Perspectives on Sacred Space and Sacred Time:
Reflections on a Trip to a Land called Holy
Reflections on a Trip to a Land called Holy
Above a tomb of a patriarch of Israel an infant squirms as his foreskin is cut, prayers and ululations rise from the gathered family, a new life is celebrated. Through the streets of the old city young men bear palm branches before the cardboard cairn of their lost friend processing toward the Dome of the Rock, a life gone is remembered. Pilgrims wander the land connecting their lives to poignant places and events that resonant deep into their souls. A sacredness tends to ring, sometimes softly others sharply, in the air.
There are the patterns that make up our lives and the stories we tell each other to make sense of them. I propose that this integration is the process of making something sacred and that the times and spaces set aside for this integration are sacred times and sacred spaces. The Holy Land, Israel and Palestine, is permeated with this sacredness by the People of the Book. The paths of Jesus trodden by pilgrims, the long standing Jewish heritage, the Islamic calls to prayer all form an intense web of sacredness.
I look at the culture of America and it seems to stand in stark contrast. Here I am not speaking about secularization or any supposed "War on Religion" but our inherent seeking not to put aside time and space to integrate the patterns of our lives into stories and histories with each other. This is a problem flowing from the actions of institutionalized religion as much as any where else.
We arrived in Israel on the feast of the Epiphany. I remember a poignant conversation with a fellow pilgrim who expressed that the Holy Day seemed nothing more than another required day with no relevance. This comment got deeply under my skin. My thoughts were afire with rejoinders... "Is not the recognition that scientific inquiry towards truth can lead to God relevant?"... "Is not the recognition that the foreigner, the other, is equally able to enter into our worship relevant?"... "Is the wrestling and working with these symbols by countless numbers of Christians simply to be discarded and their lives treated as meaningless?"...
Those things are very relevant and the lives and wrestling of countless Christians is very meaningful, as my fellow pilgrim agreed. But these issues have become completely disassociated with the story of Epiphany. Thus bringing about the phenomena my fellow pilgrim so rightly noted: that Epiphany has devolved into a sad useless relic. It is similar to the sad phenomena that the name of Jesus is more associated with bigotry, punishment, and obligation than acceptance, love, and commitment. The Christian stories and symbols have been derailed from the very patterns of life they bring to fulfillment.
This conversation prompted many of the reflections I had during my time in the Holy Land. Three practical points from these reflections revolve around the cost of sacred land, a model of house church, and a community setting itself apart.
II. The Cost of Sacred Space
What price are we willing to pay for land that is considered sacred and what long term value does it hold? The chance to pray at the Western Wall was a striking moment for me, I prayed to leave false defenses behind and trust in the defense of God’s presence... I will reflect on that moment of prayer for the rest of my life. Yet I am acutely aware that my ability to pray there came about by the forced relocation of the Moroccan Quarter from that area. Similarly in the midst of almost any American urban environment I can walk into a depressed section of the city and find a church building on the brink of abandonment, if not abandoned. In the end I am left to wonder if abandoning a community in such a way is any better than forcing them to move.
Both are distinct cases of those in power choosing to partition themselves from those who do not have it. If the power in question is the ability to move others or to leave behind others who cannot move, the removal of connection is the same. The American model might indeed be more caustic because its passive nature makes it more readily rationalized away.
This phenomenon is one inherent to the entitlement that often comes hand in hand with having power. The hearts of both Judaism and Christianity cry out against such entitlement but its continued prevalence cannot be denied. In the end the cost is a tarnishing of our holy places.
The cost of sacred space is our entitlement. The seeking to make sacred space when and where it is comfortable, with no regard for those who do not have such privilege, is inherently flawed. Moving forward I can only hope to keep this reality poignantly in my mind. The inherent call of the incarnation is for those in power to place it aside and enter into the space of those without. It is in this reality, that of Jesus, I define what is sacred and my seeking sacred space must follow the same path.
III. A Model for House Church
In light of this I want to consider a model of House Church that came from the churches and mosques we experienced on our trip. This model is in distinct opposition to the idea of a house church being a community that worships in the houses of various members. I would say that this model, especially when practiced by American suburbanites, is inherently one of entitlement by the housed and mobile. It is a model that asks people to have church in their house. This is in stark contrast to the model that asks people to make a home in their church.
