The Elusive ‘Sacred Space’

Some years ago I attended a conference on prayer.  One of the participants, a religious like myself, shared an experience of hers with the group: for a time she had floundered spiritually under the liturgical practices of her community.  It was not until one day she was in the garden, outside the chapel of her convent, that she realized the presence of God in his creation and began to pray.  She recounted how she was finally able to appreciate prayer again, rather than see it as the burden she associated with liturgical prayer in the community's chapel.  My gut reaction to her experience was negative.  Perhaps, as one trained to be an architect, I was offended by the concept that the environment of a building could be oppressive to one's spirituality.  On the other hand, maybe it was simply a naïve fear of pantheism––of course, worshipping in a building would protect us from seeing God in what is not God (right?).   


I was reminded of this experience on the occasion of our community's move into our new (yet old) chapel at St. Dominic Priory.  The restored space is our community's first chapel-designed-to-be-a-chapel in over thirty years.  It represents a momentous occasion, in that sense.  In our old residence we literally worshipped in the basement.  Living in an old hotel, we had successfully confined our worship to a space once meant for cocktails, swing dancing and other high-falutin' pastimes of 1920s America.  If the legend is true that St. Dominic spent the night in a bar convincing a Cathar to return to the Catholic faith, then we were surely living that legend out day and night. .. spending our time worshipping in what was once a bar.  

One might imagine that the liturgy of the hours was somewhat hollowed out in its routine of marking the passage of time through the day––given that there was never any evidence of the Sun's movement across the sky in that window-less space.  Any hint of "God's creation" that we brought into the space would quickly wither and wilt.  Without sunlight, no amount of metallic-tasting water could save those poor plants.


Of course, despite any of my architectural leanings or keenness toward smells and bells, the religious sister I mentioned at the beginning had it right in a very important way.  Even St. Teresa of Avila advises a directee:

. . . take no notice of that feeling you get of wanting to leave off in the middle of your prayer, but praise the Lord for the desire you have to pray. . . . Try occasionally, when you find yourself oppressed in that way, to go to some place where you can see the sky, and walk up and down a little: doing that will not interfere with your prayer. . . it is essential that the soul be led gently.1

The desire to confine conversation with God and worship to a particular space is, of course, not altogether wicked, yet it could become a kind of spiritual tyrant in that way that iconoclasm threatened the spirituality of the early Church.  That is to say, the iconoclasts rejected the use of images in worship out of a sense of reverence and a fear of idolatry––that praying with icons might become prayer to icons.  Part of my gut reaction to a disdain for chapel prayer and a preference for outdoor prayer was a similar fear that praying within creation might become praying to creation.


Yet, how often I am reminded of our own Holy Father Dominic––who prayed and sang while walking barefoot on his numerous journeys across Europe.  His contemporaries recount how he would often hang back from the group and at times even become lost because of his prayer.  The other friars, perturbed as they were by his wanderings, found themselves admonished by him: "Never mind! It is all on the way to heaven."2  I must admit that at various points in my short span of years as a Dominican (5), I have walked through the woods praying the rosary, imagining myself as one of those adventurous brothers who accompanied Dominic on his travels.  Of course, we could interpret his prayer on the road as Dominic making the best of a hard situation––the rigors of the life of a preacher demand constant traveling which prevents one from spending considerable time inside a building at prayer.  


However, I think such a reading would overlook an important part of Dominic's spirituality––a kind of balance demonstrated by his different and very bodily ways of prayer.  His contemporaries also attested to his desire, while on the road, to sing Mass everyday whenever he could find a church to do so.3  Most likely (although I do not know), a medieval understanding of the Eucharist would have likely prevented one from considering an outdoor Mass.  Nonetheless, it seems significant that the Last Supper, as well as the Passover meal of Exodus, took place within doors––behind closed doors.  All this is not to say that Dominic's private prayer was on the road and his liturgical prayer in the choir or in the church building.  One of the most oft- cited testimonies about Dominic's holiness is that he would spend the night in prayer in the chapel,4 weeping, crying out and in different positions; so much so that he would tend to fall asleep during meals.   His nine ways of prayer, as depicted, all take place within a building, most often a chapel or his cell (both places that, in the Dominican tradition, are 'sacred spaces'). . . except for one.  This last, his ninth way of prayer, is an essential one for the preacher; it is the prayer of the traveling preacher, on the road, in the wilderness.   Dominic would quote Scripture to his traveling companion: "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her" (Hosea 2:14), and then withdraw to walk behind the group, singing and praying.  The text of "The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic" notes that the friars believed that Dominic's time walking in the wilderness was when he most deeply penetrated the words of Scripture.  Perhaps this is related to how often Scripture speaks of an encounter with the Almighty not in the Temple precincts (although this happens too), but in the desert.  


The demand of Moses to Pharaoh was precisely this: Let my people go.  Why?  "The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, we pray you, let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God" (RSV, Exodus 3:18).   God had commanded the Hebrews to go to the desert to worship.  The initial call out of Egypt was not to a Promised Land, but to the desert, and to relationship with God, and a relationship that would find its origin in the wilderness.


