Sparks of Beauty: Sacred Spaces

Posted 27 November 2019 

As I took my seat in the St Mary of the Cross MacKillop Chapel at ACU for AOFE’s most recent Sparks of Beauty event, ‘Sacred Spaces’, I can’t say that I was in a particularly contemplative or serene state of mind. After a long day of chasing deadlines and jumping through administrative hoops, I was exhausted and probably a little grumpy. I suspected that an evening focused on ‘the sacred spaces we build around us and the ones we create within’ might simply leave me feeling guilty about my ongoing failure to find time for contemplation and stillness. But as I lifted my eyes to the vaulted ceiling of the chapel, allowing them to adjust to the soft lighting after a day spent in the fluorescent glare of my workplace, something began to shift in me. The serenity of the chapel—which somehow manages to be both intimate and soaring—slowly began to work upon me, and I found myself brought, unexpectedly, to that moment of sacred stillness that I hadn’t even realised I’d been craving.

As Tiffany Davis gently led Fr Laurence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, and Cathy Jenkins, AOFE’s outgoing Director, through an engaging and wide-ranging conversation on their experiences of the sacred, I was repeatedly reminded of the mysterious and gratuitous way in which the material world, in all its particularity, can point beyond itself—the way that things, in the words of Jacques Maritain, can ‘give more than they have’. These moments often come upon us unexpectedly. As Cathy observed, we just need to be attentive and remain attuned to God’s presence in the world. ‘When we see God through the eyes of blessing,’ she reminded us, ‘he encourages us to see the sacredness in the day.’

Cathy recalled the way a simple childhood ritual like lighting the candles in her mother’s special crystal candleholders invoked in her a sense of wonder and reverence. Similarly, Fr Laurence remembered sitting, as a five-year-old, in the chapel of his Sisters of Sion school in London ‘and just feeling something awakened.’ Many years later, leading a retreat for Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, he had a similar experience of peace and connection. The space in which they were meeting was next to a railway station and noisy, but he was nevertheless struck by a sense of ‘great silence’. The room wasn’t grand, but it was ‘clean, simple, and there was an aesthetic touch in the way the flowers were placed. So you know that someone looked at that place with an artistic eye.’ This simple space spoke to him of the way that ‘clearing out the clutter in our lives—clearing out the external clutter and the mental clutter, which is the work of meditation—brings us back closer to the source.’

Sometimes, our experiences of the sacred occur in obviously religious spaces. As a child, for instance, when sitting with her family and saying the rosary in front of a large statue of Mary, Cathy was struck by the sense that she was ‘part of something that was bigger than myself.’ But this kind of experience can also occur in spaces that might, at first glance, seem entirely secular. Cathy spoke of how a recent Van Gough exhibition was a ‘religious’ experience for many NGV visitors, and Fr Laurence spoke in similar terms about the effect that the art of Mark Rothko has had on him.

And like art, architecture, rituals and sacred objects, the natural world has a potent ability to connect us, even if just momentarily, to something beyond our normal powers of comprehension. Cathy’s childhood habit of sitting on the swing in her backyard at the end of the day and thinking about all that had happened and about the beauty around her is mirrored today by the experience of sitting on her veranda in Woodend and contemplating the glory of the night sky—a ritual that is becoming, for her, another ‘sacred space’.

For Fr Laurence, a sacred space is something that we carry with us as much as it is a physical reality. It is not constrained by the limitations of the physical environment, so that even those places and parts of our lives that might seem completely alien to a sense of the sacred are momentarily transformed. ‘When I mediate with prisoners,’ Fr Laurence explained, ‘you get the feeling that the Kingdom of God is manifesting so it becomes sacred for that period of time.’ Far from an exercise in individual self-expression or an occasion for self-absorption, this kind of ‘interior’ sacred space allows us to move beyond ourselves. For Fr Laurence, connection is ultimately what makes a place or a thing sacred: ‘When we enter silence together, we enter a deeper relationship with each other and with God.’

And certainly, that evening, as Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’ resounded through the chapel during a musical interlude, I found myself breathing deeply, perhaps for the first time that day, and what I felt was not stressed or grumpy or tired; what I felt was connected—to all those gathered there with me in that sacred space, and to God.

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