Sacred Space - Bishop Waynick
Reflections on Sacred Space…..
What makes something sacred? Literally, ‘sacred’ is a word which belongs to religion – it specifically refers to what is not secular or profane. Sacred words, actions, music, objects, and traditions express religious belief – belief in the divine and our human relationship to it. Sacred = religious.
The Bible is a collection of sacred texts. Our hymns and psalms are sacred texts. Oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah are sacred because their subject matter is religious.
The words of our worship, our liturgies are sacred because they are all about religion – a word which comes from the Latin ‘religio’ which means to ‘bind back’ -- to reconnect with God. What is religious is sacred, and what is sacred is religious – there can be no honest separation of these ideas.
In some instances sacred actions are used to enhance participation in religious rites. Making the sign of the cross, kneeling for prayer or genuflecting before the Reserved Sacrament, are all sacred (religious) actions. Using blessed oil for anointing the sick and signing the forehead of the newly baptized with chrism are examples of sacred actions – religious actions – intended to aid and deepen our sense of connection with God.
In The Episcopal Church we also make use of sacred objects in our worship of God – and they are used for the express purpose of ‘religio’ – binding ourselves back to God. We use water and oil, bread and wine, in our Sacraments and sacramental rites. In these Sacraments we believe God is present in physical, enduring ways, and imparts to those who participate the grace which heals, strengthens, forgives and renews us – grace which is intended for all and assured to us. We call the paten and the chalice, the white linen cloth and the vestments of the clergy and other ministers ‘sacred’ because they are never used for any other purpose than a religious one.
So if what is sacred is completely connected to religion, sacred spaces must also be about religion – about faith, and worship, and about the connections between ourselves and God.
Sometimes sacred spaces can be identified immediately by their architecture – Christians build cathedrals – or smaller versions of them. Muslims build mosques, Jews build synagogues, Native Americans build kivas. All are for sacred purposes – for the religious goal of learning, or worship, and of reconnecting to God.
Our sacred spaces are places where people expect to encounter something other than the ways and values of the secular world. We expect to encounter the language of worship, religious teaching and instruction, and the announcement of God’s forgiving, healing grace. Often we make our sacred spaces as beautiful as we can because there is nothing more precious to us than the religious enterprise of binding ourselves to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.
For Episcopalian Christians sacred spaces are where we are reminded of the values and claims of our baptismal covenant, and where we expect to be challenged to make alive in ourselves the teachings and commands of Jesus. In sacred spaces we expect to catch glimpses of the kingdom Jesus preached.
Our sacred space here at Waycross is the chapel, where now the Waycross Way begins. Like any place of religion it is where we expect to hear religious language and song, we expect to learn about Jesus and his teachings, and we expect to worship, and give thanks, and be reconnected to God.
But we are also very well aware that sacred activity does not only happen within buildings. It can happen wherever people are being worshipful, and attentive to the claims of Jesus on our lives.
Places and spaces sometimes take on the feel of sacredness because in those places people have been accepted and respected, and treated with dignity and love. They are places where devotion has accumulated over time, and love has permeated them….
At least ten years ago the Lilly Foundation made grants to church camps across the nation for the purpose of promoting study about what happens at church camps that binds people not only to God but to churches. Studies have shown that children who attend church camps are for more likely to stay connected to the church than children who do not. Waycross received one of these study grants, and a three year project was undertaken to discover what happens here and how it might be replicated in our parishes. After all, one of goals is to keep all our members engaged and involved in the faith and life of the church.
For the first year the people on the study group did a lot of watching and listening. They observed what kind of experience was being provided here, identified some key points, and wrote a very helpful report/guide entitled Belonging Before Belief.
As this group watched the camp sessions they saw these important things happening;
-All campers were welcomed with genuine enthusiasm
-It was assumed that all campers would/could participate in all activities – all were welcome
-Campers were encouraged to try new things – to stretch themselves
-All were expected to share in service to each other – the dining hall being one example
-Creativity was invited and affirmed
-Teamwork was encouraged and enabled, and each person’s contribution was respected
-Creation – the world around them was explored and honored
-Prayers were requested and offered
-There was lots of fun and singing and celebration
Then at the end of the session the campers were drawn together at the chapel where they stood around the cross and were reminded that the things they had learned about God, nature, each other and themselves were things they could take with as they went home. They held lighted candles and formed a procession through the night to their cabins, where the staff would serenade them – and blowing out their candles the campers a said, “Goodnight Waycross.”
As the study group watched all these things they realized it seemed very familiar…this is what came to mind for them:
“Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son, our Savior JesusChrist, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” BCP 365
You will recognize this as one of our postcommunion prayers….and it seems descriptive of what children have experienced here at Waycross -- being welcomed, graciously accepted, included, fed in a variety of ways, and sent back into the world – often taking with them a different sense of themselves in relationship to creation, to others and to God. There is real intentionality in providing these experiences, and because they gain a sense of belonging here at Waycross the children are better prepared to believe the promises of our faith – chief among them that they belong to God, who loves them deeply.
The challenge in leaving any sacred space is how to carry the sacredness with us. How do we hold to what is sacred while living in the secular world?
What I am thinking about here is the connection between sacred spaces and Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God – the Kingdom. This was his primary teaching “The kingdom of God is among you and within you!” And he told parable after parable about what life in that kingdom is like.