John the Baptist, as we know, set up a kind of 'proto-church' in the desert to which many would come to be baptized and admonished to repent.  Even Christ would go into the desert[ed places] to pray and be in conversation with his heavenly Father.  He often preached in the wilderness, on the plain (in Luke's Gospel) on the mount (in Matthew's Gospel), and on the road to Emmaus; he prayed in the wilderness, outside the city, at the Mount of Olives; he revealed his glory atop Mount Tabor.  


So, what then, are we to make of this?  As most all of us know, there is––especially among the younger generation in the Church––a drive toward a more 'classic' approach in many matters.  All things liturgical and architectural of the past are in vogue in certain circles.  The New Liturgical Movement seems as popular as ever, and even in the Order of Preachers, the old Dominican Rite might be considered on the rise.  In the same sense that Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed "What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,"5  it seems we must say that what nourished previous generations of Dominican saints cannot be obliterated so easily. 


Yet, I am very aware of the many people in the Church who have considerable disdain for these movements.  I am aware that in many ways, it appears a "blast from the past" or a concern with things that one does not understand or without the context in which they made sense.  This is nothing new.  In the same way, the renewal after Vatican II, characterized by a return to the sources and a rediscovery of the Church of the post-apostolic and Patristic eras, was a concern for things that lacked the context in which they originally made sense.  This happens outside the Church as well.  For centuries, perhaps since the fall of the Roman Empire, architects have been trying to resurrect forms and styles of the past.  Even modern architecture, despite all its novelty, earned its stripes bringing back more (allegedly) primitive and functional approaches to design.  Post-modernism did something similar, but in its own weird way.  There are, it turns out, only so many ways to put a roof over your head.


Where does this disdain arise––whether in a modern architect, or a modern liturgist––for certain ways of the past?  It cannot be, I suspect, in the very things or concepts themselves.  For all the opposition to ornament that the modernists proposed, they nonetheless fashioned their own distinct style of ornament (albeit less gaudy in some instances).  The common cry against classical architecture (whether Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, you name it) that I heard in the academic world of design is summed up in this: "Say 'No' to fakery and façade."  The idea is this: what once was developed as an efficient, elegant and and sturdy way to span a large space with available materials and technology––say, the barrel vault over the nave of a cathedral––in later times, when materials and construction techniques could achieve much more, was reproduced for its visual appeal and symbolism rather than any architectonic advantage.  I look out the window of my cell at our chapel and I see brick 'buttresses' attached to the walls of the building.  But these buttresses, I suspect, are no real buttresses at all.  Rather than holding back the strong horizontal push of the vault across the chapel, they are likely to be simply a vestigial organ turned into an ornament.  It's kind of like getting your belly button pierced.  There's no need for a belly button after birth, but there it is. . . so why not put it to use and make it into an ornament?  This, I want to imagine, is what the modernists want to oppose.   It turns out, the buttress was so important in medieval architecture because it allowed the architect to achieve one of his main goals: getting as much natural light into the space as possible by allowing thinner walls and bigger windows.  Today, if you told an architect you wanted as much light as possible in a space, he could just as easily propose a steel-framed wall with panels of glass extending floor-to-ceiling.  No need for buttresses, no need for pointed arches, nothing of the sort.  But this, we cry, "does not look like a church!"  And I have to admit, I am sympathetic to this protest. 


But the objection to 'fakery' (at least the one I have mentioned) of the modernists is also sustainable.  At the risk of simplifying: what are we to do, when the church building, or the liturgies that go on inside of it, are not in harmony with the preaching that ought to go on outside of them?  When we are just putting on a show. . .  and how do we know that this is the case?  It is undeniable that a considerable amount of human beings find more than just comfort in traditional ritual, they find spiritual depth to it.  For many, I suspect that imbibing in the ways of the past helps them to withdraw from the ever-increasing demands of modern technology and communication.  If I may venture to say, it even helps them to reconnect with something that reminds them of their humanity.  


Dominic certainly prayed in choir, wept before the altar, preached in churches, and sang the Mass in chapels.  But what equally made him Dominic, Preacher of Grace, were his feet.  If there is any discomfort with medieval-like liturgies in the Church today, I suspect there is equal discomfort with the things that Dominic did outside of those medieval liturgies.  Just as the monks were scandalized by Dominic and his new-fangled friars on their feet in cities and the countryside rambling about in their habits and without their superiors. . . so most of the Church, let alone the rest of the world, would be equally scandalized by today.  But there it is.  For Dominic, it seems to me, sacred space was where he could encounter the God of Jesus Christ––wherever he could speak to God and about God.  Certainly, some things were meant for churches and oratories; but for the rest, it mattered not where his feet landed that day.





1. Teresa of Avila, quoted in: Thomas Dubay, Fire Within, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989): 223.

2. Simon Tugwell, Early Dominicans: Selected Writings, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982): 127.

3. Ibid., 83.

4. Ibid. 80.

5. Benedict XVI, "Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the World to Present the 'Motu Proprio' on the Use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reforms of 1970," 7 July 2007.