Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sacred Space and Sacred Place

Sacred Spaces

Sacred Space and Sacred Place, two similar, actually interrelated themes, are essential aspects of personal spirituality. The boundary between space and place is porous and may be best understood as a continuum. But for my purpose this morning, I'll make distinctions between the two.

As I use the term Sacred Space I begin with the notion of personally chosen and crafted/sculpted intimate area. A home, distinguished from house, is the most common Sacred Space in our lives.

You may know one of those "best loved poems of the American People" ilk, Edgar Guest's 1916 “Home:"

It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,

A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam

Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,

An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.

It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,

How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;

I ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,

Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything.

There's three more verses I'll spare your from. This sentimental poem in country dialect followed the more philosophical, yet still sentimental vein, of William Channing Gannett's 1895 essay "The House Beautiful," about which I've often spoke to you. Gannett was our founding minister and he embodied his House Beautiful ethic/aesthetic in what he called this Church Home.

Such thoughts easily flowed through my mind this week.


I went home to visit my 94 and 95-year-old parents. My mother had a serious illness over the Holidays and was home gradually restoring her increasingly diminishing life. Their home is a 1950 bungalow-cottage in Northern Delaware, which my Dad pretty much built himself. It's a modest place by modern standards. The period knotty pine kitchen cabinets, in spot, are worn through the varnish to the wood by 60 years of the touch of hands. I took silent inventory of what was and is, down to a few houseplants my Mom is letting die, though she says it breaks her heart.

This home is my parent's ever-shrinking world, now mostly lived on the main floor. The sacred space continues to sustain them. And they vowed to continue to live there until utterly impossible to do so.

My childhood memories are there. And my older brother and I shared a bedroom for the first time in half a century.

I stayed with my brother, too, at his home outside Quakertown, in the midst of Bucks County, PA, a still rural area with a lively arts community. My brother's home in a deep tract of woods with a pond is distinctively his, filled with the artisan quality furniture he's designed and constructed through the years, as well as much arts and crafts--paintings, pottery, and sculptures. There's plenty of his brand of tchochke, too, ranging from toy tractors to found objects both industrial and natural.

His aesthetic favors the Japanese. George Nakashima, the 20th maker of spare and natural furniture, is one of his heroes. Though my brother doesn't have an original Nakashima, his favorite piece of purchased furniture is a desk by Nakashima's son.

Because of the storm, my return home to Chicago was delayed nearly three days. (I kept waking up each morning in the same bed with the same snow-covered scene outside the window, so the brief sojourn turned into my own Ground Hog Day, but that's another story--my storm of 2011 story.)

On Thursday, we visited an artist friend of my brother and sister-in-law in Quakertown. The artist and his wife are native Japanese. He sculpts distinctive hand blown glass and metal (often found objects) constructions. The three story, but small, duplex they share with an adult son, again a modest abode, is filled with his art. A small backyard is also crafted as a garden by his wife, continuing the esthetic outdoors.

They’re home is a shrine to avocation and avocation. Imagine three floors of small living space filled with creations such as this painting and sculpture enhanced by other decorative touches.

I was taken by these talismanic tokens over the front entranceway, easily overlooked. From what I understood from the wife who spoke halting English, these were traditional Shinto gods of prosperity, health, happiness and such, particularly significant in a time when selling art has grown difficult

Home Altar

This interested because of my long-standing appreciation of what I call "home altars," a subset of the Sacred Space that is Home. A dozen years, at the height of the "shelter craze," I published a guide on home altars and personal devotions called A Place of Your Own. I'd noticed for years formal and spontaneous home altars: collections of mementos, cherished natural objects such as feathers and stones, or even overtly religious objects such as little Native American carved fetishes, Buddhas, statues of saints and crosses. I was also intrigued by Chinese, Buddhist, and Hindu shrines that I saw in Chicago ethnic restaurants I was then so fond of.

I built on this traditional as well as natural tendency to choose a special place, often off to the side in a chosen niche. I gave advice on how to be deliberate in how to find your special space and construct an altar, what objects to place on it, as well as providing 52 weeks or devotional themes with selections to use. (In the recesses of my memory was a reference I once came across about regarding a turn of the century Unitarian "Home Altar Series.)

The publisher's back cover copy offers a verse from the Book of Proverbs: "By wisdom a house is built and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." The copy that follows begins: "Our spirituality is unbounded, infusing every corner of our homes. But often, in one special corner, our spiritual selves take more concrete forms--in home-fashioned shrines or altars where tangible symbols reflect the intangible mysteries that give our daily lives meaning."

The title, also my publisher's choice, alluded to the familiar notion of "a room of your own" but with the added intention that a chosen space's hallowedness seeping into all the rooms of a home.

Sacred Places

In my understanding, sacred places are of a larger scale than sacred spaces. Think of the variety of sacred places worldwide. Some are collective such as Mt. Fuji, The Ganges, the Himalayas and in our own environs the Indiana Dunes, as UU scholar and colleague Ron Engels realized in his fine book of twenty years ago Sacred Sands. In this book, Engels drew the features of the unique and curving band of shifting sand that curl around the bottom of Lake Michigan.

He highlighted the major ecosystems of North America, East and West, North and South converge here. In a few yards, flora and fauna might dramatically change, for example from Northern woodland, to Prairie, while passing through a micro-desert. Engel called the Dunes region God's Navel and Axis Mundi, meaning the world's pivot/center.

