catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 20 :: 2013.11.01 — 2013.11.14


In the shadow of sacred space

Last fall, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the U.K., Italy and France took me and my husband Rob through all manner of cathedrals and churches — from St. Peter’s in London to Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame in Paris, from the basilica in Assisi to the Vatican.  While certain qualities were shared, each space held its own unique claim on the imaginations of the pilgrims who visited from near and far. 

I enjoyed exploring these spaces, and Rob, the architecture buff, was totally geeked out.  But if I felt a special sense of the sacred during this trip, by which I mean a sense of God-with-us, it was not in these massive structures.  In fact, the scale and bravado of the Vatican overwhelmed me with sadness for all of the Christian church’s uncritical embrace of power throughout history.  Rather, I found more awe and peace in the quiet, hidden garden behind Sacre Coeur, away from the carnival out front, where naps and reading and meaningful conversations were possible on the many benches beneath ample arbors.  I sensed it in Manarola in the windy, hilltop cemetery perched above the sea among the lemon trees where generations of coast dwellers were interred, their photos engraved on tiles surrounding a disheveled chapel littered with faded silk flowers.  I witnessed it in turning a switchback corner late at night in Assisi to find ourselves beckoned by a row of candles on the cobblestone and jazz wafting out of a warmly lit bar.

In fact, it was this last one — the tucked-away bar that was open well after the flood of tourists had poured out of the  gates at the base of the labyrinthine, walled city — that leaves me with the greatest sense of longing.  My sense of the sacred in that gathering space was not tied to retreat from the world or a personal encounter with God so much as the welcoming embrace of light and drinks and music and conversation.  As Rob and I shared a beer at an outside table overlooking the lights of the valley below, I felt overcome by a sense of hospitality, of healing.  Even a year later, gratitude for that beautiful place brings tears to the corners of my eyes.

Whether large or small, still or busy, fancy or humble, hospitality is a key function of sacred space.  I think of a hospital at its best — a place where the sick go to be healed — as a good image.  However, as human beings who bear the marks of both brilliance and brokenness, any space of community will inevitably be a space of injury.  “Unconsciously, you may wound what you touch,” writes Brother Roger of Taize.  “Only Christ can touch without wounding.”

Our tendency, especially in North America, has been to move away from the riskiness of communal gathering places toward the predictability, individualism and isolation of the home as a sacred space of healing.  Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist who has championed third places, has written extensively about this cultural shift.  In The Great Good Place, he writes,

It is widely assumed that high levels of stress are an unavoidable condition of modern life, that these are built into the social system, and that one must get outside the system in order to gain relief….  We come dangerously close to the notion that one “gets sick” in the world beyond one’s domicile and one “gets well” by retreating from it.  Thus, while Germans relax amid the rousing company of the bier garten or the French recuperate in their animated little bistros, Americans turn to massaging, meditating, jogging, hot-tubbing or escape fiction.

And, I would add: home gyms, Hulu and fenced-in yards. Now, as one with a nearly perfect introvert score on the Meyers-Briggs test, I strongly defend the value of solo practices like meditation and reading fiction.  However, even for introverts, these kinds of activities should go beyond personal well-being to serve the health of our relationships in communion with one another, for it is in such communion that we come to know a God who is both one and three.

Ideally, the Church would be mother to a wildly diverse brood of hospitable spaces, but congregational cultures often fall toward the extremes as places of either too much comfort, or too much affliction.  On the one hand, a space cannot be sacred if it is not safe.  On the other, I don’t think it can be sacred if it is too safe.  In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen describes the delicate tension inherent in seeking to craft hospitable spaces:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

A space of true hospitality doesn’t mean that we are never changed, never challenged, but that the space offers both embrace and possibility simultaneously — the freedom both to be who we are, and to change.  In my experience, the practices of communities that inhabit such spaces include not just celebration and gratitude and learning, but also lament, confession, questioning and self-reflection.  They don’t wait for a crisis to drag them to the ER, but have routine exercises and check-ups that allow them to recognize conflict as it naturally arises within the human body, even as that body strives to emulate the perfect body of Christ, who endured his own seasons of grief and fear.

Wow — that’s a lot of pressure to put on a church, much less the bar at the top of the hill.  So where does that leave my sense of sacred space off the beaten path in Assisi, yet still in the shadow of the basilica?  Perhaps sacred space is not so much a place, or a group of people, but a way of being in every place with all people — the way of a pilgrim who is open to surprises, with one pocket full of gratitude and another full of lament.  It’s a way we can walk wherever God goes — which is to say, everywhere — as bearers of love and sharers of brokenness, in a world both beautiful and bereft.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus