A Sense of Order and Sacred Space

Lately I’ve been learning about creating sacred space and leading worship for young children. Familiar rituals, an unhurried presence and clear focus, quiet voices, a space arranged in an orderly way, and a tranquil and consistent way of doing things—all of these are part of infusing the space with a sense of sacredness. The insight of thoughtful people who understand both children and worship has me thinking about the connection between a sense of order and sacred space, not only for children but for adults as well.

 

Sanctuary

 

Our world is messy and the days bring disorder of various kinds. Interactions between people go awry; the systems that should facilitate our lives often put up roadblocks instead. Our bodies, our plans, and the myriad details we juggle are all subject to breaking down. In ways both large and small, we are continually reminded that life is out of our control.

Especially when life feels chaotic, we need to find a sense of order somewhere. Within ourselves, if nowhere else, we need a sense of stillness and peace to move through the day with any grace at all. Nature can be a refuge, but we also need beautiful and tranquil spaces indoors, sheltered from the elements. From the most exalted to the most humble, the sanctuaries we create offer a place apart from the disordered world. We hope they will be infused with meaning, order, and beauty. When done well they embody sacredness beyond any particular beliefs associated with them.

A sanctuary with meaningful rituals offers a place and time for finding order in the midst of confusion. It creates a clearing where we can regain perspective, remember our priorities, and pull ourselves together to face whatever comes next. Sometimes we encounter the divine, other times the reassurance of a familiar practice is enough.

But in either case our impulse to seek order and ritual, and to find in it a connection to a higher order, puts us in touch with the holy. Our instinct to create sacred space is itself a divine gift. Whether or not we feel we’ve encountered God, the sense of finding order and tranquility is restorative. It helps us to act more effectively, live more compassionately, and appreciate life more fully.

Of course order alone doesn’t make a space sacred. A shallow kind of order can be imposed on all kinds of spaces, and preoccupation with order can crowd out vitality and creativity. There’s nothing sacred about oppression or stagnation. Faith communities and their places of worship can be a rich source of ordering one’s life and clearing the way for growth, or they can impose world views that are stifling and limiting.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but so many oppressive claims are made in the name of Christian religion that many folks have given up on Christianity and on religion in general. That’s unfortunate, not only because many Christian communities are loving and inclusive, but because few other places are prepared to offer the sacred spaces and rituals that human beings need. People at all stages of life need somewhere to find order and tranquility. Are there places outside of religious communities to offer it?

Where do you find sacred space? What helps you to sort things out and find a sense of order and peace?

When a Week Holds Too Much

Some weeks I feel like nothing more than clay thrown on the potter’s wheel. Hollowed out by forces beyond my control, I see once again that I am not in charge here. Life presses in, making it clear that I have not reached my final form. The potter is not finished with me.

Yet just as I’ve been pressed and pounded, I’ve also been stretched and shaped. The vessel’s curved sides are taking shape, rising in accord with the potter’s vision in these last few turns of the wheel.

We have a great deal of freedom in what we do with our lives, but we are not in control. Sometimes the best I can do is to be good clay. I can try for the balance of malleability and resistance that allows the formation of a good vessel. I can try to sustain the cohesiveness that allows good clay to hold its form.

The sum of the past several days may feel like more than I can hold—challenge and loss, hope and disappointment, love and sorrow—yet the week has nonetheless brought all of it. So I act as I am able, and respond as I can. I cannot assuage my friend’s grief, but I can offer soup and love. I cannot make the world kind, but I can make laundry clean. I cannot make life easy, but I can be grateful for the ability to work.

I cannot see the future, but I can appreciate the beauty of the world around me. I cannot make my wishes come true, but I can take a risk and reach toward them. I can neither force nor forestall change, but I can accept the love and grace that remain constant.

The wheel keeps turning; a hand I trust remains on the clay. All will be well.

What is the turning wheel bringing to you?

In the Meantime…or Late Summer

August, for me, is the month before things really get started. Heavy with the accumulated heat of the season, it flattens all ambition. Even as the long days grow shorter, with summer slipping away, there is no energy to spare.

My daughter returns to college soon; life is about to change. Soon it will be time to take on new projects, but not quite yet. If there was ever a waiting time to fill, August is it.

