Saturday, January 5, 2008

8 categories of the sacred

What makes a space sacred? Is there one defining criteria for a space to convey or reflect the sacred? For some it is location. The sacred must be in a distinct place. That understanding is called by many geopiety; a certain place is more holy than another place. We see that regionally in the USA when people yearn for "home" places where their family comes from, places with deep meaning and story. Globally we see that in Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem, Kyoto and Nara, Rome  and other world centers for religions. 
For others, the sacred must have certain personalities, certain persons to teach, preach, lead and infuse gatherings with their charisma. In western celebrity drenched culture, stars of all sorts gather adoring crowds around them. From Rick Warren to the Pope, people cluster around personalities.
Others require the sacred to have a specific sound and a musical style. That again varies by taste and preference for Gregorian chant sung in Latin to Jars of Clay chorusses. Music is a highly volatile topic for many, who long for one type of music and disparage other types of music. Many of us have gone through worship wars with committed and intense people advocating their brand of sacred music.
As I reflected on the sacred, read the Bible straight through twice, underlining all references to sacred space with note in the margin that looks like this: "Ssp", and visiting 29 Romanesque churches in France over the years since 2000, I propose 8 realms of sacred space that must be in a relationship with each other. Over the next months I hope to make a case for each of these categories in a distilled form that invites comment and feedback. There may only be 6 categories or there could be 13 categories. I've landed on 8:
1. Transcendence
2. Immanence
3. Prayer
4. Leadership
5. Safety
6. Time
7. Beauty
8. Meaning

Monday, December 31, 2007

Space Matters

It's time to talk about space; more specifically sacred space. So on this December 31, 2007, I'm launching a blogsite devoted to ramblings and ruminations about things sacred and things spacious. 
It started out as a sabbatical leave challenge in 2000. The church I was serving granted me a 3 month leave. I had no clue what a sabbatical was except from observing my father's sabbatical leave during my junior year in high school. He went back to seminary to earn a ThM degree in church history. I did not want a degree, so I began working and a question that intrigued, perplexed and bothered me. What is it about some spaces that lend themselves to the sacred? I mean, when you enter them, you are aware of the holy?
That's it. That was the question that took me on my sabbatical leave. I had been pastoring for 20 years when I left. I pastored 3 churches in 3 different states and of 3 different sizes and personalities, though all within the same denomination (Evangelical Covenant). There were moments of spectacular, overwhelming holiness in worship and then there were duds, when the words never left the room and the music fell flat.
Worship was evolving and morphing in the 80's, 90's and 2000's. Space became maleable and optional. Furnishings moved around and the language describing the worship space secularized into stages and platforms, audiences and programs, applause and advertisements. The mega-churches arrived and thrived, offering seminars on how to reach the seekers by stripping away outmoded architecture, music, clothing and language. All was done with sincerity and a genuine desire to reach lost people for Jesus.
What I noticed in the process was how the sung and spoken word dominated the visual and non-verbal. Churches worshiped in warehouse boxes, loaded with light bars and walls of speakers painted black. Music was amped and pumped out till your chest vibrated and you could not hear yourself or anyone else sing. 
Gothic cathedrals inspired me with their size and scale: Notre Dame, Chartes, Poitiers, San Michelle. But, I'm married to an artist and an art history teacher who strongly suggested I did not want to study the gothic, but the romanesque. When I fought back, asking why romanesque over gothic, her answer was that the gothic reflects more of the situation of the wealthy royalty, inserting their imagery and heraldry into the architecture whereas the romanesque (pre 1,000 AD) was more biblical and standard. They reflected the monastic orders more than the royal families.
So we went to southern France and I began visiting romanesque churches and cathedrals throughout southern France. My home base church became St. Trophime in Arles (pictured above). 
What I would request from those of you who read this, is to send me a picture of your congregational worship space. Send any photos to
I hope, over the months (if not years) to narrate and navigate the realm of sacred use of space not so much as an architect or francophile, but more from a normal pastoral perspective.
Christmastide is about the Christ becoming flesh, being incarnate, taking on stuff. We all live in worlds cluttered with stuff. How do we allow the sacred to break through our space?