This summer I have been watching a CNN documentary mini-series called Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury. One historian on the show invokes the saying, “the past is never the past,” and goes on to remark that “if there is one place on earth where that is true, it is Jerusalem.” What makes Jerusalem the most conflicted place on earth is the number of communities who lay claim to the city, especially the historical depths of those claims. The three Abrahamic faiths all claim Jerusalem as a holy city, and their adherents regularly make pilgrimage to it. The importance of Jerusalem has led to millennia of contested claims to the city that continue to this day, for Jerusalem physically captures a sense of the holy for the groups who lay claim to it; it symbolizes something important about the identity of those communities. To lose the city is to be displaced, to be cut off from the sacred in a visceral sense. This isn’t just about territory. It is about belief, identity, a sense of grounding in the moral cosmos, a connection with the holy. The city’s religious significance—and the Abrahamic faiths’ inability to imagine it as a shared space—is what makes the history of Jerusalem so tragic.
The conflict around Jerusalem is a particularly painful example of the intense importance of place to our sense of meaning. We are embodied creatures, so time and space are important to how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. Our sense of place reflects and gives identity, and when we are disconnected from meaningful places, we feel displaced—rudderless, vulnerable, perhaps not really ourselves.
Though it does not compare to the historic tragedy surrounding Jerusalem, I think many of us have felt the importance of place in the year and a half of exile from our churches. To be sure, the old Sunday School song is right: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” The church is not a building, and yet buildings and places can be profound symbols of who we are and the site of our regular encounters with the holy.
For many of us, not being able to enter our churches—perhaps not even seeing our sanctuaries during much of our virtual worship—was among the hardest parts of pandemic sheltering. Why? Because church embodies the holy. It gives physical place to our encounter with God—it is “the Lord’s house,” as the ancients named it, and when we enter, it vividly reminds us of who we are, to whom we belong, and the community we call our family of friends. Our churches serve as sanctuary in both senses of the word: a sacred place and shrine to God’s goodness, but also a haven of safety from the troubling aspects of our lives. When we enter our places of worship, we are invited to temporarily remove the burdens that weigh us down in the world, to bathe in the reality of God’s graces, to imagine a world with a little more kinship and forbearance, to gird ourselves for the hardness of life by putting on the armor of God’s peace, and then to return to our lives stronger than before.
Our churches serve as sanctuary in both senses of the word: a sacred place and shrine to God’s goodness, but also a haven of safety from the troubling aspects of our lives.
How does a place have the power to make us feel whole and holy? It does so by appealing to our senses. Faith is a whole-body experience, something that other Christian sub-traditions sometimes understand better than American Protestantism. Ornate European cathedrals are not necessarily reflections of human hubris or waste. They are sensory expressions of the beauty and majesty of God. Catholics and Orthodox Christians use incense in their worship to stimulate the sense of smell to the presence of the holy. Thunderous music invites us to hear God’s grandeur. The texture of bread and the soft bite of viny drink get even our taste buds into the experience of the divine. The sights and sounds and smells of church feed our need to experience God in our whole bodies, in the real presence of the community of faith.
Holy spaces put us in relationship to God in ways we can feel, not only by connecting our senses but by connecting us to one another in time. Buildings, lands, and cities have history, and holy places connect us with the history of a community of saints who worshipped as we do. I often sit in the old New England Congregational sanctuary in which I regularly worship and imagine generations of people who have gathered there too, the ghosts of people I spend my day studying as a theologian and historian. Some of the connections through time that a worship space provides, though, may be more recent and personal. I have that experience every time I visit the church of my youth and descend into the musty basement that housed our Sunday School rooms. The smell of that place takes me back to the wonderful community that raised me in the faith. In fact, I am surprised how often other musty church basements have the same effect on me, a testament to memory’s sensory triggers but also an indication of the power that places of worship harbor to connect us with the communities of God’s people.
Of course, a church building is not the only kind of place capable of connecting us with God’s presence. The natural world can also function this way. But while a walk alone in the woods often leaves me with a vivid sense of God’s grand intimacy, it doesn’t connect me with sacred community the way a church does.
Ultimately, that is what is so important about church as place. It connects us through our senses and our memories to the communities past and present who gather there, and by extension to the community past and present who gathers anywhere in God’s name, and by extension to the God in whose name we all gather. Holy space reminds us vividly who we are and to whom we belong.