There’s a distance to the grandeur of Meteora. Even while standing atop one of its craggy, monolithic pillars, inside one of the magnificent monasteries perched upon them like feathers on the tips of long knives, it’s difficult to fully accept that your body has traveled to a location so lofty, or that your mind has any right to occupy space in the face of such breathtaking natural design.

That’s awe for you. How dare someone as small and inconsequential as I am endeavor to travel such cosmically sacred ground? Meteora – literally meaning “middle of the sky,” “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above” – is an earthbound wonder, one seemingly suited as a home for gods more than mortals. Being there, even amid throngs of tourists armed with Nikon cameras and sunscreened noses, I felt a curious sense of intrusion, a sensation that I was draining the place of some small sliver of dignity through roaming its expanses.

The reason for this, I’ve since figured out, aligns with the key to Meteora’s otherworldly aura, and consequently a kind of poetry that’s implicit in its contradictions. Building houses of worship in the clouds, the monks of Meteora very intentionally created a holy location entrenched in the pious idea of limited access, a refuge for faith at once within grasp and dramatically out of reach. On foot, visitors can ascend past monastery walls, running their hands along coarse brick and smooth wall paintings, basking beneath twisted iron chandeliers and vivid frescos. Yet, looking through Meteora’s windows or gazing out over its railings to the sweeping plains and mountains surrounding it, flicking one’s eyes down to spot the peppered traces of human civilization below, communicates a sense of staggering vastness. From such great heights can be observed miles of open air and lush countryside; the kind of perspective looking out over Earth in the heavens above gives you is second to none.

Visiting a place as unshakeably magnificent as Meteora was a holy experience for me – and unexpectedly so, given that I’m someone who identifies as an atheist. I’ve been told this is not uncommon, that there’s something about Meteora that centers the soul. Entering the monasteries and exploring the level of craftsmanship and artistry etched permanently within their architecture had a curious effect on me, though I’m not sure quite how to articulate what that was – and I’m not sure if I really need to.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m an individual shaped by empathy but also tragedy (hopefully not in equal measure). In 2013, I was essentially broken by the death of my younger sister, Tabitha. Her passing taught me, too young, that the world is a cruel place, a swirling maelstrom of chaos and violence that lashes out at random, taking some lives and changing others without so much as a moment’s warning. That’s how the world works. It’s not fair, but what is? But as much as losing her shaped who I am by imparting to me a rather fatalistic view of the world, it also instilled in me a sense of empathy for others, and a desire to do good where I could, help the people in need of support, make the positive contributions to society that I could. The world might not be good all that often – but why can’t I be? What’s stopping me from doing good, and sending light and love out into that not-good-all-that-often world?

I’m rambling. Back to Meteora. The point I’m trying to get to here resides somewhere between what that holy spot symbolizes as a location and what my visit symbolized to me. Days later, I’m still gathering nebulous thoughts, so I’ll cut right to what I know with utter certainty: namely, that Meteora is a place of extraordinary healing.

Inside one monastery, soaked in the white daylight admitted by an overlooking window, one can find two boxes filled with strips of paper. It’s here that visitors can place written notes containing the names of loved ones – both those you wish good health, and those who have been lost to everything but memory. These names, written in both English and Greek, are then read by the monks during morning prayer, before visiting hours.

That such a mechanism exists, in my view, gets to the heart of what makes Meteora beautiful. It’s a holy place physically far-flung from civilization and spiritually sacred to those whose faith it stands as a monument to. And yet, in reading those names aloud, in throwing open its doors to busloads of tourists, Meteora is also as strangely welcoming a holy place as I’ve encountered. Its view of faith, in practice if not principle, is nondenominational, and its aura is one of community. Perhaps the reason Meteora spoke to me, specifically, is that its holiness is both plainly stated and essentially public – it wants to serve as a geographic catharsis for people of all faiths or none at all, but to all of those who want to experience a sense of belonging to something far greater than themselves. It wants people to step outside of their lives for a moment and look out at the world opening up before them. It wants people to believe in the truth that they are one small component of a larger existence, and that, regardless of what’s real, there is solidarity to be found in an open community. And that’s a kind of spirituality I can get on board with.