox Nation as anyone who suffered through the heartbreaks of 1975, 1986, 2003, and eight decades worth of pain can attest. To make the journey to Fenway Park, to sit where your father and grandfather sat, is truly to share in something much larger than the game of baseball, and many feel as though Fenway Park itself is a literal connection to the spirits of departed family members.
Peter Berger maintains that a core component of the world’s ‘desacredization’ is modernity’s belief that the world is certain and somehow controlled. The sacred and the spiritual exist outside the bounds of that pseudo-control. Fenway Park offers an escape from that control and certainty; it offers a snapshot of the divine. Perhaps this is why producers of Field of Dreams chose Fenway Park as the scene for Ray Kinsella’s mystical connection with the spirit of a long dead ballplayer, and eventual his deceased father. As aforementioned, language matters and the following statements from New Englanders offer a glimpse as to the spiritual power of the Red Sox and Fenway Park.
“You’ve got to be a believer in the Curse. When you see what’s happened, you’ve got to believe it.”
“Perhaps this is the way the Curse has to end. With this final exorcism.”
“I prayed, let me have this! I’ll never ask for anything again.”
“It was bigger than the game. For the Red Sox fans it was 86 years of torment; a redemption.”
“This is a story which transcended baseball.”
“I went to my father’s grave the day after to share this with him, and to cry with him.”
Bruce Main, the executive director of the Urban Promise Ministries, argues that the spiritual can be found at any place and at any time. In fact, he claims that traditionally secular locations are potentially the most powerful purveyors of the spiritual world, “God needs people who live in the center of civic activity and who can craft a contemporary spirituality that provides and leads to emotional and spiritual health.” That offers the perfect explanation of what Fenway Park has become, a literal center of civic activity providing a spiritual lift, filled with emotion and deeply profound connectivity to the past, present, and future generations of Fenway faithful.
Michael Xiarhos teaches both theology and history and aside from his many visits to Fenway Park, he has walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela as well as gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mt. St. Michel in France. His upcoming book for the Theology and Pop Culture series entitled, The Secular Pilgrimage: Crossroads Between the Sacred and the Profane explores the connections between secular locations and the devotional act of pilgrimage.