Sacred Place or Sacred Space?
Later in this newsletter I will explain to you why I find this picture so frustrating. The perspective above is the interior of the glorious Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge University. Val and I had the great privilege of visiting this wonder of late Gothic English architecture at the end of a twelve-week study tour of Europe and the Middle East. On this trip we visited many, many cathedrals in Europe, and I thought I had seen it all—and then we stepped inside this Chapel. My first and overwhelming impression was, “Wow! This is truly a sacred place!”
That was years ago, and I have had time to reflect. Apart from the Tabernacle of Moses or the Temple of Solomon, both of which entertained the Shekinah (the sacred presence of God; cf. Ex. 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:1-10), there has been no physical structure, or “place,” that is sacred. From a technical standpoint, a sacred place is the physical location in time and space where the Divinity dwells. From the time of the Reformation there has been a defensible correction in what has often been the idolatry of a structure; i.e., neither the sanctuary of a church, nor any other temple or edifice is a place where the Divinity dwells (more about where the Divinity dwells later).
First, let me draw a distinction between the terms “place,” and “space.” In a sacred space I am humbled; a sacred space puts me in my place, so to speak. In sacred space the trajectory is toward contrition and not hubris. In sacred space I don’t tend to feel better about myself, but I am inclined to think more rightly about myself. A sacred space compels me to surrender power and control. In a sacred “place” the circumstances are different, and it all comes down to a matter of the heart and mind, and mostly heart (cf. Is. 29; Matt. 15).
When I think of a sacred place, I’m naturally inclined to think of it as my sacred place; that place where I feel closest to God. The problem is, whenever I regard a place as “mine,” whether by creation, possession, or profession, it ceases to be sacred and becomes profane. That place has become an agent of my priority, my precedence, and ultimately my pride. A sacred place tempts me to take control and impose my will. I’m inclined to say things like, “only this structure, or structures that are like it, can be called sacred places.” I am tempted to find my [spiritual] identity in a sacred place, whether that is a cathedral or a mountain top or whatever else, something that a place is incapable of providing. I can never own the Divine (although, in order to be redeemed, the Divine must own me; cf. I Cor. 6:19b-20). A sacred place is all about me, where a sacred space is all about Him!
Having said this, there is a deep-seated need in the soul of a human to come into proximity with that which is sacred, whether in a space or through music or art, but especially in relationship; we are hard-wired for it. In fact, sacred space, regardless of the venue, is virtually impossible without relationship. We are always better for having come close to holiness. The good news is that our God knows that about us, and He has made a remarkable provision for that need.
In the passage referred to above, 1 Cor. 6:19-20, the Apostle Paul says that our bodies have become God’s temple, because His Spirit has made His dwelling place in our hearts (cf. John 14:15ff; Eph. 1:11-14). My need to come into proximity with the sacred has been met by God who sends His “Sacred/Holy Spirit” (the Greek, hagios, is translated both sacred and holy), to dwell in our hearts. How cool is that?! Every Wednesday at 11:30 Summit has chapel in the VCA “sanctuary,” which is really not a sanctuary in the sacred sense. Rather, many sanctuaries, little ones and their teachers who have trusted Jesus as their Savior, gather in a physical space [aka, sanctuary] to praise and worship God. It is a highlight of my week to listen to these dear ones sing their hearts out in praise, and to hear them pray to the God Who is there.
To come full circle, is there a rightful place for places like King’s College Chapel, (or music like Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or paintings like Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Prodigal Son), these masterpieces that evoke a sense of sacred wonder and mystical awe? If they are not sacred per se, what are they? I have come to think of them as sentinels or beacons. In their majesty they call out to us prophetically and suggest there is something/Someone greater than our feeble mortality. To that extent they may not be sacred in form, but they can certainly be sacred in function; i.e., sacred in the sense that they beckon us to the Sacred. It is only to this extent that the Bible open on my desk is called The Holy Bible; neither the binding nor the paper is sacred, but the God of the message certainly is. One of the express purposes for cathedral building in the Middle Ages was that the architecture itself might declare in its own speech and presence the glory of God. It is my opinion that, in its dismissal of the powerful palettes of architecture, music and the arts, the Post-Reformation Church in the West has thrown out several “babies with the bathwater.”
So, why does that picture bug me? Well, it’s a beautiful picture of a beautiful place, and a picture may tell a thousand words, but it’s no substitute for being there. King’s College Chapel may make a bold statement about a great God, but you really need to be present in order to hear the speech (so to speak). To be in relation with the sacred, there must be a presence. It is certainly my prayer that the Sacred One is present in your heart in this remarkable relationship called redemption. At the same time, I encourage you to pause, be present, and be humbled when you see or hear a call to the Sacred. To rediscover the wonder of regarding our great God and the cosmos He has made in wonder is at the heart of what we at Summit consider a good education.
God bless you all,
Dr. Timothy Orton
Summit Classical Christian School