17 August 2012

Sacred Space

Someone asked me, just recently, what I missed most about being a parish priest.  Now that I have a little better than a year's distance from retirement, I am rested enough to consider what I valued most about those 34 years.   Everything was important, but not everything was necessary.  There is often a lot of trivia and fabricated intensity in daily parish life.  Our seminary moral theology professor would say, "the emotional intensity of a typical parish day depends almost entirely upon whose ox is getting gored."  I can now say he was absolutely right.

But it begs the question to consider what I am happy to leave behind.  I truly miss planning and doing liturgy.  Running a close second is catechesis.  I love to teach and explore ideas with folks.  I have not presided at a liturgy since 11 March (this year), when I supplied for a colleague in Independence, MO.  I'm not yet on the supply list in this diocese (where I reside) but will be soon I suspect.  However, it is one thing to preside at sacramental worship.  It is quite something else to be daily invested in planning, creating and engaging worship....seeing and feeling the liturgical seasons flow and be actively tuned in to that flow.

I am well suited to liturgical life, preaching and teaching.  My mind works that way.  I am as much a right brain intuitive as I am a left brain logician....perhaps more.   I research, gather data and prepare with resources.  Then, I let my mind go free to create what will be presented.  That's why I preach and teach with few notes.  It is why liturgy simply moves along in a flow.  I do miss that.

Saying all of that is the preamble to what I have come to realize in the last few weeks.  Sacred space isn't built.  It does not depend on an architectural design or contain set rules of physical organization.  Those things have become iconic in culture as a way of "speaking" sacred space to its people.   Sacred space is created by intention and subsequent action.  It can be anywhere.

I am forever, in this life, blessed to have been mentored in liturgy and sacramental theology by two holy men:  The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil and The Rev. Dr. Leonel Mitchell.  Fr. Weil was my professor and on-campus spiritual director in seminary.  He was both brilliant and articulate.  He obviously loved working with his students and spent a huge amount of time interacting on a lot of levels in our vocational formation.  We became close friends, and I valued his vast knowledge, his practical approach and his patient tutorials.  He taught me to pray with motion....how I stand at the Altar; how I use my hands and create gestures to impart prayer in a physical manner; how not to waste motion; how to use voice and how to make what is happening at the Altar alive to those gathered.   There are no tricks or "shell games" to liturgy.  The priest is a vessel of Grace and gives both voice and movement to the deep workings of liturgical prayer.  Fr. Weil is now retired and living in the San Francisco Bay area.

I was truly blessed to learn that Fr. Mitchell owned a home in South Bend, IN.  When he retired as professor of liturgics and sacramental theology from Seabury-Western Seminary in Chicago, he and his wife came back to South Bend.  He was an Honorary Canon of the cathedral, where I was Dean, and became my liturgical adviser and close friend during the last eight of my eleven years at St. James.  I will always remember his words, as we planned special liturgies for the cathedral:  "Will what we do and how we do it make sense to anyone present at this liturgy?"  Again, words and actions needed to synchronize and speak the intention at the heart of why we were there.  Lee was also a person of great wisdom and infinite patience.  He died in May this year, and I already miss him...even though I am retired.

Louis and Lee travel with me in the manner by which I conduct daily life.   Both taught and lived the creation of sacred space and time by virtue of presence and intention.  You see, sacramental moments happen all around us and with a great deal of regularity.  We don't recognize them because we are not looking or living with an attitude of "sacredness."

To engage this concept more completely, I like to use the Lakota way of experiencing life.   When I am with my mentors, one might say something like, "Climb Bear Butte, in a sacred manner."  Or, "As you are looking up at the sky, do so in a sacred manner."   We all look at things, but do we really see them?   The first time I climbed Bear Butte (near Sturgis, S. Dakota...just outside the Black Hills), I knew this was a sacred site for a number of First Nations tribes.  Taking my mentor's counsel to heart, I literally suspended my expectations and normal orienteering skills.  I simply allowed the mountain to "speak" to me.  Small, and usually insignificant things began to take on a new interest or focus.  It was an unspoken conversation.  I completed that climb wiser than when I started.  Popping back into chronological sequence was a jolt.

