Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sacred Spaces

“The corrosive eyes of time have not stared these ancient walls down…as if to say there are places in the world where beauty remains hidden and miraculously intact.  This transcendent space where one leaves one world and enters another…”
      ~Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I’ve been in such spaces where I’ve felt I had entered into another world. As a child, I created one of those places with my best friend, Sandy. She lived across the street from me in a boisterous Scotch Catholic houseful of six siblings. I was an only child, and a Lutheran. One of our favorite activities was to act out the Catholic mass on the steps of a Methodist Church on the street corner two doors from Sandy’s house. Following Sandy’s lead, I would bobby-pin a white doily to my head, move my left hand up, down, and across my chest in the shape of a cross, and kneel on the church’s cement steps. I can still remember the feel of the cold wrought iron railing I grasped as I knelt and how the concrete made little dents in my knees.  I don’t know what drew me to this imaginative play, but I suspect it was a desire for something predictable and tangible as my child mind tried to make sense of the world. It was probably that same confusion that pulled me to attend real church services even when my parents didn’t.

Nearly twenty years later, I found a spiritual home among Friends, my faith and practice having shifted to Quakerism’s emphasis on inward experience without outward rites and ceremonies. I embraced the Quaker view that all of life is sacred, each day is of equal importance, and the Divine can be found in any place.  I’ve encountered that essence that I call God many times and in many places where I’ve gathered with others in the silence, quieting ourselves and opening to it.

Rivers, mountains, forests, and oceans also are like sanctuaries for me.  Sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and lightning, wildflowers bursting through cracks in rocks, kelp and seaweed swirling with the rhythm of the tides and currents, tree roots gripping the ground to resist wind and roaring floods­—these are forces that also open my heart and quiet my mind to hear and feel God’s presence. The voice of wisdom and love that I listen for often is in the breeze that lifts tree branches and rustles the grass. A favorite rocky point I visit regularly, shaped by eons of wind, rain, and crashing waves that have moved boulders and gnarled pines, manifests the power and strength I lean on. For me, Presence is in the smell of decay and new growth, of wet mineral and dried grass.
After thirty years of Quaker worship as well as my experience of Spirit in nature, I hadn’t expected to be so drawn to a Catholic church in Mexico. My husband and I have visited San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico several times and have worshipped there with Quakers in the home of an expatriate. At every visit, though, I’ve also been drawn to La Parroquia, the parish church in the main square. Church after church was built on this same site beginning in the 16th century. Around 1880, a self-taught mestizo architect, Don Zeferino Gutiérrez, was hired to build a new church façade. His inspiration came from postcard images of the great Gothic European cathedrals like Notre Dame. The result is a mass of pink columns, railings, windows, spires, and steeples.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to La Parroquia, but I can easily recall its welcoming sacredness. It’s always cool inside the church’s concrete walls and quiet as the tile floor mutes footsteps. The scent of melting wax wafts from candles flickering around statues at stations of the cross, mixing with gladiolas and lilies on the altar,  freshly laundered shirts and dresses, the gel on adolescent boys’ hair. The benches I've sat on have been worn to a honey glow by countless generations of toddlers, grandmothers, and young couples, much like those pausing in the church every time I’ve stopped in. The back of the pew in front of me had been smoothed and darkened by hands that have clutched it, just as I’ve done, compelled by some force to lower my body to my knees.

Thousands, maybe millions, of people have entered this same space with the intention to focus on divinity. I wonder how much incense and how many candles have burned here. How many words of adoration, thanksgiving, forgiveness, grief, and joy have been offered up over the church’s 500 years of confessions, funerals, weddings, baptisms, and prayers? How many hymns have been sung, rosaries prayed, chords played on the massive pipe organ in the far reaches of the ceiling?  Surely their presence has changed the molecules in the stone columns and the spires, in the air.

