Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.

The Subtle Growth of Eastertide

The only Lenten observance I took up this year was recognizing that I had too many commitments. I’ve begun teaching religion over the past few months, while trying to continue with everything else I’d been involved with before. Obviously that’s impossible—the silence here at Mildly Mystical helps make the point. But it took a while for me to realize it.

So Lent was a time of paring down, letting go of some of the responsibilities I’ve been involved with. It’s not easy to do when those things mean a lot. But it’s necessary.

What I didn’t expect was the further, drastic paring down that would come in the wake of a knee injury. I spent over two weeks on crutches, unable to drive, and negotiating the stairs in my home only with great difficulty. Under those circumstances, life constricts to the basics in a flash.

Fortunately, the setback is temporary and I’m improving every day. I’m grateful for this, and for the care and support of family and friends who have gotten me through this rough patch. It’s a reminder of what is and is not essential in this life.

So this year, the theme of paring down has been imposed not only on Lent, but Holy Week and Easter as well. I didn’t make it to Easter services, but in the week since then I’ve gradually been able to do some everyday things—really mundane stuff, like loading the dishwasher and walking down a flight of stairs. There have been no sudden transformations, only the slow progress that comes from gaining strength and confidence. I have a long way to go before I resume the two-mile walks I enjoy, but at least I’m walking without crutches and driving again. In those moments when I feel impatient to get to where I want to be, I try to remember how far I’ve come.

The work of transformation is slow, and many of its stages can’t be observed. The changes we do see take time to adjust to, as well. I kept using a crutch after the point it was absolutely necessary, because walking without it made me feel so vulnerable. Change is difficult, but somehow we keep expecting it to be otherwise.

Even with the celebration of the ultimate transformation, at Easter, we approach it as if the new reality were instantaneous. We condense the mysterious remaking of the disciples’ world into a single worship service, a morning’s event, then go home as if it were finished. For most of us last Sunday was a long time ago, and by now Easter is over.

But the bewilderment and doubt, fear and uncertainty, as the followers of Jesus tried to understand what was happening were not overcome in a morning or a day or a week. There were no instant explanations of their experiences and their path was in no way clear. It took time for them to absorb what was happening and decide how to respond. It’s the same with us.

The liturgical calendar calls this time Eastertide, in recognition of the time it takes for Easter to be absorbed, recognized, and lived. That’s where we are now. Eastertide is ongoing.  The spirit remains at work in us, and seen or unseen, the mystery of our healing, our growth, and our transformation unfolds. It’s a season of leaving crutches behind.