On Sunday we spent time thinking about sacred space, places that help us feel particularly connected to God. We started by hearing the story of Moses and the burning bush from Exodus 3:1-14, and explored what this encounter might teach us about sacred space.
SACRED SPACE IS NOT FIXED There is nothing in the story to say that the bush was burning the day before or the day after. It was a sacred space in that moment because God was encountered in a particularly tangible, visceral, immediate way. This is important because it reminds us that the idea of sacred space is not about tying God down to a physical object or a map reference point, but rather about recognising that physical space can sometimes make God more manifest. It also suggests that sacred space and sacred time are sometimes so entwined as to be indistinguishable.
SACRED SPACE IS AN INVITATION God took the initiative in lighting the bush but Moses had to turn aside to see it properly and to understand its significance. One of my favourite snatches of poetry is from Emily Barrett Browning - "earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit around and pluck blackberries”. It is so easy for us to walk past sacred spaces if we are not paying attention, and so we need to cultivate an attitude of openness to God.
SACRED SPACE REQUIRES RESPONSE Moses not only had to turn aside from his path but he was also told to take off his shoes for he was on holy ground. A former minister of mine talked about the importance of going barefoot before the bush, of recognising and responding to the presence of God. Of course God is always present, but there are moments when we become particularly aware of it, and we mustn’t let those simply pass by. For years, I would take off my shoes in worship as a symbolic act - perhaps that’s not the action that has meaning for you, but I encourage you to find some way of acknowledging your experience of the presence of God, whether that is building a cairn in the garden or journalling or anything else your imagination can come up with.
SACRED SPACE IS ABOUT ENCOUNTER God gave Moses some clear instructions about what he wanted him to do next, but he did not give Moses a clear answer when he asked who he was speaking to. I am who I am isn’t particularly descriptive as a name or title, and I think that is because first and foremost God wanted Moses to experience him. Sometimes when we enter sacred spaces we will come away with new knowledge or understanding, but often we will receive nothing we can put into words, rather a sense of presence or of satisfaction that runs soul deep.
So to bring all of that together, sacred space does not tie God down but invites us in to encounter and respond to God. With that in the background of our thoughts, next we went on to think about the seven sacred spaces of monastic communities, as defined and described by minister and theologian George Lings. He wrote about them not merely as an interested observer, but in the hope that understanding them would help the whole church to grow in a more balanced way, and I think there is much we can learn from them. The spaces may not all be obviously sacred, as many have very practical purposes, but they each offer unique opportunities for us to encounter and respond to God.
CHAPEL This is a place of public worship. For monastic communities, it is the heart of their shared life together. I believe that different monastic orders have different rhythms, but as an example, the Benedictine monks come together seven times a day to pray and to chant and to hear the reading of scripture. The fact that they come together to do that is not insignificant - it is a large part of what unites them as a community.
CHAPTERHOUSE This is a place for decision making and ordering community life. I can only imagine the level of administration and cooperation that goes into living in a monastic community, and how vital that there is a space where shared life can be discussed .
REFECTORY This is a place for eating and hospitality. Some orders will eat in silence at least for most of the week, but eating together is still an important part of community life, and meals are one of the ways in which guests are welcomed into the life of the monastery.
CELL This is a place of private prayer. Communal prayer marks the rhythm of monastic life, but private prayer is also important. Tt means the whole of the life of the community is soaked in prayer, and I imagine it is important in ensuring that members do not find their entire spiritual life rests on others. It also follows model of Jesus who often left the disciples in order to pray alone.
CLOISTER This is an in between space, a place for interaction. It is where members of monastic communities and their guests will meet in passing, outside of the prescribed activities of the community, and it offers a place for unexpected encounters even within a highly ordered life.
GARDEN This is a place for manual work. The garden is not the only place in a monastery where manual work is carried out but it is symbolic of it. Labour is important to many monastic communities, who use it as a way to serve the world outside their walls and support their own existence, and I imagine it also grounds them amid a life of prayer and worship.
SCRIPTORIUM This is a place of study. Traditionally it was where monks would copy manuscripts, and I would imagine learn a great deal in the process. I'm not sure how much copying of whole Bibles still happens, but I do know Lindisfarne has a scriptorium which produces beautiful pieces of art.
Having had a brief introduction to how those spaces function in monastic communities, we went on to think about how they might work in our own church community.
CHAPEL. For us that is the space in which we gather on a Sunday, and it functions much the same as in a monastery, if rather less frequently than seven times a day. It is the place where we gather to worship through prayer and song and reading of scripture and reflection on faithful living, and as for monastic communities, it is a large part of what unites us. We may have different understandings of and responses to what takes place in services, but we are starting from common ground.
