Monday, November 12, 2012


 What is a sacred space? At its most basic, it is a place which invites the contemplation of divine mystery, and encourages an attitude of spiritual openness.  -- G.K. Chesterton

   While most definitions of sacred space agree with Chesterton's declaration, most also include the notion that it is an area set aside.  Places of worship often encourage this idea of set aside.  Stained glass modifies the light, heavy doors muffle the noise of the every day.  Incense, candles, ritual are all tools used to diminish the outside world and focus the worshipper's thoughts on the sacred.  
   When I visited Paris, I was excited to see Notre Dame Cathedral.  I believed that within its soaring arches, on stones imbued with a thousand years of prayer I would experience a special connection with the holy.  I held my breath as I stepped through the massive doors, eager to partake of the history of  this sacred setting.
   Imagine my disappointment when I found that the sanctuary was no longer a place "set apart."  Instead, it was a tourist stop, no different than the Louvre or the Champs Elysée.  Even though a few parishoners knelt in prayer, there was no acknowledgement that we were visitors in a church.  Guides marshalled their tourists and marched through the place without even bothering to lower their voices.
    Such a contrast to the little church I grew up in.  We too had a high ceiling (great for singing) and modest stained glass windows, but it wasn't the architecture that made my church special, it was the sense of sacred space.  There was a long staircase leading from the vestibule up into the sanctuary.  My Mom had a rule that we had to stop talking when we reached the top of the stairs.  When I stepped into that hushed place, I felt I was in "the house of God."   
   Similarly, at camp, we had an outdoor chapel, a natural amphitheatre made of a rocky outcrop that rose in a series of bench-like tiers.  Here we were wide open to the sky and the sound of tires on the nearby highway.  Yet, it too was sacred space, set aside through silence.  When we rounded the edge of the main lodge and started up the path to the chapel, teenaged girls stopped talking and turned our thoughts toward God.
    True, God is in all things, the holy and the mundane, the trees, the rivers and the plains.  He sits at our kitchen tables and in our homeless shelters.  He walks our sidewalks and treads our forest paths.  Yet I treasure the "sacred spaces" of my life.  When I climbed the stairs in my old church to say good-bye to my parents for the last time, I was comforted by the sense of sacred space. 

Akin to sacred space, is the notion of holy ground.   
And he said, "draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place wheron thou standest is holy ground. 
Exodus 3:5
  While I was disappointed by my visit to Notre Dame in Paris, I was struck dumb and humbled when I stood in the Canadian War Cemetery in Dieppe.  So much sacrifice.  So much sorrow.  There voices were hushed, tears spilled, and hearts overflowed.  We stood on holy ground.

On this November 11 weekend, I remember and say thank you and send a prayer to God that such carnage cease, that young men and women grow old and weary beside their own hearths, surrounded by those they love and that war and hatred pass from this earth.

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