I often found myself smiling in the Mosques we visited, because they were filled with life. Businessmen discussing business in the corner, children running around in the open spaces playing and laughing, people gathered in circles for prayer, spiritual discussion, and study. These were spaces of prayer that were also spaces of daily life. It was a phenomenon that I have never encountered in American churches despite the vast potential for such that they have. Our church spaces need to be open for such use and our congregations need to be empowered to use them as such.
Another key element was the monastic nature of many of the churches we visited. Groups of individuals had specifically decided to make this specific church their home. They were there because of a story, because of the heritage that has grown up around a specific event in the life of Jesus Christ. They had grounded themselves into that story, made that their home, and then opened that home, that story, for others to enter. The entire space was created and focused around presenting that story as a multisensory reality.
This different understanding of church stands in contrast to what I tend to experience in American churches. Churches organize themselves more along the lines of clubs and organizations than homes and families. Libraries, parlors, basement youth rooms, and sanctuaries are not places where one goes for refuge or a break but for a meeting or an event. A church’s name is used as a statement of affiliation and a sign on the front door, but rarely impacts a parish more than an occasional piece of art work. In the midst of any name, even those parishes that do not have a Biblical one, is a story to be lived into that a parish can take up as part of its being. The sad reality is that too many churches have a mission to state but not a corresponding story to tell.
Parishes need to figure out how to make a home in their church. How can the parish building be opened to the community to use it truly as a refuge? Can a group of parishioners be enfranchised to truly make more of their home in the parish, students studying in the library, afternoon tea in the parlor, watching the football game in the youth room? But foremost can our communities be filled with members who are able to readily tell the story of their parish and how their story readily engages and is formed by the community and its mission?
IV. A Community Set Apart
Similar questions began to well up inside of me in regards to personal life and personal practice. In the Holy Land the faith practices of many individuals are easily recognizable: Jewish men wearing tallits, Muslims flocking to spaces of prayer at the required times, sections of the Old City being closed dependent on whose day of observance it happens to be. The key to all of these things is that they were an act of religious observance that brought about an awareness of the individual’s religiosity.
It left me wondering if there were any equivalent parallels in Christianity. The reality is that there are, but in America they are in many ways an assumed part of our culture, so taking them up is not culturally significant. The calendar of major Holy Days for Western Christendom aligns with the calendar of National Holidays. The “War on Christmas” cultural phenomenon is a sign of how implicit most people take the National Holiday on December 25th to be a Christian celebration. The same can be said for the organization of our work week and the importance of having Sundays free. The end of Blue Laws, the idea of high school sports on Sunday, and similar trends are met with a large amount of resistance. Our society is engendered to allow Christians to go about their religious observances without having to make any notable exceptions to cultural norms. Fast Food Chains even make sure to provide Fish Sandwiches throughout lent.
This is a very different reality than what was presented in Israel. Here the National Holiday Calendar aligns with the Jewish Holy Day calendar and thus Christians and Muslims have to seek out, and make a point of, being observant to their faiths. Likewise shops, museums, and other venues are open dependent on the faith of the proprietor. One cannot be a tacit Christian in Israel the way one can in America.
Christians might have to choose to be observant in America but they do not have to struggle against societal norms to be so. This enmeshment is problematic because it can stop Christian Ritual from speaking out against the society that, at points, reinforces it. Further it means that Christian Ritual remains enmeshed in former cultural idioms instead of being able to apply itself to new idioms. Some groups are developing an idea that Christian Ritual is outdated and of no relevance to Christian living, this quickly becomes a self fulfilling prophesy as their use of Christian Ritual quickly becomes outdated and of no relevance to Christian Living.
Moving forward I am left with three maxims to consider. First, General cultural support of a Christian Observance does not lessen its significance. Second, Christian Observance can live in the midst of cultural acceptance but cannot be attached to it. And most importantly that Christian Observance needs to constantly seek an alignment with the culture around it and not seek the culture around it to align with it. I hope that keeping and working with these principles I can practice and cultivate a life of Christian Observance that remains relevant and topical to the world it seeks to transform.
I am not coming out of my time in the Holy Land, or of my reflections on that time, with completely nuanced arguments and positions. Where I find myself instead is having now a new perspective on many issues of how time and space enter into the arena of the sacred. This experience will nuance my appreciation and thinking of what sacred means for the rest of my life and give me a very specific tool set to use in forming communities. In the reflections above I did not set out to prove what I had to say but to present the situations I encountered and the thoughts that came out of them. My hope is only to share the stirring up that has occurred within me with the reader. The end point is to make sure to step back and see the whole system of how our use of sacred time and space forms and is formed by the society in which it dwells.