I rejoined Facebook this week, since that’s where many of the members of our beloved church are socializing, and I feel a need to check-in, to make sure that people are okay. I created a new account as the priest at St. Stephen’s, and I needed a background image, so I snapped a photo of the sanctuary. Many people responded to that photo, liking it and adding comments, and this grew my understanding of the importance of sacred space in our lives.
I’ve been thinking about this, and about two comments from our parish-wide meeting on Sunday (perhaps the last time we’ll be together in the same room for awhile). When we were talking about the possibility of suspending services (which has now happened) one of our members talked about the sanctuary, how much solace he gets from just sitting in the space, how important it is for him to be there. When we talked about whether we should livestream our own services, another member talked about how reassuring it can be just to see our beloved space on a video.
I always knew that sacred space was as important to other people as it is to me. But what makes a space sacred? Architectural beauty and artistic decoration have something to do with it. But it’s sacredness primarily derives from the prayers that have been said in it. They linger like echos, and create the spirit of the space. Many prayers are now being said on Zoom during our Midday service, but when I open my Zoom window, I don’t feel the same sense of lingering prayers, of voices still reverberating, and the more subtle reverberation of God’s answering voice.
Last night, during the Lenten Study Program, which we held on Zoom, another member talked about coming back from a long business trip. We had been reading Thomas Merton’s Louisville Epiphany, in which Merton sees God in the faces of all the people who are passing him on a street corner in Louisville. Our member said that when he got back from his trip, he looked out across the sanctuary on a Sunday morning at all of his friends in the parish, and saw their faces shining like the sun. A church is not a building, of course, but a community of people. Yet a building contains that community, holds the scent of the people who inhabit it, is graced by fingerprints on the back of pews and the dust that we generate hanging suspended in beams of sunlight. There is something bodily missing from our worship when it’s just in online spaces. How I yearn for us to be able to meet in person, in our beloved sanctuary, once again.