Sarah Hoggatt described on her blog ( a similar experience this spring in England at Jordans Friends Meeting. 
Jordans Friends Meeting
Painting by Paul Garland

Built in 1688, the Meeting House is pictured in “The Presence in the Midst,” a well-known 1916 painting by James Doyle Penrose which portrays a meeting for worship of earlier years there with Jesus standing among Friends in the meeting. Here’s how Sarah wrote about sitting with other Young Adult Friends at Jordans in April 2011:

“Being one of the oldest meeting houses, just think of all the words those walls have heard.  At the time we were there, there was a talk going on in another room about how a building is infused with what has gone on within it, that there is an unseen memory.  What kind of memory does Jordans Friends Meeting have?  To me, it felt sacred, hallowed, as if I was entering into a larger circle of living fellowship beyond what my hands could grasp.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of the study of Quantum Physics, but my limited understanding of its theories support my belief that certain spaces have been altered permanently as a result of years, decades, centuries of people going to them with an openness to the Divine. How else to explain the sacred connection I’ve felt (and Sarah did, too) with those who’ve gone to La Parroquia and Jordans Friends Meeting for solace or guidance; who’ve arrived in fear, in hope, in contrition. Isn’t that how we all meet Spirit, wherever we go? I’m content with the amount of understanding I have about how these changes happen; it’s a mystery I don’t have to solve, a question that doesn’t have to be answered. I can just experience it.

Perhaps I’ve come full circle back to my childhood yearning for “transcendent space where one leaves one world and enters another.” I’m grateful there are places that call to us in this way, that invite us to open ourselves to Divine love and grace and are changed by our seeking. Those transcendent spaces remind me I’m not alone; I’m connected with those who have preceded me, my journey mingled with theirs. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Modest Genre

Lake Chelan by David Ansley

Last week, I attended a workshop on The Personal Essay  led by Ana Maria Spagna ( One of the prompts she gave us resulted in the following essay.

A Modest Genre

This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. According to the dictionary on my laptop, a ripple is a small wave or series of waves on the surface of water.  I looked the word up as I started to write on this last morning of a workshop on the personal essay. I’m two hundred miles from home, in a cabin at the end of a long lake in the mountains, out of reach of the phone, the Internet, and my well-worn dictionary and thesaurus that I turn to in search of different words to say the things that I want to say, to write the things that it seems so many writers already have written.  I’ve spent the past four days with six other women, other women like me diving into the depths of memories, emotions, and dreams to bring those series of waves to the surface.

This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. In physics, my laptop dictionary tells me, ripples are small, periodic, usually undesirable variations in electrical voltage. Such ripples have surged through our little group in the cabin in the mountains, at the end of the lake, as we’ve approached, avoided, and re-approached losses, fears, regrets, mysteries, and discoveries. One woman said a teacher once told her all writing is about grief. Though we protested and recalled stories of joy and hope and redemption, we’ve all felt those undesirable variations in electrical voltage as grieving words coursed through our fingertips, as tears streamed down our cheeks.

This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. I’m relieved the boat that will start me on my journey home will be carried on these small waves, rather than the white caps that rollicked across the lake yesterday. In the coming days and months, there likely will be plenty more ripples of the undesirable jolt type as I study this form first described by that sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne. He derived the name essai from a French verb that suggests experimenting, testing, and weighing out; so similar to my spiritual journey. Essayist Sara Levin claims, “The essay is a modest genre. It doesn’t mean to change the world. Instead it says – let me tell you what happened to me.” All these centuries since Montaigne, many of us still compose essays to make sense of life, or at least some wedge of it.

This morning I watched the lake change from green waves, to black glass, and now to gray ripples. My dictionary offers another definition of ripple—the particular feeling or effect that spreads through or to someone, as in her words set off a ripple of insight within her readers. This group of writers will leave today on this rippling lake, recommitted to experimenting, testing, and weighing out to make sense of slices of life, packing new tools to tell others what happened to us.  Our words may not mean to change the world, but they will.