What is it that draws us to caves? Is it a spiritual drive, or some primeval desire to enter into the realm where the world of light and darkness meet?
Whatever the compulsion, there is an indisputable link with spirituality and caves. Examples are abundant, whether it be the grotto of Lourdes, the caves of Lascaux, or the Corycian Cave at Delphi.
I have felt this draw myself. When I was a much younger man, serving on the Island of Okinawa, I visited the site of the Kin Kannon Temple near Camp Hansen. Here I discovered the Nisshudo Cave. To be fair, I was driven as much by an Indiana Jones-like desire for discovery, as I was by religious interest, but in the end it was a moving experience emotionally and psychologically to find the Buddhist shrine deep within the cave. At the time it was not as tidy or well signposted as it seems to be on TripAdvisor these days, it was truly a surprise discovery, but one which while Buddhist was still touching to me.
I have had a long relationship with such religious sites. When I was a teenager I often visited the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception near Catholic University. There I always looked at wonder at the Christ Pantocrator, but ultimately, I would find my way to the grotto-like Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. It was at this chapel, that I had the more profound religious experiences.
The spiritual dimension of such cavernous places is reflected in many cultures. While I was visiting the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, one of its main exhibits was a grotto. Though pagan in its focus, it shared many of the traits of the Buddhist and Catholic grotto shrines. A place of light in the darkness, and the enclosed separation of an “other worldly” atmosphere stirred the mind and emotions.
Caves do no seem to me to have such a major importance in the Christian Protestant tradition. This is not to say that Protestants do not hold certain caves as spiritually significant. These often include the caves mentioned in the biblical narrative such as the caves of En Gedi where David hid from Saul. The burial place of Jesus (Aedicule site), is said to have originally been a cave as well. But Jesus rose again to life, and therefore light. Maybe this is the reason for the evangelical indifference to the subterranean.
Caves feature as well in the history of The Dead Sea Scrolls which were “resurrected” from caves near Qumran. Here for nearly two thousand years the priceless copies of biblical texts rested. This is understandable as caves as places of protection are cited in scripture (as with David, and Elijah). Yet these faithful figures were called from their dark cells by duty, or directly by God. The scrolls were hidden by their keepers with the goal of being reclaimed. Their delayed recovery from their dark confinement is a blessing to us, as they have proven to be a time capsule, which upholds the reliability of the transmission of God’s Word.
Where does this leave us? Caves and grottoes draw us. They allow us to interact with or emotions, fears, and with the unknown. But despite their fascination, and the spiritual echoes which touch us, we learn more in the light. This does not mean we have nothing to gain from exploring their depths, but in the end they should challenge us to reconnect with the world and with life.