In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a slight cold, so please forgive my voice. It is lower than usual. It makes me sound very grumpy and upset. I am neither grumpy nor upset. In fact, I am in a very good mood. For the last week, I have been in the United States, in Houston and Dallas, and I am now back in the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Lake George in Colorado. As always, being in the United States and meeting people here is putting me in a very good mood. Maybe one day I should tell you why.
For now, for today, I thought we should speak about sacred space, or the idea of sacredness and the way it is manifested in space. It’s connected directly with what we talked about last week concerning pilgrimages, because we go on a pilgrimage to reach a certain sacred space. It is also connected with a talk I was involved with in Houston, at a university in Houston. I was part of a panel that discussed this concept of sacred space, so the ideas are very fresh in my mind.
I suppose after listening to the other people on the panel—and I believe I was the only Orthodox; there were Christians of other traditions and also a lady who was not part of any tradition but whose heart was in the right place—I think the one major difference between what we had to say, which was amazingly similar in many ways, but the one major, I would call it essential difference, was the source of holiness, the spring of holiness, the place or the being that makes holiness possible is different for us Orthodox Christians.
It seemed very clear that for the other panelists, a space becomes sacred once you invest emotion into it, once there is a certain experience or certain memories that connect you to that place. For instance, if we have an armchair, and that is the armchair in which your grandmother used to read stories to you or the armchair in which she passed away, well, that makes that armchair a sacred object, a sacred space of some sort to you. That may be correct from a human point of view, but it definitely is not from a Christian point of view, and this is where the difference of the source of holiness becomes visible.
For someone who believes that an armchair or a house or beautiful scenery becomes sacred because of shared memories or shared emotions, for this kind of mind the source of sacredness is in us. We human beings are the source of sacredness; we human beings generate holiness—and that is utterly incorrect from the Orthodox point of view, because only God, the Holy One, is the source of holiness. Creation itself cannot generate the sacredness of the uncreated. It is only God who is uncreated, who can sanctify the world. It’s for a very good reason that the Divine Liturgy ends with the blessing, with the words, “For you are our sanctification.”
Yes, some places are sacred, yes, some people are holy, but that sacredness, that holiness, is not in us. We do not generate it; we simply receive it, in grace, as gift. And, yes, we can, as human beings, become intermediaries for that holiness. God can outpour this grace through us, upon the whole world, but that does not turn us into the source of holiness.
It was rather frustrating at times being part of the panel, because I agreed with the things the other people had to say, and I think we simply differed in the way we explained the common beliefs we had. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. For instance, I believe all of us by the end of the discussion agreed that, to some degree, in some way, the whole creation is sacred; the whole earth is sacred. But the reasons behind this belief were different. They believed that the earth becomes sacred because everywhere on this earth, somebody had, at some point in time, shared a beautiful memory or emotion—or not necessarily beautiful: maybe traumatic, maybe a drama, maybe places where people have been murdered, slaughtered, maybe places where disasters—natural disasters or industrial disasters—happened. These places become sacred because of this emotion, good or bad, that we human beings have had in these places.
I believe what the Church believes, what the Scriptures have said, and that is, yes, the whole creation is sacred, but it is sacred for a different set of reasons, and I will give you two reasons in what follows. But it is interesting, isn’t it, to note that we have the same beliefs, believers and non-believers, Orthodox Christians and other traditions of Christianity; we all believe the same truth, but for different reasons.
I’m thinking now as I’m talking to this microphone and picturing you listening to this, probably driving somewhere, or I don’t know when you listen to these things; I’m thinking now that there isn’t much difference between what is happening now and what has happened from the very beginning with Adam and Eve, because at the end of the day the snake did not tell them any lie, did he? The snake told them, “If you eat from this fruit, you will become like God. You will become gods yourself.” And that is not fake; that is the truth. That is what the Church is saying; that is what Scripture is saying; that is what all the Fathers have confirmed. If and when we are saved, we become godlike; we become gods ourselves, in grace.
