At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. – Matthew 27:51
In a scene from Taylor Sheridan’s new series Tulsa King, Dwight Manfredi (played by Sylvester Stallone) visits The Center of the Universe. It’s a nondescript spot on a Tulsa city street that boasts an acoustic anomaly. When you stand over it and speak, your words echo back, and those nearby can’t hear you. Wrapped in that isolative silence, Manfredi admits a sobering fact about his life that he has never voiced in the past.
I’ve been to that spot, following a tip from Atlas Obscura, and I thought of it on a recent trip to Mexico City. We toured the Templo Mayor, ruins of the Aztec’s greatest pyramid. They considered it the axis mundi, the center of their universe. They aligned it with the four cardinal directions, believing that it intersected with levels of both heaven and the underworld.
We then visited the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, the axis mundi for Guadalupanos who revere Mexico’s patron saint. Twenty million pilgrims a year journey to this vast compound, passing by the reputed tunic of Juan Diego imprinted with the iconic image of La Virgen.
It’s such a strong desire in human history, our need to stand in places we feel are holier and closer to the Divine. History is replete with examples. Some are natural like Mt. Fuji for Shintoists, Mt. Kunlun for Taoists, the Teide Volcano for Canarian aborigines, or the Black Hills for the Sioux. Some are human made like the Mormon Tabernacle, Mecca for Muslims, the Christian cross atop Mt. Calvary, and the Golden Temple for Sikhs. Some are metaphorical like maypoles, totem poles, or mandalas.
On that aforementioned trip to Mexico City, I marveled at the spell still cast upon Latin America by the Roman Catholic church. It was evident not only on the sprawling grounds of the Basilica—akin to a religious theme park—but in the abundance of the city’s cathedrals, their spires dominating every horizon. With all that money and effort spent, and with all that power invested in a priestly class, I thought of a metaphor in Christian scripture that is still revolutionary.
We find it in each of the synoptic Gospels, including Matthew 27:50-51. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
That curtain, of course, was in the temple of Jerusalem, called the Second Temple because it was rebuilt after Babylon destroyed the original in 586 BCE. It contained the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resided, a spot where the Israelites believed the presence of God hovered. It was their axis mundi, and a curtain separated that space from “sinful people.” Only the High Priest could enter the sanctum on Yom Kippur to sprinkle blood as an atonement for Israel’s transgressions.
Think of the symbolic power of that curtain being torn! No longer could the Presence of “God” be confined to one place, one time, or one’s people religious practices! No longer do we need priestly classes to intercede for us, acting as conduits to this mystery in which all of us live and breathe and have our being! If Jesus’s only victory at the time of his crucifixion was to release the strictures of any religion that claims exclusivity or requires obligatory rituals, that would have been enough!
I understand the desire to visit sacred places. I have found breathtaking beauty in many such sites during my world travels. But there is much to be said for a Hindu concept. They believe that human beings themselves are the conduits, the pillars, between earth and heaven. That our chakras—nodes of spiritual energy arising in each of us—give equal access to the Transcendent at any given moment. This is another metaphor for the tearing of the temple curtain. It means we can access this grace, this love, this higher and fuller reality while:
- Standing on a mountaintop or in an urban alleyway.
- Viewing stained glass windows or peering through the windshields of our cars.
- Kneeling in a sacred grotto or next to the bed of a loved one.
- Pacing on the rooftop of a skyscraper or within the confines of a prison cell.
- Lying in our cradles or on our deathbeds.
Equal access. Right now. Unshackled from the control of any institution or religion!
Alas. History has shown that most revolutionary concepts are difficult to fully apprehend or internalize. Perhaps we are afraid of the freedom. Perhaps this is why we too often trade comfort for adventure, adherence for rebellion, conformity for authenticity. Maybe this is why we outsource our spiritual authority to others rather than claiming the power within us.
When it comes to the tearing of the curtain, as Jesus so often said, “Let those who have ears hear.”