Mysterious Ways: Secret Spaces

Mysterious Ways: Secret Spaces

Our editors and readers have discovered and shared sanctuaries of calm and solitude for your enjoyment.

  • The Escadaria Selarón in  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    The Escadaria Selarón

    Last summer, I volunteered at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and heard the sad and beautiful tale behind one of the city’s most beloved landmarks, the Escadaria Selarón. In 1983, a Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón, moved into a house next to the decaying stone staircase that led to the convent of Santa Teresa. He was inspired to transform the steps into a kind of ode to Brazil. Predicting that the work would only end with his death, Jorge spent the next 30 years adorning the 215 steps with colorful mosaics, using tiles salvaged from construction sites and—as the staircase’s fame grew—brought by visitors from around the globe. The stories behind those tiles gave the staircase a soul, he said. The nation mourned when Jorge was found dead in unexplained circumstances in 2013, on the stairs that now bear his name. But as I experienced myself on my last night in Rio, his spirit lives on in his loving creation.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor


  • Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia

    Howard Finster's Paradise Garden

    A tower of hubcaps, a sermon-covered Cadillac, a five-story wedding chapel shaped like a cake. Just a taste of what you’ll find at Paradise Garden off Highway 27 in Summerville, Georgia. It was the inspired creation of preacher Howard Finster, who built the oasis of junk-turned-to-art over two and a half acres of swampland starting in 1970. His purpose was, he said, “to show off all the wonderful things o’ God’s creation, kinda like the Garden of Eden.” The garden was originally called the Plant Farm Museum, but one day while repairing a bike, Howard had a vision of a face in a drop of paint that instructed him to “paint sacred art.” He did just that, incorporating biblical figures and Bible commentary in everything from murals to, eventually, album covers for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. When he died, in 2001, at 84, he’d created nearly 50,000 eclectic works of inspiring art. “The world began as a beautiful garden,” he once said, “and I thought it should end with one.”—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • Ra Paulette's Wilderness Shrines

    These caverns in northern New Mexico weren’t formed by nature—it was carved into the sandstone hills with only a pickax and a shovel by Ra Paulette. The 69-year-old artist has no formal training and works without blueprints. He carved his first cave in 1985 as a hideout to help him overcome a heart-break. But when visitors left religious mementos behind, Ra realized his life’s purpose—to create light-filled “wilderness shrines” for spiritual renewal. He’s carved more than a dozen. His most impressive, outside Santa Fe, took nearly 900 hours to complete. Some have running water and electricity. All offer a place to pray and, as Ra puts it, be transformed.—Allison Churchill, contributing editor

  • Guideposts: Iowa City’s Sacred Stone Circle

    Sacred Stone Circle

    This isn’t Stonehenge—it’s Iowa. The ancient stones of Iowa City’s Sacred Stone Circle came from a mysterious 4,000-year-old worship site on the Indonesian island of Flores. How did they end up in America’s heartland? In 2001, Doug Paul, a retired textbook publisher, met an art dealer who told him that the Catholic parish in charge of the Flores site couldn’t afford to maintain it and was seeking to sell the stones. Doug “felt the stones calling to him.” He acquired 400 acres in his hometown that he named the Harvest Preserve, to serve as the artifacts’ sanctuary. It took a ship, a train and several flatbed trucks to transport all 20 stones, weighing 90 tons combined, more than 9,400 miles to their new home, a spiritual haven where, according to Doug, “one feels natural communication with the divine.”—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • Guideposts: The Initiation Well in Sintra, Portugal

    The Initiation Well

    The Initiation Well in Sintra, Portugal, wasn’t designed to draw water from or make wishes on. It was meant to take visitors out of this world—to purgatory and back. It sits on Quinta da Regaleira, the fantastical property of António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian-born billionaire and entomologist who in 1910 built a home as eccentric as he was, a Gothic palace with grottoes, secret gardens and hidden tunnels. The well’s staircase winds nearly 90 feet into the ground. The number of landings—nine—may have been inspired by Dante’s Inferno. At the bottom lies the cross of the Knights Templar. It’s said that whoever enters and exits the well will be reborn—a journey from darkness to light.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • Guideposts: A golden caravan of camels travels through the eye of a needle.