So the snake did not lie to them. He simply tried to make them get to that truth, not through God who could have generated that state of godlike for them, but through themselves. In other words, he didn’t tell them a lie; he simply gave them the wrong tools to get to that truth. I believe the same thing happened in this discussion. Yes, the whole world, creation as a whole, is sacred, but not because of our memories and experiences, but because of God, because of our Creator.
I’ll give you two ways in which to think of the world as a sacred space as a whole. Firstly, when you look at your grandmother’s grave—I’ll continue with this example about a grandmother—when you go and visit your grandmother’s grave, you are indeed looking at a sacred space, but not for the reasons we’ve mentioned. That is a sacred space, not because that was the wonderfully gentle woman who used to give us candy or read stories to us; that is a sacred space because your grandmother, like yourself, was created in the image of God. The image of God is imprinted on her being. It was, while she was alive, and it still is now, as her body waits in that grave for the resurrection.
And if you think of the billions and billions and billions of people who have ever lived somewhere on the face of this earth, if you think of their bodies lined up under our feet, each of those beings, each of those bodies having the image of God imprinted on them, all of them quietly awaiting the second coming of Christ and their own resurrection, if you think what you are stepping on as you go out for a stroll, then that is a way in which the whole earth, each bit of dust, is indeed sacred, because each bit of dust has been imprinted with the image of Christ, of God, through us.
There is also another way in which the whole world becomes a sacred space, and I will end with this, because it is a very dear truth for me. It gives reason to what I am doing. It gives me the energy to keep on running and meeting people and working to establish this monastery in the Hebrides. Simply put, churches themselves become sacred because of God’s presence.
Churches are not sacred because we want them to be sacred. We do not turn churches into sacred spaces through our rituals or through our gathering or through our intention. You do not design a space to be sacred. You do not make a space sacred by performing rituals that are as created as we are. Churches become sacred because, through those rituals, we prepare the very presence of God, and that happens every time the priest celebrates the Eucharist, every time during the Divine Liturgy, when we have Christ present in body and blood among us. It is his presence that puts aside, so to say, the church we celebrate in from the rest of the world.
But then think what happens next. Christ comes in our midst in the church, and then we receive him. We eat his body, and we drink his blood, and then we go about our lives. The priest comes out, and he says, “With fear of God, with faith and love, draw near,” and we do; we draw near, and we drink and eat from that chalice. And in doing so, we ourselves become chalices, because the body and the blood of Christ is now in us. So we become a sort of movable, human, flesh-and-bones chalices for Christ’s body and blood.
And we go in the world and we meet people and we talk to them and we shake their hands or we hug them, and when we do that, they do not merely interact with us, with our physical being; we also expose them to the presence of God. We, these flesh-and-bones, movable, transferable chalices, we move about from street to street, from house to house, from office to office, from supermarket to post office, and as we do, we turn those secular spaces into sacred space by the presence of God within us.
God doesn’t simply disappear when we get out of the church, when we go through those doors back into the world. The sacraments are still with us. The same Christ, the same God, who has turned the church into a sacred space, is with us, in us, through us, when we walk the streets or take buses and cars. We Christians become the chalices that take God into the world, and we turn the world into a sacred space.
If you think about it that way, yes, creation itself, from the beginning to its end, is sacred. There are, of course, other ways in which the sacred nature of creation can be explained, but I think we should stop here for now, and maybe one day, if you would like me to, we can revisit this topic.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for visiting the website of our monastery on the Isle of Mull. Thank you for those who have written to me and have suggested topics and have approached me with questions. Please forgive me if I don’t reply as quickly as I would like. I travel a lot for the monastery, especially now that we need a lot of money to repair our roofs. And finally, thank you for those who have decided to help us repair our roof and build our monastic cells. It is endlessly appreciated.
Until next time, may we all be blessed. Amen.