It is like the master who forgives the enormous debt of an underserving servant. It is like the irresponsible shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep and goes in search of one which has wandered off. It is like the woman who loses a coin, and sweeps her home until she finds it and then has a celebration with her neighbors over the joy of knowing no one in the village is a thief. It is like a father who scans the horizon day after day watching for his sinful, profligate son – so he can run to meet him and return him to his place in the family.
In the reign of God forgiveness is not withheld, the least and the last and the littlest are held in deep love and acceptance, and whoever asks may have the water which quenches every thirst, and the bread of life.
If we take Jesus’ life as an acted parable, no one is excluded. The usual social and religious conventions are not observed; sinners are included in dinner parties, women are spoken to in public, gentiles make requests for healing which are granted. Long held beliefs are questioned and new understandings must emerge. The Sabbath is made for humanity and not the other way around! The kingdom is a radical place! Radical hospitality, radical acceptance, abundant forgiveness and never-failing love…..
And – it is already among you and within you! This place in which God reigns – surely sacred space – is able to be entered by those who seek it, ask for it, knock on its door.
In the midst of life under Roman occupation, in the midst of high taxes, poverty, incurable diseases, the complete inability to effect any change for the better in their own lives, Jesus tells his followers that the reign of God is already among them and within them. They don’t get it, of course. They cannot envision the reign of God except in terms of the complete elimination of all the things which make their lives so painful. It’s an either/or proposition for them.
Years ago I found a helpful image in a novel entitled The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It’s the story of Camelot and the Arthurian legends told from the perspective of the women in the story. In this version Camelot and Avalon exist in the same space at the same time, but they are separated by thick mist which only the initiated can negotiate. Time passes differently in these two realms, and sometimes people wander for very long times because the mists confuse them. Different things are valued in Camelot and Avalon, and different religions are practiced.
It occurred to me that this image of two countries or realms might be useful in understanding what Jesus was saying about the reign of God. It is here and now – occupying the same space as the secular world, and accessible to those who are willing to learn how to negotiate the mists of confusion which so often keep us from the abundant life Jesus invites us to live.
Sacred spaces can be those places in which we learn to negotiate the mists. They are not places of perfection, since they are inhabited and used by us humble sinners – but neither are they secular. Sacred spaces are where we can choose to discover that the values and demands of the world do not necessarily have authentic claims on us. Sacred spaces are those places where we decide to be religious – to worship, to learn, to open ourselves to God’s transforming grace. And this means, of course, that wherever we are when we decide to be open to God can be sacred space for us. Sacred space can exist in the same place, at the same time, as secular space - depending on the intention of one’s heart.
If what I’m saying is right (and I obviously think it isJ) do we really need church buildings and chapels? If we can be religious anywhere (and of course we can) why should we bother with buildings?
If we can find ourselves becoming open to God’s grace when we walk a wooded trail, or sit on the banks of a river, why do we need specially dedicated sacred spaces?
The answer has at least three parts for me. First, sacred spaces provide sanctuary – they are places where nothing profane or secular takes primacy of place. They are intentionally religious, and for that reason they can often have the effect of drawing us into prayer, holy reflection, and worship. Second, they are communal spaces where we are reminded that we have companions and helpers on our spiritual journeys. Third, we humans can be forgetful about what we say we believe. Even people of faith forget that life is intended to be religious. We forget that we are created in God’s image and are intended to be bound to God in all that we do.
For example, the commandments to love God above all and neighbor as self, call us beyond any tendency to self-absorption and selfishness. If we love our neighbors as ourselves we will not let them do without anything we consider essential in our own lives. The commandments to observe Sabbath and to tithe, remind us that all time belongs to God and must be lived faithfully, and that all our resources, entrusted to us by God, must be used in faithful ways… there is no distinction between what belongs to God and what is ours to use.
In the same way churches and chapels – if they are functioning faithfully – can remind us that all spaces and places belong to God, and no matter where we are we can expect to encounter God. We don’t enter sacred spaces in order to spend an hour or two in worship so we can leave the chapel, forget God, and do exactly as we please elsewhere. The concentrated time we spend within sacred spaces is what reminds us that we are called to live sacred lives – that we are to seek and serve Christ in every place, and that religion is to be our intentional way of life wherever we are.
During my first year in this diocese I was here at Waycross for the opening of camp. Parents were bringing their children to leave with us for a week, and one woman turned to me and asked, “Is this a church camp? Is it religious?” Her tone was ambiguous – I wasn’t quite sure whether she would consider religion at camp a good thing….
For some the idea of ‘religion’ has gone out of favor, I know. But maybe we can rehabilitate it. If religion is binding ourselves to God, then it is about radical welcome and hospitality. It is about mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, transformation, generosity, kindness, and most importantly, love…
The chapel at Waycross is consecrated sacred space; it is space in which our religion – our faith - has primacy of place, and where we are reminded that living sacred lives is our common vocation, no matter where we are. My hope is that we will – without apology - carry this understanding into all that we do at Waycross. My hope is that all who come to this place might feel the sacred intention of our radical hospitality, acceptance and love. My hope and prayer is that all who leave this place take some of its sacredness with them into their own places in the world. When enough of us do that, the world itself will be recognized as sacred, and it will come to resemble the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. May it be so.
Address to the Council of Advisors
Waycross Camp and Conference Center
October 10, 2015