    Monastery of the Caves

    Visitors to an unusual art museum at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, Ukraine, won’t see any masterpieces—unless they use a microscope. The teeny-tiny creations of Ukrainian artist Mykola Syadristy—most smaller than a grain of salt—include an electric motor one-twentieth the size of a poppy seed, a chess set on the head of a pin, a rose inside a strand of hair and a camel caravan of gold in the eye of a needle. A former engineer, Mykola works on his art between breaths, between heartbeats, to ensure a steady hand. Each wonder takes about a month to create—and makes a lasting impression.–Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

    See more of Mykola's creations!

  • Guideposts: Giuliano Mauri's Cattedrale Vegetale, a cathedral made entirely of trees outside Bergamo, Italy

    Cattedrale Vegetale

    The late Italian artist Giuliano Mauri said, “Nature is my liturgy.” One of his final masterpieces was the Cattedrale Vegetale, a cathedral made entirely of trees outside Bergamo, Italy, in a spectacular setting at the foot of Mount Arera. Mauri designed the 12,900-square-foot, five-aisle house of worship in 2001. Forty-two beech-tree saplings would grow within the confines of skeletal columns built from 1,800 fir poles woven with chestnut and hazel branches. The construction was carried out in 2010, a year after the artist's death. While the supporting structures will eventually fall apart and return to nature, the beech trees will continue to rise toward the heavens, eventually forming thick, leafy walls and a vaulted ceiling 30 feet high. Even in its developing state, the “Tree Cathedral” has rooted itself in the hearts of visitors, like one who called it “a perfect place to reflect and admire the majesty of nature.”–Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • Tianmen, or Heaven’s Gate, near Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, China

    Heaven’s Gate

    Where do heaven and earth meet? According to Chinese lore, just miles from Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province. In A.D. 263, part of Songliang Mountain collapsed, opening a portal that locals believed to be a link between God and the everyday world. The natural arch became known as Tianmen, or Heaven’s Gate. A temple was later built on the summit. Worshippers had an arduous climb, but modern visitors need only ascend several thousand feet in a cable car, take a bus up a steep road with 99 bends, and then climb 999 stairs—nine is a symbol of eternal life in Chinese culture—to see the ethereal view. As one sightseer said, “You feel like you are walking in the clouds.”–Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • God’s Acre Healing Springs near Blackville, South Carolina

    God’s Acre Healing Springs

    Deep in the woods near Blackville, South Carolina, there is a natural spring from which miracles flow. Native Americans believed the Great Spirit gave the waters healing properties—a legend enhanced by the experience of six soldiers gravely wounded in the Revolutionary War. After drinking and bathing in the spring, all six recovered. Lute “L.P.” Boylston, who inherited the land, felt the water should be free for all. He deeded the spring and the surrounding acre to “Almighty God, for the use of the sick and afflicted.” Public officials maintain the spring today, the only land legally owned by God in the United States. Believers say water from God’s Acre Healing Springs can cure stiff limbs, ulcers and cataracts. Others say vegetables washed in it stay fresh longer. Everyone agrees it’s cold, clean and wonderfully refreshing...for body and soul.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • Mary's House, just outside Ephesus, Turkey