Engels argued that modern ecological biology was born here, as University of Chicago scientists studied the region as a great laboratory. As Nature is sacred, the Dunes seem to be at the center of that sacredness, at least from a North American perspective.

About the same time ecology was being born, the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, the Dunes also became a place where artfully stage pageants enacted an epic story from prehistory, to the Native American hegemony, to the voyageurs, to the settlement and growth of the spectacular city of Chicago, an expression of human industry and ingenuity.

In full costume, the actors would appear, play their lines, and exit an evocative natural amphitheater--a great blowout ringed by awestruck spectators.

In Engels' estimation, these Sacred Sands played a significant mythological role in the creation of Chicago's spirit or soul. Here, Chicago not only found its soul, it did its soul work via the arts and literature, via science, particularly biology, and via stylized pageants which were in reality religious (though secular) rituals. Chicagoan came to the Duns by the thousands to recreate and to create. Engels made special mention of the city's motto, "Urbus en Horto" city in a garden. And he garden was the vast Nature of North America converging in the Dunes.

Chicago is our home--our self-chosen place. In each our lives we acquire its legend and lore, we find our special haunts, perhaps returning to them time and again: Lake Shore Drive, the Auditorium Building or Symphony Hall, the Art Museum and the Field Museum, a restaurant on top of a skyscraper or along a neighborhood street, the Miracle Mile, Millennium Part, Garfield Conservancy, the campus of the University of Chicago--so many smaller places in the larger place: a great and complex Soul infused my so many little souls. We give our self to the city, too. A piece of us enters into it--I'd say literally.

I was supposed to return to Chicago this Wednesday, following my quick family visit back Est. I missed the great blizzard of 2011, the third largest snowfall on record. Aargh! Watching the images on TV, the snow lashed CNN on Michigan Avenue reporter nearly blown over by wind and the massive stall of a hundred cars on Lakeshore Drive made me jealous to be here. I'm jealous of each f you who lived the wind, snow, lightning and thunder, who hunkered in and dugout, and have your story of a mythic storm.

I chose this theme a few ago to pique your understanding and to stimulate your appreciation of one of the significant aspects of practical spirituality. And I have an ulterior motive.

Sacred Space/Place: UCH

One of contemporary scrupulosities involves full disclosure, especially by journalist and politicians and some are now saying Supreme Court judges, to reveal their connections that might cause them to be biased or prejudiced. For example, a journalist might write, "In the spirit of full disclosure, I once worked for such and such about which I now report." In full disclosure, my remarks now converge in an appeal to you in conjunction with our Annual Every Member/Friend Canvass that begins today. It's actually a Stewardship Campaign this year.

If you will, I want you to now gather in your imagination the importance of this Sacred Space/Place the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale. 120 years ago, this Church Home was intentionally designed to domesticate the infinite, that is, to make the ordinary sacred. Through six score years Sunday worship and home-crafted rituals, rites of passage, education, concerns, lectures and all sorts of community events have hallowed these walls rendering our Church Home sacred space for successive generations. The design of William Channing Gannett for a House Beautiful has been realized through intention in simple architecture.

Think about it and what you will readily realize that what really made and continues to make this a sacred place/space are what untold members of the congregation have brought to this building, rendering it sacred--a place of your own, if you will, for hundreds, yes thousands of us.

In our congregational arrangement, each of you in reality creates the church, making it sacred through your need and deeds. You do this in a variety of ways. You serve on the Board of Trustees and work on committees. In recent weeks a group of members, any of them new, have created an Animal Ministry an affiliate of a UUA organization. You teach in the Religious Education Program. Yu knit shawls for the Caring Committee to pass out. You weed the lawns, flowers beds, and trim trees. You make coffee for coffee. (Is there any more sacred ritual than Coffee Hour. In a moment, I'm going to say there is.) You usher, pack insulation in rafters, set up, and then take down tables and chairs, among many little deeds, necessary but mundane, that in aggregate make our meetinghouse church- home.

You fund raise via a large Harvest Holiday extravaganza, and through a variety of ad hoc fundraisers.

Most importantly, you contribute by your yearly promises, called pledges, to fund the operating budget for the next fiscal year. Your voluntary contributions converge in the most important UU ritual of all--the Every Member/Friend Canvass--this year the Stewardship Campaign.

The money you promise to give to sustain and grow our Church Home, translating directly into a full range of programs that I think are remarkable in scope and quality.

You first came here, you continue to come here, because UCH is Sacred Place that runs the full length of a block along Maple Street between Washington and Lincoln Streets, atop what was once called Brush Hill.

It is sacred space/place because of your efforts and the efforts of a host of kindred spirits who found their souls, did their soul work here, and infused those souls into a collective soul. Joseph Campbell, in talking about marriage, called this general activity sacrifice.

He pointed out that sacrifice literally means to make sacred. It is through your actions that what is true, beautiful, and good take form in this world; and those actions are so many sacrifices you deemed to do.

In the coming weeks, when you are asked to make a pledge, sacrifice. You can take that to mean stretch some, sacrificing some other discretionary expenditure (the proverbial daily cup of Starbuck coffee) for the greater good of your Church Home. Most of all realize that your contributions continue to make this space/place sacred.

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