The original meaning of "shrine" in Old English (scrin) and Latin (scrinium) suggests that it is a box or repository. In this original and more limited usage, shrines are repositories for a revered body or venerated relic, and devotees often have commemorated holy persons by constructing shrines over tombs or placing remains in them. In its broader meaning, however, "shrine" refers to a sacred site that houses holy artifacts, promotes ritual practice, and attracts religious travelers, who often mark the time and extend the space of the journey by returning home with mementos. These sacred sites function as mediating spaces or transitional zones by allowing a vertical movement toward the sacred, elevating devotees and bringing low the transcendent, as pilgrims petition and thank the gods and saints. Shrines also allow horizontal movement outward into the social terrain and built environment. In this sense they culturally situate devotees by creating interpersonal bonds, negotiating social status, and constructing collective identity. Shrines differ from other places of worship such as Protestant churches or Jewish synagogues, which attract visitors on a more regular basis and from a narrower geographical range. In other words, shrines usually attract pilgrims, religiously motivated travelers who undertake infrequent round-trip journeys.
If we consider the term in its widest sense, most religious traditions have shrines, but the meanings and functions of those sacred sites vary widely. We can classify the variety of contemporary shrines in several ways.
Shrines can be classified, first, by religious tradition. So using this apparently straightforward scheme, we could note that El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico, currently one of the most frequently visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the United States, is a Christian shrine. However, sometimes classifying shrines by religious affiliation can be more difficult. Some sites inscribe multiple religious influences, and self-consciously ecumenical sacred spaces claim to venerate multiple traditions, as with the 1986 Light of Truth Universal Shrine at Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. By the 1960s the American Methodist Historical Association officially had designated twelve sites, including Epworth Chapel in Georgia, as "national Methodist shrines." However, some religious followers, especially many Protestants, seem less comfortable using the term "shrine" to describe places with religious significance, even though, as that Methodist organization acknowledged, those sites sometimes take on many of the meanings and functions usually associated with shrines. Finally, classifying shrines by religious affiliation is problematic because that method overlooks quasi-religious sites. Some places that claim secular status nonetheless share some of the standard features of shrines—for example, nationalistic spaces such as the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and tourist destinations such as Cooperstown's National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and Elvis Presley's Memphis home, Graceland.
Shrines also can be classified geographically, since they vary in placement and scope. Although there are very few of these in the contemporary United States, some shrines, such as Lourdes in France and Muhammed's tomb in Saudi Arabia, become international sites, drawing pilgrims from many nations. Others are national, as saints—such as St. James in Spain and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico—become inter-twined with the nation's history and identity. Regional shrines attract devotees from a few counties or states, while local shrines draw visitors from a single town or city. Narrowing the scope still more, some shrines decorate pathways or mark the boundary between domestic and civic space, as with Afro-Cuban yard shrines in Miami. Homes become sacred, too, as devotees place images and artifacts associated with holy persons on bedroom walls or living-room altars. And recent technological innovations, especially the Internet, have made some shrines even less spatially fixed: Web pages allow cyberpilgrims to e-mail prayers, check schedules, and take virtual tours.
Finally, shrines also can be classified by their origin and function, even if most contemporary sites share features of several types. Commemorative shrines recall the site of key historical or mythological events (e.g., a founder's vision or the world's creation), and pilgrims recount historical narratives or sacred myths about the deeds done there as they perform rituals that memorialize holy persons or transport followers to religiously significant times or places. Some Native American sacred sites, for example, are commemorative: Several mountains in New Mexico and Arizona mark places where the Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo peoples first were told to settle or first established their spiritual relationships with bear, deer, and eagle. Miraculous shrines, a second type, mark the site of miraculous interventions or sacred encounters, such as apparitions and healings. Many shrines acquire a reputation for their healing powers. The holy dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo, for example, draws Latino pilgrims who believe it has the power to heal body and soul, and those who are transformed leave notes or crutches to signal their thanks. Sometimes shrines also originate because followers find or acquire relics, objects considered sacred because of their association with holy persons (built or found object shrines), or because devotees want to give thanks that an individual or group was saved from some crisis or catastrophe (ex voto shrines). Other shrines are self-consciously constructed on sites that do not recall historical events, mark miraculous interventions, house ancient relics, or thank a deity. Some of these, imitative shrines, replicate images and architecture from older sites elsewhere, as with the many American Catholic sites whose design mirrors European pilgrim centers such as Lourdes and as with American Hindu centers such as Pittsburgh's Sri Venkateswara Temple, which recalls one of the most sacred sites in South India, the hilltop shrine of Tirupati. Other self-consciously created pilgrimage sites, identity shrines, celebrate saints or deities that mark ethnic, religious, or national identity. These shrines have been especially important to first- and second-generation immigrants, as they make sense of themselves in the new American cultural context.
These multiple types of shrines—classified by religion, geography, and origin—appear throughout the world, but some patterns emerge as we consider what has been most distinctive about U.S. shrines. First, with the exception of some Native American shrines, U.S. pilgrimage sites are relatively recent when compared with those from Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Second, perhaps because of its vigorous civil religion and its relative economic privilege, which allows its citizens to construct and visit more sites, the nation seems to have a greater number of quasi-religious nationalistic and tourist places. Third, shrines have been more central in some religious traditions (e.g., Roman Catholicism and Hinduism) than in others and, with some exceptions, those long-standing patterns have held in America. So Catholics, with as many as 360 religious sites, have built the most shrines on American soil. American Buddhists and Muslims, who have constructed shrines in Asia and the Middle East, have not yet transplanted that tradition because their numbers increased substantially only after the 1965 revision of U.S. immigration laws, and these religious communities traditionally have constructed shrines on the tombs of holy persons or at the sites of historical events. That also explains a fourth pattern in the United States. Only religious movements that originated on the continent, such as the Latter-Day Saints or Mormons, can claim the American landscape as the site of their founding, so there are fewer commemorative, miraculous, and found-object shrines in the United States. In turn, Americans have built more imitative and identity shrines, which bridge for immigrants the homeland and the United States, a nation originally formed and continually transformed by migration.
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Thomas A. Tweed
Revd Dr William M. Marshall
shrine / shrīn/ • n. a place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, typically marked by a building or other construction. ∎ a place associated with or containing memorabilia of a particular revered person or thing: her grave has become a shrine for fans from all over the world. ∎ a casket containing sacred relics; a reliquary. ∎ a niche or enclosure containing a religious statue or other object. • v. [tr.] poetic/lit. enshrine.
1. Fereter, often of great architectural magnificence, for Relics.
2. Building, feretory, or shrine-chapel in which the Relics are deposited.