    Mary's House

    A bedridden German nun, a curious French priest, a remote Turkish hillside. Were these the pieces to the puzzle of where the mother of Jesus lived out her days? It was long believed she been assumed into heaven in Jerusalem, despite a lack of historical evidence. But in the early nineteenth century, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a sickly nun who had never left Germany, described precisely detailed visions of the Holy Mother living near Ephesus, Turkey—where John the Apostle wrote his epistles. In 1881, a French priest found a house on a hillside 10 miles outside Ephesus that perfectly matched Sister Anne’s accounts. The church didn’t take the discovery seriously until two more priests investigated, and talked to Christians from neighboring villages who had been making pilgrimages to the house to celebrate the feast of the Assumption for centuries. Today, Christians and Muslims, who also revere Mary, worship together in peace at the home of the most famous mother.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • The Jardin Rosa Mir, in the Croix-Rousse quarter of Lyon, France

    The Jardin Rosa Mir

    Down a narrow alleyway in the Croix-Rousse quarter of Lyon, France, you’ll find the Jardin Rosa Mir—one man’s answer to a miracle. Jules Senis, a tile-and-brick mason, had fled to France from Spain’s Fascist Franco regime in 1947. Diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, Jules made a vow to God: Save me and I’ll create something beautiful. His recovery astonished doctors. Jules spent the last 25 years of his life creating something equally astonishing—a magnificent garden with a shrine to the Virgin Mary and walls and pillars encrusted with seashells and stones. He named the garden for his mother. An association maintains the garden—ensuring that others can marvel at Jules Senis’s miracle.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • The Mystery Christmas Tree, Interstate 17 in Arizona, near the Sunset Point rest area

    The Mystery Christmas Tree

    Who decorates the Mystery Christmas Tree? The festive juniper growing on the median of Interstate 17 in Arizona, near the Sunset Point rest area, has intrigued drivers for almost three decades. The Department of Public Safety knows it’s a team effort. The anonymous decorators once sent its office a photo of the group hanging ornaments and tinsel—with their backs to the camera, of course. The mischievous elves also installed water barrels to keep the tree healthy during dry spells, an act that may have saved it from going up in flames during a wildfire in 2011. The fire burned furiously along the freeway—right up to the trunk—but only singed a few branches. Tom Foster, a retired Arizona Department of Transportation engineer, claims to know the elves’ identities, but he’s not spilling—even though the department disapproves of unauthorized roadside displays. “The juniper brightens the drive to Phoenix,” he says. “So we’re treating this as a special case.”—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • The Katskhi Pillar, in Chiatura, Republic of Georgia

    The Katskhi Pillar

    For centuries, villagers from Chiatura, in the Republic of Georgia, gazed up at the 130-feet-tall Katskhi Pillar in wonder. How was its tiny chapel built on top? It's a mystery yet to be solved. An eighteenth-century geographical survey says, "Nobody is able to ascend it; nor know they how." In 1944, climbers scaled the pillar and found the ruins of a second church and a crypt containing 600-year-old remains. This chapel was built by Stylites, Christian ascetics, around the seventh century. A modern-day Stylite, Father Maxime Qavtaradze, now calls the top of the rock home. A former crane operator—no fear of heights—he descends a ladder to pray with visitors, but prefers his perch in the heavens. "It's up here in the silence that you can feel God's presence."—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • The Moses Bridge, Fort de Roovere in the Netherlands

    The Moses Bridge

    Imagine following Moses through the parted Red Sea. How amazing would that have been (well, as long as you weren’t Pharaoh)? Crossing the moat of Fort de Roovere in the Netherlands may be the closest thing. The seventeenth-century moat once provided protection from French and Spanish invaders, but it had become a barrier to cyclists and joggers enjoying the newly developed recreation area. Challenged to build an unobtrusive walkway, Dutch architects Ad Kil and Ro Koster turned to the Bible for inspiration. The “Moses Bridge” is made of a special wood that’s treated with antifungal coating, with dams on both sides to keep the water level constant and underwater pumps to prevent flooding after rain. It’s nearly invisible from afar—and now welcomes visitors from around the world: French, Spanish, even Egyptians.—Allison Churchill, Contributing Editor

  • The Lullaby Factory, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London

