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Sacred Earth

Awe-inspiring photographs capture major and lesser-known sacred sites

By Daniel Benson

Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power
By Martin Gray
(New York: Sterling Publishers) $23.95

One of the more revealing details about Martin Gray’s Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power is the publisher’s classification on the back cover: photography. The publishers saw this as a picture book rather than a spiritual companion or guide. That’s a shame because the book, while it has limitations, does have something to offer the seeker and the potential pilgrim, as well as the fan of good photography.

Gray is first and foremost an exceptional photographer. He documents some 1,000 sacred sites in stunning images — from Scotland to Sudan, from Myanmar to Peru — taken over 20 years. Among my favourites is the Buddhist temple in Sanbangsa, Korea, where sunlight pours through a hole in the roof during repair work. Another is of the misty view of the Avebury stone ring in Wiltshire, England.

Each photograph is accompanied by a brief history and explanation of the site’s significance. As a catalogue of both major and many unusual and lesser-known sacred sites, the book is admirable in its breadth and quality, as well as the selection of sites. Readers will discover awe-inspiring holy places and regions of the world.

For the armchair traveller, or as inspiration to move beyond the arm-chair for a first-hand look-see, the book is a good introduction to sacred places. It falls short, however, in its lack of interest in the contemporary human definition and experience of sacred place. What draws people to these sites today? Is it the ambience, the history, the beauty or some mystical power? For Gray, the answer lies where all of these intersect. But one further element is necessary: the faces and voices of the pilgrims themselves, who are curiously invisible throughout the book. Where are the people who see these places as holy ground today? Without this broader perspective, the reader is confined to Gray’s own photographic interpretation.

Gray’s survey of sacred sites keeps the promise of a good book of photography: fabulous photographs with descriptions sufficient to inspire the reader. A bit more depth might have launched the book onto the bookstores’ spirituality shelves and into personal libraries.

Daniel Benson is the executive minister of communications for The United Church of Canada and an avid amateur photographer, writer and theologian.

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