Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary walk welcomes all

By: Mary Garrigan
Rapid City Journal staff

Even though the land speaks loudly to him, Dave Snyder hopes Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary will be a place of quiet solitude for others.

On Saturday, July 17, Snyder will realize the dream of a spiritual sanctuary that he has harbored ever since he bought an L-shaped tract of 200 acres in the northern Black Hills in 1993. Pathways, which will be open daily through Oct. 15 free of charge, was created as a place for people to find solace, silence and spiritual renewal.

“The land speaks very loudly to me,” Snyder said this week, while working to finish the mile-long path that meanders through 80 acres of spruce forest, grassy meadow and quaking aspen trees that’s located south of Lead and north of Rochford, just off Rochford Road.

The land speaks to him with its beauty, of course. But it also commands him to honor things that are “beyond belief,” by which Snyder means beyond religions and cultural systems, beyond dogma and divisions, beyond separations and differences.

“The interesting thing about all the major religions… is that they’re really all saying the same thing,” Snyder said. “That commonality is what I hope to embrace here.”

The sanctuary takes its theme – Beyond Belief – from a bronze shield by the same name sculpted by Hill City artist Grant Standard. The shield displays symbols from nine major religions surrounding Mother Earth, reflecting Snyder’s hope that Pathways will be a place that can encompass everyone’s beliefs while endorsing none of them itself.

“It’s universal – what religions are trying to teach,” he said. “This place is about allowing people to be who they are in this space.”

Visitors will enter the sanctuary through a massive timbered gate designed to be a portal into a sacred space. They’ll be greeted by a bronze plaque and an entrance prayer, written by Snyder, that he hopes will apply to all who come: “I enter this sacred space with gratitude. I walk these pathways with love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness for myself and all others. I honor those who have walked this land before my time. I ask that they join me in Spirit, and embrace and guide me while in this Spiritual Sanctuary.”

Next, around the first bend of the pathway, they’ll come upon a larger-than-life sculpture, an imposing piece of bronze that stands 14 feet tall and weighs about 2,800 pounds. “The Invocation” portrays a Native American warrior astride a horse, holding aloft the sun-bleached skull of a buffalo -– man and creature paying homage to the spirit world.

“I first saw it 14 years ago in Santa Fe and I always felt it needed to be here,” said Snyder. Created by Tucson, Ariz., artist Buck McCain, the piece stands guard over a lush meadow. On a recent foggy day, the statue’s green patina emerged from the mist – part art, part apparition.

Farther along the path, visitors will find a sand-and-brick replica of the famous labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral of France. A labyrinth is an ancient prayer tool found in many historical religious traditions as a substitute for a spiritual pilgrimage that symbolizes a journey inward – a walk toward a spiritual center, toward one another and toward God.

Bounded on one side by a small lake on Snyder’s property and by National Forest Service land on three other sides, the sanctuary’s path moves through an amazing variety of ecosystems in 1 short mile. A grove of aspen blends into an old growth forest that is populated by water-loving ferns and lichens before the trees give way to a  prairie meadow dotted with daisies and bisected by the beginning of Elk Creek, whose headwaters bubble up from a springs at the edge of Snyder’s property.

On a sunny day, the vistas that stretch out below invite visitors to expand their souls. Blanketed by snow in winter, or dressed in the aspens’ showy fall colors or enrobed in fog on a misty summer morning, the sanctuary is designed to be a quiet place for anyone to walk, sit, contemplate, reflect or heal.

Someday, Snyder hopes the pathway will boast other bronze sculptures – perhaps a congress of great spiritual leaders in conversation with each other in a meadow of wildflowers: Gandhi and Jesus, Buddha and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, sharing their spiritual messages with each other across time and space.

For now, there is a bronze angel, sculpted by Lee Leuning. A child sits with his head in his mother’s lap. The mother has wings. It is dedicated to Snyder’s own mother, who died at age 25 when Snyder was 2.

As people exit the pathway, they’ll see another of Snyder’s prayers of affirmation: “I leave this sacred space committed to continue walking a path of love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness for myself and all others. I leave with gratitude and a lightened heart.”