Sacred Spaces

John Philip Newell. Excerpts from A New Harmony. Celtic Christianty

Max Weber, the social historian, describes the modern world as “disenchanted.” Since the Enlightenment, the body of the earth and heaven’s body of planets and stars have increasingly been seen as soulless.’ The sense of the numinous has been withdrawn from matter. And the mind and consciousness have been almost exclusively identified with the human. So the properties that we specifically identify with humanity, such as feeling and thought and soulfulness, have been viewed as incongruent with the rest of the universe. They have been seen as exceptions to the cosmos rather than as emerging from the very heart of the cosmos.

Whenever I arrive at Albuquerque airport in New Mexico, on my way to our little retreat center of Casa Sol in the high desert, I take a shuttle bus to the depot. Of the bus journey, a prerecorded announcement begins, “Welcome to the Land of enchantment.” When I hear these words, I know I have arrived home in New Mexico. Its pure blue skies, the immediacy of the heavens at night, its great sandstone mesas magically carved by the elements over millennia, and the vastness of its desert stretches all form a deeply enchanted landscape for me. I also know that there is much about New Mexico that is not enchanted. I know that over the centuries in this land there has been a tragic displacement and degradation of the native peoples by successive waves of European immigration and conquest. I know that this land houses the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb that killed more than two hundred thousand Japanese men and women and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was designed. I know that this is not straightforwardly a beautiful Land of Enchantment. But for me and for countless others this is still a deeply spiritual landscape. It is a place of re-membering.

There are certain places on this planet—for me they are places like the high desert of New Mexico and lona and New Harmony—where we more immediately remember the soul of creation. They are sometimes described as thin places, translucent landscapes where the division between spirit and matter can scarcely be discerned. The veil that divides, says George MacLeod, is “thin as gossamer.” These places are like sacraments. They disclose to us the thinness that is everywhere present but that we often fail to access. They shine with a beauty that we often live in forgetfulness of.

Theo Dorgan in his poem “The Promised Garden” writes, “There is a garden at the heart of things. Our oldest memory guards it with her strong will. How do we access that memory? How do we enable one another to remember, to wake up to the harmony that we are bearers of? The enchantment of such outer landscapes is not unrelated to the inner landscape of our souls. What is deepest in us has emerged from the heart of the cosmos. We are not an exception to the universe. We are a unique expression of the universe. William Blake, the English poet, speaks of the universe within that is “starry and glorious.” The inner landscape of our being is as infinite as the outer universe is boundless. And as Thomas Berry says, if we are “microcosmos,” if we carry within us something of the vastness and the unfolding mystery of the universe, then the universe is “macroanthropos”: the universe carries within itself something of the intimacy and the longings of the human soul.’

In New Harmony there is the Roofless Church. I can see its outline from the window of the Poet’s House, where I am writing. The Roofless Church is one of the most prophetic sites of prayer in the Western world. Fifty years ago, long before the earth consciousness of today, Jane Owen commissioned the architect Philip Johnston to design a place of prayer that opened out onto creation. It has four defining walls but no roof. The Lipchitz statue The Descent of the Spirit stands at the heart of the church, and above the statue there is a canopy that appears suspended between heaven and earth, but the church itself has no enclosure. It is a sanctuary that refuses to separate heaven from earth, East from West, the gathering place of prayer from the vastness of the cosmos, the liturgies and celebrations of a particular people from the rest of humanity. It is a sacred site that announces that we will be well, not in enclosed separations from one another as nations and wisdom traditions and species, but that we will be well to the extent that we open again to the oneness from which we and all things have come.

Recently when I was praying in the Roofless Church, I met a gardener who was working inside its four walls. He said to me, “I don’t often cut grass inside churches.” Partly in jest but also in earnest I replied, “The day is coming when there will be grass inside every church.” That may not literally prove to be the case. We will probably continue to need spaces in which to gather, in which we are sheltered from the extremes of the elements, places that nurture our togetherness and community. But unless we find ways of opening our sacred sites onto creation, either literally, as in the case of the Roofless Church, or symbolically in terms of pointing again and again to creation as the true cathedral of the Living Presence, then we will be increasingly irrelevant to the new Pentecost. And if we choose to ignore the mighty untamed movement of the Spirit that is inviting us to live not the holiness of separateness but the holiness of wholeness, then our sacred sites will more and more fall into ruin. And on that day grass will grow inside them anyway.

One of my other favorite sites of prayer in the world is the nunnery on lona in the Hebrides of Scotland. It also is a place without a roof. It also is a place in which people gather to pray because it opens onto the vastness of creation and the oneness of the world. And it also is a place to which people bring the brokenness of their lives and the brokenness of their nations, seeking healing and new beginnings. But the big difference between the nunnery of lona and the Roofless Church of New Harmony is that the nunnery opens onto creation because of neglect and failure. It is a ruin that came about through abandonment. What we need now, in addition to ruins that open accidentally onto creation, are places of intention and commitment, of new creativity and a new openness to the work of the Spirit in the earth and in the human soul. What we need are places like the Roofless Church, altars of prayer that are built for the oneness of the world.

