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Creating Sacred Space for Faith

Father Tom Reilly of the Catholic Church of St. Ann says we should start within ourselves.

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  in East Cobb. 

I had gone to  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.

Brian February 15, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Is it me, does that church building look like a blown up toy from some kids playroom? Maybe a Playmobile toy. It looks nice at first, but upon closer inspection looks like a replica of a church, not quite a church.
Todd Hudson February 17, 2011 at 04:20 AM
It is a church, and a well-designed one.
Peter Hart March 02, 2011 at 06:23 AM
Some of us out here in laityland, in fact I and all of my classmates, who were in college and graduate school during Vatican II, prayed for and followed the proceedings of the council closely. We read and studied the documents. I also grew up in a "progressive" (in the good sense of the word, i.e., priests and laypeople who were active organizers and members of the labor movement and social action, et. al.) diocese and had, so I'm told, a solid liturgical formation. I suggest you read, or reread, and pray over paragraph 45 in the new GIRM with regard to silence before, during, and after Mass. You might even take a plunge into "The Spirit of the Liturgy" and "Sing a New Song to the Lord" by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. Silence, at the proper time, is golden. Personal conversations outside Mass should be confined to the narthex/vestibule/entrance of the church and the parish hall or basement. I'd be interested in your archbishop's thoughts on the matter.
Todd Hudson March 02, 2011 at 03:30 PM
I'm the writer and not the priest, and I am sure Fr. Tom has heard the arguments - he told me it has been an ongoing topic of discussion, and not all sides agree. As for myself, as a traditional Anglican, I am accustomed to silence and reverence in the nave of the church, especially before Holy Eucharist - whether the Host is present or not (although, in an Angl0-catholic church, it usually is). But also, as an Anglican, I have had the experience of seeing the Roman Catholic Mass become less and less formal and ceremonial than the Anglican / Episcopal Eucharist over the years. Fr. Tom says he recently taught a course on the history of the Eucharist, and shared some of it with me. You might like to speak to him about it.
Kay Fitzgerald April 17, 2011 at 12:18 AM
Todd, I am most happy that you visited. Come back often...you are most welcome! In defining sacred we say it is something to be cherished, honored, treasured, and respected. We dress a certain way for a sacred event. We speak a certain way. Sacred things are blessed. Sacred things are set aside, encased and displayed. And yet….The essence of SACRED was captured in an infant born in a borrowed cave. The life of SACRED began as a refugee with an execution contract on his head. The obedience of SACRED lived an obscure life with a “blue collar” step-dad. The compassion of SACRED stepped forward to change water into wine. The love of SACRED reflected the Father’s glory and touched in the most profound ways the SACRED in others. SACRED from Nazareth…..How can this be? SACRED healing….by what authority? SACRED…loving the blind, the crippled, the whores, the lepers, the needy, the poor, the politically incorrect, the dismissed, the compromised. SACRED…without a church, a temple, a sanctuary, a home. So what do we honor, cherish, treasure and respect? What are we willing to bless and set aside as special? I’d like to think that the SACRED PRESENCE reflected in the panhandler on the corner; my parish priest; the gossip at work; that noisy fellow in the pew next to me; my spouse; my enemy is indeed what I’d choose to honor, cherish, treasure and respect. Fr. Tom speaks wisely and from his heart. As a parishioner sitting quietly in the pew I am blessed!

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