What to do in the meantime? Tomatoes ripen faster than we can eat them, the urgent culmination of the season’s growth. The basil desperately tries to go to seed, anticipating the first frost that still seems far away to me. Summer wanes, yet for the moment I’m not ready to move forward.

I’ve been looking around at what needs to be done, giving the attention that’s harder to bring when I’m in the midst of things. I’ve culled cookbooks and recipe files; kept appointments with the vet, the dentist, the rug cleaners; read through magazines I’ve been saving; cleaned out the refrigerator.

In the meantime is valuable in its own way. A time of gathering energy, of clearing a path through the clutter of to-do lists. It’s a particular kind of waiting, like emptying the dishwasher while the tea steeps, or finding a good read while watching for a friend at a bookstore. It’s a way of attending, not “killing” time but filling it.

John Lennon reminded us that life is what happens while we’re making other plans. Our goals and hopes and plans are important, but so is the life we live on the way to attaining them, in the meantime. It’s good to remember that, because sometimes life surprises us with what is substantial and what isn’t. The things that look solid as a stone wall can crumble, and what may seem ephemeral as a delicate weed can endure among the rubble.

Soon and suddenly, we’re pulled into the forward momentum of September. It happens so fast I’m in it almost before I see it coming. This year August has cooled down early here, with the autumnal weather bringing a corresponding change of pace for me. Those languid days seem slow, but they pass quickly by. September will soon be upon us.

What do you do in the meantime?

The Seasonal Work of the Soul

Ecclesiastes is the source of a beautiful passage that has been on my mind in recent days:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

These words may sound familiar if you know Pete Seeger’s, “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the popular recording by the Byrds. The words set to music convey a beautiful sense of everything held safely by the author of life.

This passage is around 2500 years old, but it speaks timelessly. Its wisdom is in accepting the variety of circumstances and challenges that arise as life unfolds. It passes no judgment as to what is good and what is bad; what should be sought and what should be resisted. It’s a radical kind of acceptance that differs from resignation or passivity as a response. It’s about not wasting our energy in trying to deny how things really are.

No single approach is right all the time. Life is too changeable, its phases too fleeting. What’s required of us in one stage may be all wrong in another. It doesn’t mean we were wrong before or that life mistreats us when it requires something new. We spend years raising children who will leave to make lives of their own. We devote ourselves to careers that eventually come to an end. We expend ourselves on work that is all too soon forgotten. Yet life goes on. Perhaps we have always cast away stones, but we may be required to gather them together, regardless of how strange it feels. If we’ve spent our lives in silence, it may be time to speak, as uncomfortable as it may be.

We don’t make the seasons in which our lives unfold, and it is beyond our power to change the forces that are so much bigger than we are. Life flows through us, manifesting in different ways at different times. We try to respond to the needs of the season, giving ourselves over to what the time calls for.

Ecclesiastes consists of “The words of the Teacher.” The title given to the speaker is a translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which is sometimes rendered “Preacher.” The Teacher, or Preacher, reminds us throughout the book that everything changes, everyone dies. Nothing is permanent; no one is spared. The flow of time and seasons carries us in ways that are non-negotiable. Within our lives we make choices, but the context in which we live them is given.

The Teacher also knows that ultimately we can’t get ahead. We don’t beat our fellow players or the game. Life is bigger than we are; all we can do is live it. “Vanity of vanities,” laments the Teacher. “All is vanity.” Yet in spite of the frustrations and reversals that make up so much of our days, he sees that God grants the gift of enjoying life.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has more questions than answers, which is probably why I love the book. What he does know is that we are given work to do, and our best hope is to find enjoyment in it. Be humble. Be grateful. Do what we can. Fix what we can. Let go of what’s out of our hands. Accept both our lot in life and the gifts from God that allow us to take joy in it.

What kind of season are you living, and what kind of work does it hold?

Unnecessary Agitation, and Other Lessons from a Laundry Odyssey

This past week included, among everything else that a week brings, a late-night watery floor. It resulted from what I expected to be a typical load of laundry, with too many other loads awaiting their turn. I mopped up the water, put the clothes in the dryer, and resolved to think about that tomorrow. This is my first choice in dealing with any crisis that arises after 10:00 at night. Most of the time it works quite well.

Insight 1:  Sometimes we get messed over by our own procrastination, and it feels lousy.