One of the great features of the early Christian mission in the Celtic world was that it knew very little of worshipping in enclosed spaces. The common practice was to gather around high-standing crosses, some of which at their peak of artistic expression reached twelve feet in height. This was to know the boundlessness of the Spirit. This was to be renewed in the context of earth, sea, and sky. This was to seek renewal in relationship to all things. It was a tragic moment in the history of British Christianity, and consequently for much of the Western world, when in the seventh century, after the Synod of Whitby, the imperial mission forced on the Celtic lands a form of enclosed worship. The architectural norm became the four strong stone walls and the enclosed roof design that we now so much associate with ecclesiastical structure. Thus the impression was created that those who gathered inside the walls were somehow more holy than those who did not, and that the time of gathering and the place of gathering were somehow more sacred than all time and all space.

When I was an assistant minister at St. Giles Cathedral in the early 1990s, I had a dream. In the dream, I was standing in the pulpit preaching. But above me there was no enclosure. It was a roofless cathedral. I did not yet know about the Roofless Church of New Harmony, but it was similar. It opened up into the vastness of the cosmos. But below me, separating me from the congregation, was an artificial ceiling. I was aware that the people could hear me, but I could not see them. So in the dream I had to make a decision. Should I descend from the pulpit and speak under an artificial ceiling, or should I remain in the pulpit and speak from an unenclosed space?

That is a decision that we are being invited to make today in our Christian household and in the various households of our lives and world. Will we continue to speak from enclosed separations—racially, economically, religiously, politically—or will we seek a new open space in which to communicate across the boundaries that have artificially separated us? And will we as a human species continue to pretend that we are in an essentially different category from the rest of creation, or will we seek a new vision, a new-ancient understanding of the one Life that is in every species and in every atom of the universe? In the dream, I chose to remain in the pulpit. I chose the unbounded space into which we are being invited to speak again of oneness.

Recently I dreamed that I was having a telephone conversation with Dipankar, the father of my Indian son-in-law. Me said to me, “Is there someone in India with whom you are needing to have a conversation?” In the dream I answered, “No.” To which Dipankar asked, “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I answered. But two more times he asked me if I was sure, and two more times I answered in the affirmative. I then asked him how the wound on his head was. He had cut his forehead during the time of our daughter’s wedding earlier in the year. The time of the dream was early morning on Easter Sunday. It bore a striking similarity to the Easter story of Jesus asking Simon Peter three times if he loved him.

When I woke up, I was not at all sure that I did not need to have a conversation with India. The dream had been persistent on that front. Three times I was asked the question. And each time I became less sure about my answer. So my waking thoughts took me again to Bede. He represented a lifetime of conversation with India. He lived and loved his dialogue with the East. It was integral to his own journey into wholeness. And it was central to his gift of teaching. The dream confirmed for me what I was already wondering. Should we give more time to conversation with the East? And the dream also expressed one of our perennial Western anxieties. Does the East’s focus on oneness represent some sort of wound to the head? Is it intellectually rigorous enough in its definition of individuality? How are we to safeguard our Western mind’s attention to analysis and the distinction of the parts if we truly open to the oneness of the Mystery? And the dream, coming early on Easter morning with its three-times-repeated question, was calling me back to love, to love as the key to the way forward.

“Keep on reading ‘Sleeping Beauty,'” said Bede. “Keep on reading ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ “The beauty of our oneness as a world can seem so distant that it is assumed dead, or so deeply forgotten that it is thought beyond recovery. How is the beauty of life’s essential harmony to be reawakened? How is the curse of the spiteful divisions that have paralyzed us to be redeemed? In Grimm’s fairy tale, the sleeping princess and her household are surrounded by age-old briars and thorns. Sleeping Beauty appears hopelessly beyond reach. The valiant princes who try to force their way through the hedge are consumed by the tangle of thorny briars. Only when the time is right does the hedge begin to open. And only with a kiss is Sleeping Beauty awakened.

We live in a moment of grace. Through the hedges of our divisions we are beginning to glimpse again the beauty of life’s oneness. We are beginning to hear, in a way that humanity has never heard before, the essential harmony that lies at the heart of the universe. And we are beginning to understand, amidst the horror and the suffering of our divisions, that we will be well to the extent that we move back into relationship with one another, whether as individuals and families or as nations and species. The time is right. The time is desperately right. And it is only love that has the power to reawaken what has been paralyzed in our hearts. It is only the kiss of compassion that can remember the beauty of our oneness. “Keep on reading ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Keep on reading ‘Sleeping Beauty.'”

The above passage is from the preface to “A New Harmony: the Spirit, the Earth, & the Human Soul” by John Philip Newell. Pages 51-58

Published by Jossey-Bass



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