Friday, 6 August 2010

sacred spaces

Sacred Spaces Andrew Bebb

From my second floor window I am able to see the upper part of St. Austin’s Church. During the few days when I have been confined to bed, this was a great consolation. As a child, I was taught that if you were unable to be present at Mass and to receive Holy Communion, it was possible to be present in your mind and heart and to receive what was called ‘a spiritual communion’. I recall an occasion when I was confined to the infirmary at Ushaw and yet being able to hear the singing from the College chapel. It strikes me that physical presence is maybe not such an unconditional necessity.

Maybe it is important to regard the walls of the Church when we are present within them, not as enclosures but as opening out to the whole world beyond. I remember hearing Mass in a little chapel in Northumberland where behind the altar was a huge window where the clear glass opened out to the lovely garden beyond.
I love to watch the swaying branches of the trees outside the windows, when sitting at Mass in St. Austin’s.
The procession into Church after the kindling of the Easter Vigil fire in the garden outside, and then carrying its light inside is like a symbol. A sign in which the newly redeemed world is carried within the sacred space.
These thoughts have led me to think of all the other sacred spaces we may encounter.

When visiting Orkney a short time ago, I marvelled at the immense Ring of Brodgar. The ring of huge stones on the lonely moorland consisting once of sixty huge megaliths, now twenty-seven remain. The ring is 104 metres wide. Thirteen prehistoric burial mounds have been found around the perimeter. Not far away is the huge conical mound of Maeshowe with its single low entrance tunnel into the dark interior where there are burial chambers. Only once a year for a few moments the light of the rising sun illuminates the interior. These truly are sacred spaces.
We have no records of what their significance must have been to the Community who raised those megaliths.. A number of theories have been proposed. What we do know is the importance that particular space must have meant to the men and women who erected them. The sheer complexity of organisation that must have been necessary. Without cranes and metal tools, digging up, transporting and erecting them must have taken years and involved everybody. Why was it so special? Was it the space where in ceremony, the community expressed its unity and identity? The space in which the Spirit they worshiped was present and available? Even now to enter within that space is an emotional experience. As I looked out at the world beyond the stones the place where I was standing seemed still a truly holy place. The quietness and solemnity of that inner circle was daunting.

It made me think of all the other sacred spaces that we continue to venerate and to visit.
The secret sacred place where my first wife, Marie, is buried and the times when I call to tell her about things and how her children are getting on. The place where one day soon my own body may perhaps lie with hers. I find cemeteries to be wondrously precious sacred places. Watching others walking quietly through, clutching their flowers in hand, it seems that others do too.
I think of all the other sacred domestic places: the garden with the wild areas loved by the birds, robins, coletits, and blackbirds. So many, with so many different songs, the cheeky dunnocks, the swifts hurtling into the gardens after their long journey from southern Africa. The ones that come to feed on the nuts and seeds from what I call ‘le cafĂ© des oiseaux’ it is amusing to watch as they drink and flutter as they bathe themselves in the water bowl.
Little wonder that the Holy Spirit is typified as a dove.

I think of all the other quiet sacred spaces both ancient and modern: the island of a thousand saints at Bardsey off the coast of Wales: the little chapel at the edge of the plain of York on the top of the hill below which is the ancient monastery of the Carthusians near Osmotherley. The chapel that many pilgrims would secretly trek across the Yorkshire moors to visit during the long years of the penal days. There, tradition has it; the body of Margaret Clitheroe was brought after her martyr’s death at York.
The little medieval chapel carved out of the rock side at Knaresborough, dedicated in thanksgiving, to Our Lady of the Crag. Then there are the Holy Wells in Cornwall and in North Wales; the well dressings in Derbyshire. So many quiet holy places. I am sure that many of us could add to the list. Lourdes, Compostella, Walsingham. The whole world is sanctified by their presence.

Home is a holy place. I wonder if there are many of us that have a little dish of Holy Water at the entrance to bless ourselves as we leave and enter. It was once quite common. I remember a life long good friend I had in my youth. Though English born, his parents, one of whom was a high-ranking officer in the Army, were from the North of Ireland. There was a picture of the Sacred Heart in the entrance hall. Always without fail, as he left, he would touch the picture and quietly say the little prayer at its foot. He was not particularly pious. It was just his way. It was a privilege for me to be invited to deliver the homily at his Requiem a year or two ago.