Lesson 1:  Don’t procrastinate.

Caveat:  This is easier said than done.

It was a busy week, but a couple of evenings later I gathered the strength to face the question of whether it was a hose problem or a washer problem. I ran water into the machine, watched it drain and spin, and there was apparently no problem. Wanting to believe that the prior event was an anomaly, I started another small load and walked away. Which resulted in water on the floor again.

Insight 2:  We know what we know, even if we don’t want to admit it.

Lesson 2:  We can avoid messes if we take responsibility for what we know.

Caveat:  Sometimes it’s hard to know how.

Clearly it was not simply a problem with the hose. With the washing machine several years old, and the high cost of a service call, we chose to replace the machine. I was glad to have that option, and assumed I would find something similar to the old washer, have it delivered, and get on with the laundry.

But the technology of washing machines has moved on, and there were things to learn in order to make a good decision. When I finally understood this, I regretted my thoughtlessness and began trying to learn enough to choose wisely.

Insight 3:  Good decisions require knowledge and attention.

Lesson 3:  Acting responsibly involves making an effort to learn.

Caveat:  There are limits to what we can know; we simply do the best we can.

Now I have a front-loading washing machine, which uses less water, detergent, and power than the old one. I’m still getting used to it. For as long as I’ve been doing laundry, getting clothes clean has meant agitation—energetic churning of fabric through great quantities of water and suds. I had to embrace a new paradigm as I watched the first load of sheets cycle through the wash.

The drum turned, lifting the sheets gently to the right until they dropped, and continued to turn slowly, lifting and dropping. Then the machine stopped and turned in the opposite direction to lift and drop the fabric again. Over and over. It was more like the movement of women beating laundry against river rocks than my familiar modern way of washing clothes. The new machine uses just enough water to wet the fabric, then lifts and drops the laundry until it’s clean. Amazingly, it works—the steady, rhythmic motion of the ancient way is apparently the right idea.

Insight 4:  All the agitation that I thought of as necessary…isn’t.

Lesson 4:  Some assumptions about how things must be done are wrong. Look for a simpler and more sustainable way. There are clues to be found in the past.

Caveat:  I’m grateful not to be washing clothes in the river. New technology can be a good partner to the old ways.

I realize from the whole experience that it’s important to leave room for what genuinely needs attention. Including the need for sleep. But I’m also wondering about other kinds of agitation I’ve assumed was necessary. Maybe I need to rethink some of them.

Is there another way to do things without so much churning?

Making Peace with What You Can Do

Walking in the early spring air this morning, I got by with a light cotton jacket. Yet the weather remains cool and damp. Green fronds push up from the ground, but the skies are grey. Trees are full of birdsong, though the bare branches appear unchanged since winter.

This almost-spring feels nothing like winter, yet there is no blossoming. As if the earth is saying: This, today, is what I can do. I can bring forth this much, but for now I can go no farther.

And the slow warming is enough. The turning of the seasons is exactly this; nothing more is needed. There is no hurry, no catching up to do. All is sufficient.

***

It’s tempting to discount those efforts we are able to make. How do you make peace with the limits of what you can do?

Learning to See

I enjoy taking pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at the world with an eye toward framing a photograph, and in that state of mind I tend to see more. Someday I might take a class or invest in a better camera, but in the meantime I just snap photos of what looks interesting.

So during a recent stay in an eighth floor hotel room I was glad for its view of the city, especially at nightfall. But when I pulled back the curtain with camera in hand, I found the scene obscured by water droplets and condensation. No good. With the window sealed so that it couldn’t be wiped clean, I would have to find another vantage point.

As I gathered my things for a trek down the hall, it seemed a lot of trouble to traipse around in search of a clearer window. But the light at evening had drawn me to look outside, the color and pattern of towers and skies held my attention, and I couldn’t resist trying to capture the image.

In looking for a better view, however, I was rejecting what I had already found beautiful. Photography helps me notice what’s in front of me, but it’s still easy to miss things. In this case I had only seen the foggy window as an obstacle and not part of the scene. I want to open my eyes and pay attention to the world I’m walking through. But that’s hard to accomplish with preconceived ideas about what’s worth looking at.

