All of life is God’s sanctuary, holy ground
December 18, 2008
Sanc.tu .ary: (1) a place for worship. (2) a place for refuge and protection
Actually the word “sanctuary” has other meanings as well, but I have been reflecting lately on these two common uses of the word and what they suggest about the relationship between the church and our daily lives.
At one time the ideal of Christian spirituality was separation from the world. The world was viewed not just as “fallen,” but as something inherently unclean, corrupt and to be avoided. Monasteries in the 4th and 5th centuries provided a “sanctuary” or refuge from the world so that one could find God. The monastic tradition grew to be much more than this, but we still have traces of this “spirituality of escape” ” the idea that the church is a refuge from the world. According to this ideal, we escape the corruption of the world in order to find God in church.
This ideal of church is rooted in the ancient idea (historically called “Gnosticism”) that the material world, and especially the body, is fundamentally evil, and certainly less worthy than the world of the mind or spirit. There are religious Gnostics who elevate the spirit and denigrate the flesh; there are intellectual Gnostics who elevate ideas and denigrate the material world, and there are artistic Gnostics who elevate beauty and denigrate the ordinary. And there are probably other ways of embracing Gnosticism.
This systematic denigration of the material world is opposed by a theology of creation and incarnationalism. We know from Genesis and the Creation stories that God declared the world to be good, and we as Christians believe that God himself sanctified the flesh through the incarnation, in which the divine was made flesh.
The one view sees the Christian life as an escape from the world. The other sees it as a distinct way of living in the world. The one sees church as a place to go to be with God; the other sees God’s presence in all aspects of our life. The one is a spirituality of the 5 percent of the time we actually spend in worship or prayer; the other is a spirituality of daily life, a way of living in God’s presence at all times and places.
All believers have had the experience in daily life of feeling God’s presence especially close. At St. John’s we have been reflecting recently on how we can expand and deepen this experience of God in daily life. We have been seeking an expression of our faith that is life- and world-affirming, comprehensive, experiential, and also mystical. And we have recognized that it is not easy to maintain this kind of experience. It is not easy to “practice the presence of God” in daily life. It is hard for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because of all the distractions that life throws up in our way and also because of all the routine and boring, but absolutely necessary, tasks that confront us daily.
We have not come up with any simple rules or any method to overcome these obstacles. We have no “how to” list of steps. For one thing, the presence of God is not something that can be commanded or manipulated. But we have come to understand more deeply that anything ” however simple, boring, or trivial ” can be made holy if it is done with the intent of serving God and out of a love of God. And that the more aware that we can be of serving God in little things, the more holy our lives become.
And we have come to believe that we can more often and more deeply attain this sense of God’s presence by cultivating attentiveness. For example, most of us are in the habit of consciously entering into God’s presence when we sit down to a communal meal. We call it saying grace. There is no reason why we cannot develop other “triggers” than that of a meal, other reminders that what we are about to do can be offered up to God. So we try when beginning any task, to take a moment to offer it up to God.
And when we recognize that we have failed at this, that we have fallen into self absorption or into living in a more worldly or “inattentive” way, we do not beat ourselves up. We simply acknowledge our weakness and renew our efforts. In fact, it has been suggested that we best experience grace not as a constant experience, but in the alternation of the sense of God’s presence and absence. Perhaps it is in the sense of being surprised by God’s presence after a period of not knowing it that we are closest to holiness.
However that may be, this much remains true. All of life ” birth and death, love and work, and play ” it’s all of God. The church is not sanctuary in the sense of being a refuge from the world, but all of life is sanctuary in the sense of being a place for the worship of God. It’s all holy ground.
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