Thursday, June 15, 2006

Holy places

When I was little my parents taught me that church was God's house. Then I went to catechism class and they told me God was everywhere, which made me wonder why he needed a home of his own, or if he ever actually went there. And then the post-conciliar reformists came along insisting that the Church wasn't a building at all, which seemed to contradict the substantial physical reality of that large pile of stones where we all gathered once a week, though of course I understood what they were trying to say.

I've been thinking a lot lately about holy spaces. Are there physical places where we come closer to God, where it's easier to make contact? If so, is this just a result of conditioning, or is God really in some way more accessible there? Are there thin places in the cosmic fabric where a little bit of heaven leaks through to us? I was interested, as I played around with these ideas, to read Revem's thoughts about the basic need for a second space in life, a place to feel safe and "just be," as she explains it.

"At one point in time this may have been the church," she writes, "but this is definitely not the case today."

Maybe that depends on your particular faith tradition, and perhaps on where you find yourself geographically. I think many Catholics, myself included, still find refuge in church--inside the big building, that is, if not always (she says ruefully) within that bigger construct that comprises all of us. I've heard of places where it isn't considered safe to leave the church building open for anyone who might wish to make a visit, but that isn't the case where I live, fortunately, and I still take advantage of divine hospitality by dropping by from time to time. It's something I've missed in my Episcopalian explorations, where as far as I know churches are kept locked when not in active use and people don't think of stopping in unannounced. (Though I should point out that my experience is limited and I don't presume to speak authoritatively.)

What do I find in an empty church? Well, most emphatically and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I don't find silence. The building itself speaks, in creaks, cracks, groans, and hisses, and I know it's been saying those exact same things all along, even when I couldn't hear them through our Sunday morning busy-ness. What else did I miss, I wonder? Alone in church, I try to listen harder for all those things I should be paying attention to but usually don't. Sometimes I feel I'm alone with God. Sometimes I just feel alone. Sometimes the creaks and bumps of the building are the ghost sounds of absent worshipers, reminding me that in some sense I share this space with everyone who has ever prayed here before me. I almost always leave feeling my batteries have been recharged.

I don't think this has to be a uniquely Catholic experience, despite the Catholic claim to a unique sacramental presence. I think my feeling that I am closer to God when I am in church is more a learned response, and it's not unrelated to the fact that when I go there I have nothing to do but sit. I had a very similar experience when I spent an hour alone in my little Episcopal church as part of our Holy Thursday/Good Friday prayer vigil this spring, which was the only time I ever had an opportunity to spend time in that church alone and without interruption.

After 9/11, many churches of various denominations near my home announced that they would stay open for anyone who wanted to be there. I wonder if people would have made a habit of this if the invitation were continued.

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