CHAPTERHOUSE For us that is the church meeting. In practice church meetings can be difficult to get right, and I know that they often become an extended time of notices, but in principle I love them, because they have the potential to be a really exciting time of prayer and imagination. I think it is a real strength of our tradition that we regularly set aside time to talk about our shared life and to seek the will of God together.
REFECTORY For us the refectory is largely created around the tables at back of church, where we share tea and coffee and biscuits, although sometimes it is the hall where we may gather for something more substantial, as we did for pizza and barbecue back in September. I love those times because there is something wonderful about the simple act of sitting down to eat and drink together - as Jesus’ habit of eating with outcasts and Paul’s fury at the way the Corinthians segregated their meals shows, table fellowship is meant to unite us over all differences and barriers.
CELL This one is perhaps not so obvious, but I want to suggest that we do have the prayer area. For some time now, the bookcase has been set up with materials around prayer and rest and reflection, with some suggestions and activities, and the idea was always that there would be a place within this shared space that afforded the chance for quiet personal reflection.
CLOISTER I think for us this largely overlaps with the refectory, as it is over cups of tea and plates of food that so many of our encounters happen, but I love the idea that the cloister is a place where unexpected conversation may happen, and so I want to encourage us to be open to unexpected conversations, whether that means talking to those we perhaps don’t talk to every week, or asking a few more questions than normal, or sharing a bit more openly about how our week has been.
GARDEN As in the monasteries, there is not only one place where manual work occurs, and the whole building can be a place of labour. As I said when we talked about giving a few weeks ago, a huge amount is given in time and skill to this church.
SCRIPTORIUM Again this one may not be so obvious, but I want to suggest this may be for us the house groups, as they are places where there is opportunity for further learning, and I think it is great that we do that together. The Wednesday group has sparked conversations and ideas I never would have had alone, and prompted me to push harder and think deeper, and I hope it has been similarly valuable for others.
Finally we cycled round these spaces one final time, to ask how we might see or create them in our personal lives.
CHAPEL Because this is communal, it stays pretty much the same, except that there may be other chapels we worship in as well as this one.
Where else and with who else do you gather for worship?
CHAPTERHOUSE I remember my parents used to sit at the dining table every Saturday morning and record all their receipts for the week and make sure the books balanced, and that for them was in a sense their chapterhouse. I’m sorry to say I am nowher near as organised, and I increasingly feel this is something I need to address, so that I may be more conscious and intentional about my decision making.
How conscious are you about your decision making?
REFECTORY Just as we all make decisions but we don’t all have a chapterhouse, in the same way we all eat but we may not all have a refectory. Perhaps we grab what we can when we can and there is less ritual about it than in a community, or perhaps we often find ourselves eating alone and wish we did not
What role do food and hospitality have in your life?
CELL The word cell implies a small closed space, and perhaps that is the kind of setting you find conducive to prayer, but many pray best on the move or in wide open space. The point of the cell is not to limit prayer to one space but to recognise the importance of praying
How and when and where do you pray?
CLOISTER When we move these spaces away from the monastery and the church, we realise the cloister can be literally anywhere that we could meet another person - the bus, the shops, the street, at work, at home. Most of us will have multiple potential interactions every day, but we don’t always seize those opportunities.
Where do we interact with others and how open are we to that interaction?
GARDEN Manual work will look different for each of us. Perhaps it is tapping figures into a spreadsheet, or keeping up with the housework, or caring for a child, or holding the phone to chat with an old friend. One of my favourite prayers for the Northumbria Daily Office comes from Midday Prayer - “let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us and establish thou the work of our hands”. I remember praying that while moving speakers and projectors to set up for an art installation accompanied by prayer stations, and marvelling that the work of my hands was so simple and yet could glorify God
What is the work of your hands and how might it glorify God?
SCRIPTORIUM I have a confession to make - I don’t read the Bible every day. That feels like a shameful thing for a minister to admit, but I have to be honest and acknowledge how hard it can be to set time aside for study and contemplation. I have periods where I am able to commit to a plan or a pattern, but I struggle to be consistent. I do however know that I feel better on those days that I have set time aside for reflection, and I find an absolute thrill in reading and studying, and so it is something I keep working at, and I encourage you to do the same.
Do you set aside time to read and think?
There's a lot to ponder on there, so why not scribble the questions down and pin them on your fridge or the back of the bathroom door, and meditate on them throughout this week? However, you respond to this reflection, my prayer is that you will become more aware of the sacred in your life, that you will find a burning bush and remember to turn aside and take off your shoes.