Where a person is can be as important to one’s spiritual development as what they believe. Long have spiritual masters proclaimed the benefits of sacred places. The Hebrew scriptures are replete with God’s directions to Israel to mark out territories prescribed by God that would both demonstrate God’s faithfulness and Israel’s special role in God’s redemptive economy. From the irrigated, verdant hills dotting the landscape around his hometown of Galilee, Jesus would spend countless hours with his Father. From such wilderness haunts he would find nurture, tenacity, strength, succor, and, frankly…answers.
So much of who we are and what we are becoming is directly attributable to the places that have graced us (rhyme subliminal but entirely intentional). In the comparative spiritual laissez faire of Constantine’s newly Christianized Rome, Abba Antony of Egypt started a mass exodus into the deserts of Egypt, those who would become known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The barrenness and desperation of the desert mimicked a similar cry deep within the hearts of these enigmatic souls. What is the obvious lesson? When there isn’t anything to titillate the senses, one might as well deal with the soul!
The Celts, well known for their keen kinship with their environment, made much of this desire. Not unlike the Native populations of the US and Canada, not a feather of wing-ed bird, nor bark of tree, nor single trickle of rainwater escaped their notice. All carried within it some morsel of meaning for them. Because everything received notice, nothing got wasted and this outer kinship found expression through inner resolve and great spiritual creativity.
My own holy places, the cairns of my wanderings, are generally old, rather solid, often drafty and poorly insulated, but full of the memory of stones that have long cried out to their Maker. Long have I had an historical and spiritual affinity for those stuffy, rarely air-conditioned chapels that never cease to draw me elsewhere…to the great Other. Let me share just a few.
St. Saviour’s Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature designed to rouse neighbors and destined to arouse suspicions). Connections in the community opened the door figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.
Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to the sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls, and finding no sonic respite from the hardwood floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.
The hospital chapel in the same city was another such place. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my stubbornly elusive peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually.
Tintern Abbey in Wales, the place I believe could be boasted by angels as heaven’s waiting room, the lobby to eternity. My first experience of this roofless wreck of holiness was following a six month sojourn as a missionary to youth in Edinburgh’s rough Pilton district with my new wife of a year. We were tired and needed time to traipse about the land of our ancestors (and her relatives) before returning to Canada, unsure of what awaited us there. The warm, lazy day infused with the angular light of Fall caressed the ancient stone walls easily visible from almost anywhere. The pointed gables of apse and nave bespoke a darker but simpler time. All we could do was sit and pray.
Less than two years later a picture of Tintern Abbey would help pull her through a terrible first pregnancy with our son, Calum. The same photo performed this function five years later as our second son, Graeme, reluctantly succumbed to womb-ed pressure and left his humble abode to make his premier. However, it is difficult to compete with William Wordsworth whose words best complete this picture:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things…
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope…(Wordsworth on Tintern, 1798)
Everyone can point to at least one place where something important, even seminal occurred and they sense something is different. There it is that our life has been forever changed, perhaps only incrementally, but transformed just the same.
I believe it is God’s way of playing spatial peek-a-boo.
Think deeply of a place or two that have been places of rest and reconstruction. Picture that place in your mind. Now let that picture juggle your heart.
As you do so, re-member the pieces of you that may have been broken or lost in that place. Quietly give thanks to the God who loves to find us where we’re least looking or at least looking the other way.