Have you ever walked into a room or a building (not a church) and felt a sense that it was, somehow, a holy space.....or that there was something significantly different about that space that felt comforting and safe? Have you ever walked into a church building that felt rather cold, uninviting or chaotic (read: confusing to the senses)? Have you ever experienced someone walking into a room and, somehow, the whole room quickly felt warm, comforting or peaceful?
These questions reflect a level of experience that has little to do with the physical surroundings or anything to which the outward senses can attach themselves. The experiences are sensations, feeling or intuitive moments of something being "bigger" than simply what appears before us.
I would have to go back a ways to know if I have shared this story, but it is worth repeating. So, please bear with me, if you have heard or read it.
When I was stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland with the U.S. Navy submarine squadron (Jan. 1973 to early 1975), I would use my off times to explore Scotland. It is where both sides of my family came from in the decade of the 1740s.
On one excursion to Edinburgh in 1973, I visited Greyfriars Abbey. It was a Franciscan monastery for 2 centuries and became a parish church community in 1620. It is famous for the story of Greyfriars' Bobby...the skye terrierdog who, after his master (policeman John Gray) died was buried in the kirkyard cemetery stayed at his grave until his own death several years later.
On the particular day I was there, I toured the church and grounds and was preparing to leave by the main wrought iron gate...the only entry/exit point...and saw an elderly woman sitting on the ground and leaning against the gate. She stared up at me and her eyes were like deep pools of compassion. She was dingy, and her clothes were old and beginning to fray. I was compelled from somewhere inside to go to her. Out of my pants pocket, I retrieved all the change I had. In British coin, it probably amounted to about 4 pounds (ca. $7 American). I knelt beside her, took her left hand in mine, placed the coins in it and placed my other hand over the top. She smiled at me in a way that I will never forget. It was genuine, full of love and deeply compassionate.
I slowly arose, nodded to her, turned and crossed the street to head back to my hotel. I took one last glance over my shoulder to see her....AND SHE WAS GONE. I scanned all sides of the street and sidewalks. She was nowhere to be found. She looked frail, so she could not have traveled out of sight in the 45 seconds or so that had elapsed. I ran back across the street. There was a security guy at the gate, who had been there when I first arrived; and I asked him what happened to the woman sitting in front of the open gate. He looked at me as if I were completely daft. "Sir, we allow no one to loiter at Greyfriars Gate...especially indigents." "But you saw me here just a minute or so ago." He replied, "Aye, I did. You knelt down right there (pointing), but I thought you were reading the inscription on the wall. I'm tellin' you...there was no woman there, sir."
I am positive, by this time, that he was certain that I was off my noodle or drunk. He looked concerned enough that I figured he might be preparing to call for back-up. I was pretty thoroughly trained in how not to create a scene. I simply begged his pardon; that I must have been confused or dreaming; bid him a good day and left post-haste.
There are lots of stories about sightings and events that defy explanation -- often called paranormal behaviors. That may have been the first one for me. No, I had not been drinking. My particular craft, while stationed in Scotland, called for me to be pretty alert and "in my own right head" at all times...even on leave. This was a two day-off weekend period, and I was training back across the country to Dunoon that evening. That day's event remains as clear to me in 2013 as it was the day it happened in June 1973.
There are three aspects of any sacramental act in the Christian Church: Form, Matter and Intention. As a priest, in order to engage a sacrament...say baptism...I have water that is blessed with a rite of prayer; with that water, there is the person to be baptized; the intention is that the Holy Spirit (promised by Christ Jesus) will act in a way to shift the ontological character of the person being baptized and give the "Gifts of the Spirit."
For me, from the moment of my ordination as a priest, I have moved into places of worship with the intention that that particular space and time would be set as holy and sacred for what worship was about to take place. I have never entered a space without that "setting of intent" moving through my consciousness. I never leave without making a conscious "thank you" in some manner.
My seminary spiritual director, and then just retired,100th Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Michael Ramsey told me once (paraphrasing), "Remember, Fred, your primary work as a priest will be to hold space and time for whatever it is you and the people gathered will engage in that space and during that time..." I will forever be blessed that Archbishop Ramsey was on Nashotah House campus all three years of my graduate training and the full year of my final year. I should have paid even more attention to all he said to me....it would have made me a better priest.
Holding space is simply making an intentional perimeter inside which you invoke all that is holy to be concentrated in that space for a specified time and reason. No one else knows it is happening (there are no outward gestures or spoken words...maybe a sign of the cross in the area or quietly holding one's hands palms up at waist level...nothing obtrusive). In the back of my head, there seems to continue a kind of mantra that signifies the space and event...even if I am leading the event. I don't know how that came about, but I suddenly realized it was happening shortly after I was ordained. Oddly, I compare it to how a master of the didgeridoo can keep air moving constantly through the didge and breathe at the same time.
Heads up: One does not have to be ordained to hold space as sacred!
Be sure to read that again. I have a number of friends who are deep within their spiritual journeys and hold space for all kinds of sacred events. Doing that action rather insures that only that which is sacred and good will be part of that time that, for those gathered, can be very vulnerable and transparent. If you are reading this, then you are at least curious about these kinds of things, so, try this:
As you next enter your home or workspace, pause just inside the doorway. For just a couple of moments, internally visualize the entire space and sincerely ask that the Divine be present and active to hold that space for the well-being of all who enter that space for the coming (name the time period). As you move through your day or work time, create a small mantra you can say. Something like: Make this space holy by your presence, Lord Jesus (or the Divine you experience). What works for you that can be part of the edge of your consciousness as you carry out whatever is taking place in the designated space.
It can be as mundane as this (and I am not making this up): I had our dog, Duchess, at the vet on Monday (1/7) morning for the doc to have a look at a fatty tumor developing just forward of her hip. Duchess is 15 yrs old, and I had this edginess about this mass potentially being cancerous. Duchess seemed more than her usual "why am I here" nervous. She may have been picking up my "vibes" of concern. For some reason, before the doc and tech came in to do the aspiration procedure, I "created" space...very quietly but very intentionally. I held my hand, palm open toward Duchess and simply invoked peacefulness, assurance and Presence. In less than a minute, Duchess simply settled down next to my feet and got very quiet. I felt a warmth of confident peace. Some minutes passed, and the vet entered with his tech (they are wonderful folks at this clinic). The tech looked around quickly and said, "it feels really nice in here this morning." (turns out, I was their first patient). It all turned out well. The tumor, btw, is benign and will cause no problems for the Duchess.
That happened not because I am an ordained person and "know about this holy stuff." Some of my colleagues might read this and express genuine skepticism. It's okay. Anyone can do this same thing, if one is willing to trust and carry the intention to its fullest expression.
The days of dualistic ritual and thinking are over, as far as I am concerned. What is holy and what is not exist in the same space. We are vessels for inviting the holy to transform all elements of the space we inhabit. This is both life changing and life affirming.