Sacred space. It could be the place where you said “yes” to getting married. It could be a bench where you sat with your best friend after his father died. It could be next to a tree on a lakeshore where you were filled with gratitude for the beauty of life. It could be a place where, many times, you have prayed.
One such place for me is in the Abbey Church at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN. I made my first retreat at the abbey when I was twenty-eight years old, and now, twenty-five years later, I have probably made twenty-three retreats there. “Making a retreat” is a fancy way of saying that I have stayed there for four or five days and done nothing but eat, sleep, exercise, read, and pray.
Most of my retreat praying, the heavy duty crying-out-to-God kind of praying, has been in that church at night, sitting halfway back in a dark pew while looking at the illuminated altar. It is white with a cross suspended above it, and, barely visible behind and surrounding it, the semicircle of monks’ seating.
During my last nighttime visit to the abbey church, I sat and recollected all the other times I had sat there over the years. There were times of heavy grief due to death, loss of relationship, and a difficult move from a community I loved. There was a vocational crisis or two when I was at my wits end and confused about what God wanted or even what I wanted in the deepest center of my soul.
After recollecting all this for quite some time, from my heart came the thought, “There is always the altar.” Like a mountain amid the changing seasons with their snow, waterfalls, wildflowers and bugling elk, the altar is always there, unmoved, a silent witness to the spiritual lives of all who have gathered around it.
More than that, though, the words “There is always the altar” made me keenly aware that what the altar stands for—a place of offering to God—anchors my life. I realized then and there that through all the crises of life that have risen and subsided over the years there has been one constant call from God: to offer my life.
In times of struggle, grief or pondering the sacrifices that are at the heart of love, that altar is the place where I visualize the call to join my life to the sacrificial love of Jesus. In times of peace and happiness, the altar reminds me that my life is not about me and encourages me to flow outward in service instead of losing my soul by clinging to my own comfort.
One memorable night maybe fifteen years ago, I sat unobserved in the shadows of the abbey church as a monk emerged from the opposite darkness and approached the illuminated altar with a freshly laundered altar cloth in his hands. With deliberate and sure movement that I associate with a Japanese tea ceremony, he folded up the existing altar cloth, put it aside and then unfolded, crease by crease, the fresh cloth until it covered, edge to edge with nothing overhanging, the top surface of the altar. He proceeded, for several minutes, to smooth the cloth with the palms of his hands, starting at the middle and moving outward, making it ready for the next day’s offering.
I love that he loved the altar as much or more than I do. Sacred space increases its sacredness when it is shared, after all. Personal as it is, sacred space can also give us the great gift of drawing us into communion with God and with one another. Sacred space always prepares us to go forth and be more sacred people.