SacredOn the first floor of the Yale University Art Gallery is displayed a broken piece of plaster wall, painted in the 3rd century A.D., depicting Christ walking on the Sea of Galilee during a storm. In the background is a boat with several people in it, as described in the 16th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and the 6th Chapters of the Gospels of Luke and John. This painting was excavated in Dura-Europas, present day Syria, during an archeologic mission from 1928-1937.
I turn my attention to this fragment of art because it once decorated the wall of a room in what is believed to be the oldest Christian church ever discovered; a House Church built about A.D. 232, where Christians worshipped out of the view of the Roman authorities before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 decreed religious tolerance. In particular, this painting juxtaposes the demonstrative deity of Jesus with the tempest-tossed fears of the disciples, within the context of water. The painting was part of the most important room in the Church – the baptistry – where new adherents to the faith were sanctified.
This House Church, and, indeed, this very room, was sacred space, set apart, and introduced to anyone that entered as sacred by the conspicuous miracle that oversaw the room through this painting.
Now, though, I reflected with some dolefulness as I gazed on this piece of plaster. It was no longer part of a sacred space. It was now a mere artifact of what once was sacred. Its iconography was no less reverent than was intended by its devout maker. Something was missing. There were no longer any people among or within the space defined by this, and, no doubt, other images illuminating the Spirit alive within that baptistry. This painting, once consecrated to the Holy, was now a piece of plaster with faded pigments on it. Were that House Church still intact and this fragment of wall in its original place, the baptistry it illuminated and the whole building would be hallowed, perhaps even a site of pilgrimage.
What had changed? What makes a place sacred? Should we even contemplate the assignment of Cartesian space to the Divine? Cannot God be anywhere? Indeed, any place, and any experience, that provides unio mystica is sacred.
Sacred spaces differ from secular, or profane, spaces. Every sacred space implies a detachment of some area from the surrounding context and it becoming qualitatively different. By contrast, secular space appears and disappears arbitrarily and in response to the needs of its locality.
The Church’s persistent promulgation of contemporaneous spiritual fulfillment in the face of the promise of what Max Weber called “the pious boredom of paradise” presents a continuous challenge to church leadership. Sacred spaces and experiences help provide that ontological bridge and a reference point for human fulfillment.
The evolution of the Church since 1517 did not change our human preference for God to be in holy places, divine ubiquity notwithstanding. The central themes of the Reformation included the elimination of magic as a means to salvation, but they did not, by any means, attenuate the role of the sacred. Hence, that evolutionary process broadened, rather than narrowed, our notion of the sacred. Indeed, the sacred need only point to the transcendent, without necessarily being grounded in any religious tradition. The temple, the solar alignment, the river, and the path all may provide us a gateway to the Divine.
That sense of belonging and connection does not, however, erupt spontaneously. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger delved into the sacred and proposed that it exists in three simultaneous planes.
First, Heidegger propounded the untranslatable concept of Dasein, which might be understood in context as the requirement the sacred imposes on people as being there. Perhaps being in the world – being both here and over there – captures this element.
Second, he asserts that for people to experience the sacred, they must dwell in the sacred space. Not so much residing there as being fully present. This concept intellectually overlaps with Dasein when we evaluate the sacred.
Finally, Heidegger asserts that the sacred occurs at the intersection of humanity and the earth on which we live. This is often provided by a locale, such as a bridge over a river. Whereas before the bridge is constructed, the river is a geographic feature, but upon the arrival of the bridge, it becomes a place to be, to gather, to experience something.
Among many common themes implied by Heidegger’s proposition is implied a sense of community that includes an acknowledgement of a space as sacred.
In Genesis, we learn of Jacob sleeping in the wild, with a rock for a pillow and dreaming of a staircase to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. God appears to Jacob in the dream and promises him the land around him, but not before enjoining it also to Jacob’s descendants. The place is sacred, but only insofar as, and perhaps because, it is shared by a community.
Your own sacred space may be your church building, your river path, or your coffee shop. Anywhere you can be in the world that helps you transcend your existence, whether in communion with God or with strangers, is consecrated when you understand yourself in terms of community.
Dan is a tax attorney and member of Spring Glen Church in Hamden, CT. He can be reached at email@example.com.