    The Lullaby Factory

    Patients in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London faced a dreary view to the west—a narrow alley and the dingy brick of the building next door. In 2012, an architectural firm, Studio Weave, had a bright idea: the Lullaby Factory. Disguising drainage pipes and air ducts as clarinets and whimsical horns, they created a 10-story-high sound machine. The hidden factory’s lullabies can be heard through each patient’s bedside entertainment system or via listening pipes at street level. Sights and sounds to soothe the little ones or anyone who might pass by.—Diana Aydin, Associate Editor

  • The Minister's Tree House, Crossville, Tennessee

    The Minister’s Tree House

    Build me a tree house; I’ll provide the material. That’s the message Horace Burgess, a minister from Crossville, Tennessee, received when praying one day in 1993. For years, Horace sawed, drilled and hammered—without any blueprints. God kept the wood coming, much of it recycled from barns or sheds. What resulted is a 97-foot-tall structure nestled in the woods. Its 80 rooms include a chapel, a spiral staircase and a wraparound porch. It’s a masterpiece in the spirit of Noah’s Ark, held together with more than 250,000 nails. The “Minister’s Tree House” is not currently open to the public, but if you’re driving down I-40 in Tennessee, take Exit 320 and make your way to Beehive Lane, where you can see Horace’s creation in all its inspired glory.—Diana Aydin, Associate Editor

  • Estancia La Guitarra, south of Córdoba, Argentina

    Estancia La Guitarra

    If you ever fly over the Pampas, Argentina’s vast plains, you may see a startling sight: a grove of more than 7,000 eucalyptus and cypress trees south of Córdoba—planted in the shape of a guitar. The story behind Estancia La Guitarra began when a farmer, Pedro Ureta, married a woman named Graciela. One day, Graciela, inspired by a flight over beautifully shaped fields, suggested sculpting her favorite instrument into their farmland. Before her dream could be realized, she died, pregnant with their fifth child. With no landscaping training, and fending off wild animals that fed on the saplings, Pedro and their children spent the next 35 years growing this testament to the resilience of true love.—Jessica Toomer, Digital Editor

  • The Ice Chapel, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

    The Ice Chapel

    In Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, deep inside the Arctic Circle, where in winter temps fall to 40 below and the sun never rises, thousands of visitors come to “chill” at the Icehotel, carved from blocks of the frozen Torne River. An essential amenity is the ice chapel, built each December in consultation with the clergy of the town’s 400-year-old wooden church, who also lead the chapel’s services. On Christmas Day, the chapel is consecrated with a service attended by locals and visitors alike. Around 100 weddings and some 30 christenings—using holy water poured from a warm thermos into a wooden font—are held in the chapel before it melts, in early April. Open to all, free of charge, the chapel offers a unique place to pray, says presiding minister Sölve Anderzén. “It’s not just the cold—there is a total silence, no disturbing sounds. The church is sparsely lit with candlelight. You adjust to the coldness.”—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor

  • The Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, near Waterloo, Alabama

    The Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall

    Outside the tiny town of Waterloo, Alabama, a mile-long wall made of weathered stones winds through the woods. It looks ancient, but was built by hand over the last 25 years by one man, Tom Hendrix, in tribute to his great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi Indian named Te-lah-nay—Woman With Dancing Eyes—driven from Alabama along the infamous Trail of Tears. For Tom, each rock represents a step Te-lah-nay took on her journey. Every weekday, from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., Tom welcomes visitors to meditate in the wall’s prayer circle and add stones of their own. Stones from 127 countries and territories have been added so far.—Diana Aydin, Associate Editor