What I did was allow the entire Bear Butte to be sacred space.  I allowed myself to suspend chronological time and to, instead, experience kairos...holy time...creation time. Over the past few years, it has gotten easier to suspend the process of organizing data and allowing myself to simply let the experience happen.  It's something like looking at one of those multi-colored grouping of dots and being asked to see the picture embedded therein.  Once one learns how to "de-focus" the eyes, the picture seems to pop right out.  Engaging sacred space is a defocusing of the data gathering and analytical thought processes and allowing intuition to take charge....flipping from left brain to right brain.  Suddenly, leaves are not just leaves.  Creatures are not just creatures.  Smells are not just smells.  Sounds are not just sounds.  They have different features and deeper textures and personalities.  We are, for that moment, experiencing their true nature.

If God has created all things and is invested in us, sacred space is walking and engaging life at that level.  Now, if we are convinced that there is no God and, therefore, no reality beyond the physical presentation of what is around us, we are simply like the metal balls careening off energized objects in a pinball machine.  We are existing, or living an existence without depth.   Everything around us is, then, frightening or potentially harmful.  If we are experiencing our surroundings "in a sacred manner," we know immediately, that all creation is our friend.  We know how to respect what is more powerful; but the more powerful does not threaten us or do us harm.

In October 2007, I made an Hanbleceya (han-blay-chayah) at the center of the Black Hills...under the direction of a Lakota elder and those who assisted him.  It was a three-day experience at the center of which was a night alone at the top of a hill in a place I had never been before...and miles from anything resembling civilization.   It was me, clad only in a pair of shorts and equipped only with a blanket, sitting in a space that had been set apart as a place of vigil and prayer.  I am told this space has been used for centuries by Lakota and other First Nations people.  Hanbleceya means, "crying for a vision."  It is a process toward encountering one's holy center and experiencing the holiness and sacredness of one's surroundings.

The center of the Black Hills (the Pe sla) is a prairie dotted with wooded areas and lined with streams at an altitude averaging 5,000 feet.  As sacred space, it literally throbs with Presence and transcendent reality.  It almost sparkles.  I remember that night hearing what are normal night sounds -- owls, coyotes, cattle lowing in the distance, the rustle of bushes with the movement of night creatures seeking a meal.  It was a cloudless night and, because the nearest town is 17 miles away, the stars were brighter than I had ever seen them.  The moon was in it's first quarter.  Yet, my sight seemed clearer.  I had absolutely no fear.  I knew, somehow, that I was in sacred space and surrounded by those who would care for me.  I eased into that trust and had the most powerful night of my life in terms of revelation and engagement (yep, one must stay awake and keep vigil...I slept after my hanbleceya ended around 11am the next day).

Our new home is sacred space for us.  When we moved here, we determined that we wanted to begin this part of our life by being intentional about that.  We prayed our way into our new home and asked that we might be more aware of ourselves, one another and all that is holy in every room.  We have designated spaces for prayer and meditation outside the daily routine.  When we enter from outside, we remove our shoes and either go around barefooted or with house shoes (or socks).  Taking into account that God told Moses to remove his sandals, because he was stepping on holy ground, we are following that custom used by a number of cultures.

This is just a thought.  Perhaps we don't get as much out of going to church as we could, because we do not treat it as sacred space.  We simply see it as a necessary (or tangential) extension of daily life...analytical and mundane.  I wonder...just wonder mind you...what would happen if we had to remove our shoes at the door and become quiet as we entered the worship space?  What would happen if, in a sacred manner, we tuned out the chatter of analysis and data collection and simply allowed ourselves to be present to whatever may be around us?

Then, what would happen if we took that attitude into our homes....then into our work spaces...then into the routine of our movements about our communities.   I wonder.....

Love and Blessings,


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