Definitions of the word “sanctuary” center around sacredness, but also around safety. It keeps something or someone in and also keeps something or someone out. It can protect either the innocent or the guilty. It serves to set something apart as sacred, to sanctify. It protects from influence and preserves the purity of things and ideas.
The word has new prominence and resonance in our current cultural climate. Inspired by the role of Sanctuary in the lives of American people, including people I know and love, and in Jennifer Koh’s life as well as my own, I undertook a large-scale research project around this powerful word.
My task was simple: find instances of the use of “sanctuary” in a broad range of American writings, in order to reach a greater understanding of its layered meaning within American consciousness. I undertook the historical research for the Sanctuary project at the American Antiquarian Society in MA, where I was the William Randolph Hearst Artist Fellow in July 2018. I explored broadsides, poetry, political tracts and speeches, novels and children’s literature – vernacular as well as statesmanlike works – discovering writings that capture the off-hand use of the word in different eras of American history.
In all cases, “sanctuary” carries a sense of the inviolable. It is used to appeal to a sense of the absolute. It appears in the rhetoric of both sides of every important American struggle: Abolition, Suffrage, Secession, Manifest Destiny, Temperance, Marriage Rights, Civil Rights, and the foundational thinking of the Founding Fathers. It aims to bypass rational argument and addresses itself directly to sentiment, justice, moral rightness, piety, bigotry, romantic feeling or patriotism.
In the sources I found, sanctuary can denote separate spheres within one’s domain: his study or studio, her virtue, her boudoir, his private correspondence. It can be a safe place, away from bad influences like Drinking, or a “safe” space for debauchery to express itself freely away from corrective influences like women’s company or the Law. Intimacy and love pierce the ‘inner’ sanctuary of the heart and spirit. The White Man’s predations pierce the sanctuary of the Native American’s beloved land. The presence of a loved one can turn a place into a sanctuary for the beloved. People build sanctuaries around their hearts or souls because they have been hurt, and new tenderness or desire can pierce those protective walls. Poetry can be a sanctuary from darker thoughts. Learning that one you love has done evil can make you feel the shame of having the sanctuary of your heart violated.
Sanctuary, the violin concerto, is in three movements that articulate a journey towards sanctuary. The first movement, “Speak,” explores the emotional space within one’s soul or mind that spins out ever more urgent appeals for succor or deliverance. Its epigraph, from 1859, is an anonymous quote from a poem in Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion: “Within the soul’s deep sanctuary, thought, / Are shadow forms, dim present to my view, / Nor wholly spectral, yet embodied not, / And yet they speak to me with voices true…”