  • Max Neuhaus' Times Square, a sound art installation in New York City

    Max Neuhaus' Times Square

    Photograph by Ed Leveckis

    Nearly 40 million people flow through Times Square, New York City’s beating heart, every year, dodging taxis and pushing through crowds, dazzled by the neon lights and video billboards. But if you stand still a moment on a gray metal grate at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, just above Forty-fifth Street, the sounds of the hustle and bustle slip away, replaced by soothing, hypnotic tones, like distantly ringing bells. It’s a hidden sound-art installation by the artist Max Neuhaus. Max says, “For those who find and accept the sound’s impossibility...the island becomes a different place.” An oasis of calm at one of the busiest crossroads on earth.—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor

  • The Catacombs of Commodilla in Rome, Italy

    The Catacombs of Commodilla

    Frescoes cover the walls of the Catacombs of Commodilla, one of Rome’s countless subterranean Christian burial-chamber-and-chapel complexes, built starting in the second century. After Emperor Constantine’s conversion, the catacombs fell into obscurity until 1578, when one was discovered by accident. Using clues from early Christian literature, an Italian scholar, Antonio Bosia, began to locate the forgotten sites. The work of this “Columbus of the Catacombs” continues to help archeologists unearth priceless artifacts and grants us a window into the lives of early Christians.—Tanya Richardson, Contributing Editor

  • The Kindred Spirit Mailbox at Bird Island State Reserve, North Carolina

    The Kindred Spirit Mailbox

    Just inside the North Carolina state line you’ll find the dunes of Bird Island State Reserve, and a singularly odd sight—a black metal mailbox overlooking the Atlantic. A note inside explains that a visitor to the beach received the vision of a simple mailbox as a gathering place where strangers could share inspiring thoughts. The visitor returned to create exactly that. Beachgoers discovering the mailbox left prayers, wishes, personal stories and poems. Thirty years later, the Kindred Spirit Mailbox is maintained by locals thankful for the anonymous soul who built this peaceful place of communion.—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor

  • Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

    The Trinity College Library

    If Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland, looks familiar, it’s probably because it inspired the fictional Jedi Archives seen in Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones. The facility’s star exhibit—the legendary Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels created by Celtic monks circa 800 AD—would amaze even a Jedi master. One twelfth-century writer observed the 340 pages are so amazingly detailed “you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.” Viking raids and an eleventh-century heist that removed its bejeweled, golden cover couldn’t destroy it. The library rotates the pages on display to shield the fragile vellum from harmful UV light.—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor


  • The Watts Towers of Los Angeles

    The Watts Towers

    The Watts Towers of Los Angeles are 17 soaring structures meticulously erected by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia from 1921-54, using nothing more than scrap metal, mortar, glass, ceramics and hand tools. In 1959 the city tried to topple them, arguing they were unstable. Steel cables were attached to each tower and pulled by a crane. They didn’t budge, and the crane experienced mechanical failure. Today, admirers marvel how one man, a simple laborer, could assemble such creations that have survived storms, earthquakes and the ravages of time.—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor


  • Kryžių Kalnas (The Hill of Crosses), near Šiauliai, Lithuania

    The Hill of Crosses

    Eight miles north of Šiauliai, Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses, Kryžių Kalnas, stands sentinel over the surrounding farmland. Nobody knows who put up the first cross there, only that it happened during Lithuania’s 1831 uprising against czarist rule. Under Soviet occupation, those who lost loved ones in the resistance added crosses. Several times the Soviets bulldozed the hill. The crosses reappeared the next day. Today, over 200,000 crosses cover the hilltop, an inspiration for those who struggle for freedom.—Adam Hunter, Managing Editor


  • The Hermitage of San Colombano monastery in Trambileno, Italy

    The Hermitage of San Colombano

    The Hermitage of San Colombano monastery in Trambileno, Italy, was built into a rock ledge 394 feet high sometime before 1319. Legend says that Saint Colomban saved a nearby village from a dragon. The villagers began building a church in his honor, but awoke one morning to discover that their tools had been moved to a cave higher up on the rock, a cave where monks had prayed as early as the eighth century. The church was built there instead.–Adam Hunter, Managing Editor


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