One of my favorite films is the 1992 movie Mr. Baseball, in which Tom Selleck plays Jack Elliot, an aging Major League slugger sent to play in Japan.
As the film progresses, Jack becomes frustrated by the differences between American and Japanese customs. But in one scene, as he puts a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, a fellow player warns him, “don’t spit on the field; it’s considered sacred.”
Jack answers, “at least they got that part right.”
While this might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “sacred space,” I think it illustrates the concept very well. The word “sacred” means “set apart or reserved for religious use,” or “worthy of respect and veneration.” While a baseball field may not be sacred to some, it is to others, and it is their belief that makes it so. The baseball field is “set apart” for a specific purpose, and it is consecrated by what happens there.
This analogy came to mind as I spoke to Rev. Tom Reilly, pastor of the Catholic Church of St. Ann in East Cobb.
I had gone to St. Ann's in search of sacred space, drawn there by the beautiful exterior architecture. But what I found there during a Sunday service was different from the hushed reverence of my Anglican childhood. Energetic and talkative parishioners filled the open sanctuary, greeting one another with enthusiasm.
This, according to Reilly, is as it should be.
“Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has seen a change,” he says. “A sense of community is stressed. The main church, by which I mean the nave of the church, is the place where the community gathers for celebration, to celebrate the Eucharist.”
While Reilly admits that there are those who may complain about “talking before Mass,” he believes that this is congruent with the liturgy, in which the congregation greet each other and exchange tokens of peace before the Eucharist.
One reason this is possible is that St. Ann's, like many Catholic churches, has a separate chapel housing the Blessed Sacrament.
The Blessed Sacrament, in Catholic theology, refers to the bread used in the Lord’s Supper. Once the bread has been consecrated, it becomes the Body of Christ. Any consecrated bread not consumed during the Eucharist is kept in a special place. Many churches reserve it in a small tabernacle behind the altar. When this is done, a candle is left burning to signify the Divine Presence, and that all should be reverent.
“At St. Ann's” says Reilly, “we have the main church, and we have a Blessed Sacrament chapel. The Blessed Sacrament is not kept in the main part of the church. If you go to Rome or any of the early churches, like St. Peter’s Basilica, all of them have a Blessed Sacrament chapel.”
This, then, becomes a place of quiet reverence. “We use the Blessed Sacrament chapel for devotion and reflection. Sometimes a small service will be held there, but rarely will we use it for anything else.”
This creates two types of sacred space at St. Ann's. “The Blessed Sacrament chapel is sacred because of what is kept there,” says Reilly. “But the church becomes sacred because of what you do there.”
The personal and participatory aspect of sacredness is a subject close to Reilly's heart.
“Oft times we talk about sacred space and we think of the church, and to a degree that’s one level of sacred space. But on the other hand, I think that within our spirituality, there are other levels. We identify the sacred space within ourselves, and what we need to do to nurture that sacredness.”
In keeping with this, Reilly says that it is also quite common for people to create sacred space in their homes.
“It’s more common than people think,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a room set off from the rest of the house, or it may even be an area of a bedroom where you can come and touch with your own self.”
I went to St. Ann's seeking one type of sacred space, and came away with another. It seems that the sacred space we create within ourselves is what allows us to consecrate any other space we may occupy, and that what we seek, very often, is as much within us as it is without.