Some other Religious faiths themselves are very much domestic in their prayers and practice. The Hindu family has its domestic altar with its images, incense and candle as a focus for its family worship. Judaism is a family faith. It inaugurates the Sabbath at the family table each Friday evening, as the mother lights the candle and invites the eldest son to relate the story of their origins when God led his people from slavery in Egypt. The Buddhist will often have a quiet, starkly furnished prayer room to contemplate simplicity and the emptying of the self.

During this time of Pentecost as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of the first friends of Jesus, it is helpful to recall some of the words that he spoke. ‘ When you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’
And so for the followers of Jesus every place is now a sacred place. Even though there be no visible tongue of fire over our heads, to those who are open to Him there is most certainly one in our heart and mind.

family christening

A Family Christening.

When my wife and I married twenty years ago, we found ourselves with nine children. Both boys and girls in almost equal numbers. We had both been previously widowed.
It meant that over the years we have become accustomed to organising many baptisms. Fourteen grandchildren so far. Even the odd naming ceremony for the unchurched.
The last occasion was quite memorable. It may be helpful to share the experience.

As you may imagine the Church was quite full with a number of little people as well as adults. The priest was a lovely gentle Indian Franciscan. He clearly loved children and had enormous patience. His response to an apology for the amount of excited movement and exploration they got up to was: “Don’t worry. It is what children do. It means they feel at home here.”
He performed the ceremony with gentleness and patience. Isla who was the focus of the proceedings received the sacrament with surprising attention and dignity. For a two month old anyway. The white garment used was lovingly crocheted by my wife and was used by her brothers and sister before her.
A word about the godparents, Ben and Sarah. Ben has for many years struggled against alcoholism. After months at a re-hab centre in Wales, he has been clear now for well over a year. But more than that he has developed a warm and serious spirituality. He now spends a good deal of his time working with AA groups and helping others at the re-hab centre. He has always had a warm and affectionate personality and has so much to offer as he grows into early middle age. Sarah became a member of our family many years ago when, as one of my students, her mental health broke down and she came to live with us for a number of years. Although she now lives close by and independently, she still looks for my wife’s support. Sarah has an enormous capacity for empathy. She never forgets a birthday and her cards are always beautifully hand-produced. Although she may struggle a bit in no-mans land as far as religion is concerned, I find it difficult to imagine a more effective Christian.
Anyway I think we had chosen a couple of ideal godparents.
After the formal liturgy of the Baptismal rite, after the applause, Isla was presented to our extended family to greet and hold. At that point my wife addressed Isla with the family blessing that I had put together:

‘As with all our grandchildren, Isla is very fortunate in the family she has chosen to belong to. Her sister, Elspeth, and her brothers Blair and Ross, were delighted to greet her when Mum and Dad brought her home from the hospital..
There is nothing in this life so beautiful to watch as the eyes of loving parents as they gaze upon their new baby. A few days ago, I found myself watching compulsively the exchange of looks between Clare, her mum, and Isla. It was so beautiful. I realised just why the God who holds all of our lives in his gentle hands was jealous and decided to become for a while like a little baby in the arms of his so loving mother at Bethlehem.

And so Isla:

May beauty delight you and happiness uplift you,
May wonder fulfil you and love surround you.
May your step be steady and your arm be strong,
May your heart be peaceful and your word be true. May you seek to learn, may you learn to live.
May you live to love, and may you love – always.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith:
If children live with approval,
They learn to like themselves;
If children live with love around them,
They learn to give love to the world.

And so, Isla, we bless you as we welcome you into our midst.
May you enrich this world with your life.’

After this, and it was my wife’s idea, all the little ones in turn came up to receive from the godparents on behalf of Isla, the newly baptised, a large Easter Bunny chocolate bar. My wife pointed out the connection with the Easter Paschal Candle. In a way it was, I hope, for them a kind of communing in what had happened.

Celebrations in the Church Hall followed. All the food was prepared by members of our extended family. A happy time.

Baptism is the welcome we extend to the newcomer. It is a family welcome. It seems a pity that the priest cannot sometimes be a woman. I recall some years ago being present at the Christening of a baby. It was in an Anglican church. The priest was lovely. She was both a mum and a priest. The manner in which she held the little one so tenderly, was clearly indicative of that. So moving was the ceremony that his sister, herself only a child climbed onto the bench to clap her hands as the water was poured.

I understand that among the Kikuyu in East Africa, a refrain accompanies the initiation of a child into the tribe: ‘I am because we are, we are because I am.’

Andrew Bebb