So I returned to the window and observed how the water on the glass reshaped the light from outside. I considered how the pane of moisture softened my perspective on the city. And I realized that for one evening, in that particular place, I didn’t have to resist the uniquely filtered view.

Is there something in front of you that you might cease resisting?

The Message in a Misquote

I learned from reading at Sacred Miscellany that the popular wisdom rendered as “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” is actually a misquote of the original, and more interesting, “Musick has Charms to sooth the savage Breast,” from a play by William Congreve.

We learn to fight the beasts “out there,” scarcely acknowledging the struggles taking place within our psyches. No wonder we’ve misread the line. Yet, as Paul knew, the demons within our own breast are always present, and deprive us of peace with far more consistency than the snarling enemies out in the world.

Our culture’s outer directedness has altered the line, but we pass along the misquote because we’ve experienced the truth of the original. Music does have the power to calm and comfort us. It offers courage and inspiration. Music can touch us profoundly in a way that nothing else can. Even if we’ve never faced down a tiger using a stereo speaker, we believe it will soothe the savage beast because we know it has soothed us.

George Winston’s December CD is one I return to again and again for its power to soothe through the clarity and tranquility of his piano. What soothes your savage breast?

Honoring the Sacredness of Early Morning

Early morning is sacred time for me, when the day is still pregnant with possibility. Creatively speaking, during the minutes or hours before inevitable demands intrude, anything can happen. The veil of the dream world not yet grown opaque, sometimes I can see through the mist to a consciousness beneath the ordinary.

This receptive frame of mind that fosters a creative life nourishes the spiritual life as well. A day grown from the fertile soil of a quiet morning yields better fruit. For night owls, those rich hours may descend after everyone else is in bed, but I only hear distant hoots from that world.

Years ago a friend encouraged me to rise earlier as a way of cultivating a richer spiritual life. “The world belongs to those who wake early,” she told me. It sounded good, but having my daughter ready to catch the bus at 6:50 a.m. took all the early-morning stamina I had. Dealing calmly with the start of the day was all the practice I could muster, and it was enough.

As children grew more independent and our morning schedule changed, I had more options. But there is a lot of competition for that early morning time!

  • Advice on getting fit says to make exercise part of my routine, ideally first thing in the morning. It energizes the day, and no matter what comes up, exercise is crossed off the list.
  • Many spiritual teachers advocate using the first part of the day to pray. It may be our only uninterrupted time, and the practice helps the day go better.
  • Writers often stress using early morning hours to work. The day will be less angst-ridden if we know our writing is done.
  • And the cat is emphatic that the first task of the morning is filling her food dish. She is charming but increasingly insistent, and her agenda always comes first.

So what is the one thing, the main thing, the most important thing to do? Especially when everything is connected. The strength and health of my body supports everything I do. Writing flows into my spiritual life, and prayer helps me have something positive to offer in all my efforts.

I wish I had many “first hours” of the day. I don’t want to choose. But like it or not, this life requires making choices and setting priorities.

After trying different things, I have settled on a practice that involves pen and paper. It might be writing out a dream from the night before. It might be a journal entry, morning pages, a blog post, or a prayer. I think of my morning writing as a vessel that can contain whatever is needed. Regardless of how it is filled, it helps me listen and respond to the still, small voice heard only in the quiet.

How do you begin your day?

The Storm that Doesn’t Arrive

The forecasters predicted some serious winter weather this weekend. My plans were in question; falling temperatures were expected to ice the wet roads, followed by an accumulation of snow. I went to bed under a winter weather advisory, wondering if an important event the next day would even be held.

The next morning brought a dusting of snow, the roads were wet but not frozen, and the winter storm I was braced for simply didn’t happen. I felt a little silly for spending the previous evening watching out the window and wondering when the freeze would begin.

My point is not to bash forecasters. They do their work the best they can. The thing is, I knew better than to get caught up in weather-watching.

My own experience has taught me that a lot of winter storm advisories, literal and metaphorical, never come to fruition. And while it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for ice and snow, or challenging days, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

I know now that a better approach was to simply prepare my talk, be aware that I might need to change my plans, and then allow myself to sleep under blankets rather than advisories. It’s a lesson I want to remember.

Do you find yourself watching for events that might happen? Have you found a way to stop worrying about what might be in store?

Susan Christerson Brown