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Sacred space

imageWhat is your understanding of sacred space? Is it merely a spot conducive to relaxation and rest? Is the sacredness of a space dependent upon how much you enjoy your time there? Is there any difference between the sacredness found in cabin get-a-ways and golf-course greens, and that which is to fundamentally define the church?

Our life with God has become so individualized in contemporary society that I wonder if we downplay the understanding that church is the house of God. Truth be told, when talking about sacred space, does ‘church’ even enter our minds? A common quip today is “I don’t need to go to the church to be with God, I can worship God equally on the golf course, or the ski hill, or the summer cottage, or the coffee shop.” True. God is everywhere. We see this reality testified to again and again in scripture. Yet scripture also maintains that there is something special about the sacred space of the temple—or later on—the gathered collection of worshipers known as ‘the church.’ The temple was seen as God’s house, the localized tent in which God’s presence would reside in magnificent glory. Even though God was everywhere, the psalmists would cry out “I was glad when they said, let us go to the house of The Lord'”(Psalm 122:1) or “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty” (Psalm 84:1). Of course, the internal longing to be in the courts of The Lord was not based merely on the beauty of the building, or the majesty of its adornments. For those in the Old Testament and the New, to be in the temple was to be in the very presence of God, and to be surrounded by the wonderment of God’s divine activity. God’s presence, localized in the context of the temple, something incredibly special and unique, not to be duplicated or copied in other places within the world.

Is that the way we see the church today? Do we understand the church as sacred space, a space defined by God’s presence and activity? As we travel along the road and approach our buildings, do we believe, anticipate, and expect that we will be in the presence of God?

Sadly, it is far too easy to see the church only in human terms. Church becomes nothing more than the place we come to sing religious songs, to hear scripture read, to touch base with friends. (Personally speaking, it is far too easy for me to see church as simply the place that I work. It is the building that houses my office). But if we understand the nature of the church only through the lens of what we do, we completely miss out on its blessed sacredness. If this is the case, then the adage is entirely correct: it does not matter if one goes to church for these religious actions can be done with the same effectiveness wherever one chooses to be. In this way, sacredness simply becomes a function of where we are, not where God is. This obviously has disastrous effects on the how we view the church, and the God we worship. As Graham Standish writes in his book Becoming a Blessed church, God merely becomes “a theological principle we speculate about rather than a spiritual presence we encounter and experience.”

What is the church if it is not a place where we meet the very one who created, redeemed, and sustains us. Just as Moses was instructed before the burning bush to remove his sandals, as the place he stood was holy ground, so too, we should be overwhelmed by the presence of God active in and throughout the life of our churches. We should enter through the doors of the church with our hearts leaping with anticipation over what God will do in our midst.

Why did the psalmists write so lovingly of the temple? Why did the disciples spend their time in the temple immediately following the resurrection? Why did Paul, Barnabas, Philip, and others, labour so hard to set up locations in which people would gather together in worship, if these places were not to be understood as spaces where we are invited to encounter the miraculous and powerful presence of our Lord.

Have you ever had the opportunity to sit alone in a church. If not, find a time to do just that. Schedule a time when the sanctuary is empty, and simply sit. Don’t pray specifically, although if your time turns into prayer that is alright. Just sit in God’s place and open yourself to the reality that you are in God’s presence in a special, unique, and blessed way. Open yourself to the Spirit’s movement within you, and around you. You don’t have to stay long, but try to let God define your time there.

After all, that is what sacred space is about isn’t it? Sacred space isn’t about us defining what we like to do, or how we like to interact with God. Sacred space is about submitting ourselves to the movement of God, and allowing God to take the lead in God’s own house.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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6 Responses to Sacred space

  1. I wonder if in modern society we need sanctuary in the same way those in the middle ages did. Our work is less physical and our work days are shorter. I personally likely need a call to the work before me. So a quiet contemplation space might counter the message I most need to hear.

  2. I think we need them more ,with all the noise and distractions now a days quiet reflection is hard to find.

    • I think I’m with Tony on this one (though I suspect asking 5 people will provide 9 different answers). And I say that as someone who, in my seminary days, fought every quiet day, and complained about every call to solitude. And while many of us work in alone in front of a screen, there is still something to be said for turning it all off, and being alone and disconnected from the surrounding world. For me, historic places of worship do that–in part, because I feel some weight given by the memory of generations who prayed in that same place. Whatever the venue, I appreciate your use of the word sacred: set apart.

  3. Trevor Freeman

    Thanks for this Kyle. It’s one of the questions I sometimes have about multi-purpose worship space. There’s nothing inherently wrong with multi-purpose space and it may be the most practical and sensible way to go in any number of contexts. The use of space and time are probably under-explored in our time and space though and I wonder if we cheat ourselves of something by not setting aside dedicated time and space for worship. We have dedicated space and time for education, entertainment, and consumption (though we’ve allowed consumption to take up most of our time and space). I think it sends a powerful message, but even more importantly, it is deeply formative to set aside time and space for worship.

  4. This is a great piece, Fr Kyle. The final line in particular about submission is one that is a useful reminder for all Christians. It’s been the most thought-provoking and topical (I’m currently involved in planning a Parish Retreat which will touch on the topic of sacred space), and has helped to articulate what I’ve been thinking, particularly again that final line about submission to God as the goal of sacred space. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us all!

  5. Kyle Norman

    Thanks Matthew. I hope you have a blessed time at your retreat.

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