“I love your sanctuary Lord, the place where your glorious presence dwells.”
While there are often statements in the Psalms where I fall short, such as “I meditate on your law day and night,” this statement about loving God’s sanctuary rings true for me. I love to worship and I love being in sacred spaces. So much so that one of my greatest reservations about going into the priesthood was fear that I would lose that love, once it became my job. But that did not happen. When Beth and I go on vacation, especially when in Europe, we visit churches. That may sound like a busman’s holiday, and I suppose it is, but that is fine with us. It is a delight for me to attend worship while on vacation for two reasons. First because I am not responsible for leading it and therefore I can enjoy it even more. Second, because I get to worship with my wife. The icing on the cake is to see art and architecture all for the glory of God.
But some might object that since, according to the New Testament, our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit, there are no more sanctuaries or special places where God’s glorious presence dwells. This Puritan thinking permeates much of contemporary Christianity where the sanctuary is now a stage for musicians, pews with kneelers have been replaced by theatre seating where people can drink their coffee, and sacred art and artifacts are avoided for fear of offending or frightening the unchurched. While the motives of this approach to Christianity should not be questioned, the theology behind it should. It is admirable to want to worship God from the heart but to think that doing so involves divorcing ourselves of sacred spaces and sacred things is really a form of dualism. This mindset says that since it’s all about worshipping in spirit it does not matter where we worship or what we wear to worship or even how we act in worship. In fact the more “normal” the Church can be, the more people we can attract and the more we can focus on Jesus. Thus the music should sound like what we listen to in our cars, the surroundings should feel like our homes and the pastor should dress informally and hopefully show a few tats for street cred.
But we are not just spirit beings trapped in a fleshly prison. We are spirit and body and while we are called to worship God in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24) we are called also to present our bodies as living sacrifices. We are told directly not to be conformed to this world, so the goal of being “normal” is wrong headed (Rom 12:1,2). The Church is to be holy and holiness is being set apart to God. That is why from the moment that it became legal to do so, the Church has set apart spaces for the sole purpose of worshipping God. Temples that had been used to worship idols were turned into houses of worship for the One True God. St. Brigid took possession of the sacred fire in Kildare and converted it to a Christian site. Her sisters kept the flames burning there for nearly 1,000 years. Throughout Europe men labored, literally for generations, to build cathedrals and churches to the glory and worship of God.
We visited a church in England that had a sign in the narthex, “This has been a house of prayer for 900 years, please be reverent.” They did not really need the sign. As soon as you stepped into the nave you felt like Moses when God told him to take his sandals off because he was on holy ground (Ex 3:5). I would argue that generations to come will continue to visit that sacred space while the movie theatres and metal buildings of the Puritan persuasion will only be a memory.
Our parish worked and saved to create a sanctuary for God’s presence. While our new Chapel is no English Abbey neither is it a family den. We did what we could, with what we had, to give God our very best. It is a lovely sacred space. I had four friends, all Pentecostal ministers, to come and see it shortly after it was completed. As they walked about, inspecting lectern and pulpit and pews, one of them said, “I have an observation. None of this is in our tradition but have you noticed that not one of us has stepped up into the altar area?” To which another minister immediately replied, “I’m not going up there, that is sacred.” I had said nothing about where they could or could not go, but they knew intuitively that what we call the sanctuary is a different space from the nave, which in turn is a different space from the narthex. As men of God they were able to discern what was sacred.
While it is true that the Church is the people and not a building, it is also true that we will forever have sanctuaries set apart for the worship of God. He who is holy and Other deserves a space that is holy and other. It is not an accident that historical churches have echoes of God’s design of an outer court and a holy place and a holy of holies because people who understood the need for sacred spaces built them. So I enjoy museums and I delight in historic sites but I love God’s sanctuaries where His glorious presence dwells.