Worship “Here in this Place”

Knowing and naming a place seems to be an elemental part of identifying where we are on the journey through life.  Think of sentences such as “I am home,” “he feels so lost,” “she has finally arrived in Santiago di Compostela,” or “he is at death’s door” – these place-markers all signify so much more than geographic coordinates.  In line with that, here are some ruminations on how we acknowledge the place in which we gather for worship (in whichever context that happens to be).  A number of divergent elements, rooted in recent work and travel, make me I ponder this question.

First is the weakening of the importance of place in this digital age.  I am struck by the meteoric rise in importance of simultaneity — that is, time-sharing across vast distances — over spatial proximity.  Moreover, digital technologies now increasingly blend the physical world with digital content into hybrid environments.  Intel, for example, introduced technology that allows the blending of “the physical and digital worlds in real time” (according to its own website).  And the rise of geo-location features on smartphones, to name just one other technological advance, has created additional notions of space beyond (or maybe better: between) the binary of “presence” versus “absence.”  The prominent Catholic cyber-theorist Antonio Spadaro, SJ, for example, imagined a “fluid version of proximity” in his book Cybertheology.

A second element that has become part of my ruminations about place are the many reconfigurations of the specifics of our place in the universe that we have witnessed in recent decades.  For example, with the acknowledgement that we live in an expanding universe that is13.8 billion years old, our sense of place on planet earth has shifted.  Closer to the local home, we are learning to know and name the land on which we live, the waterways on which we depend, and the indigenous peoples of our regions who are the traditional custodians of both.  A concrete example, from my own bioregion: “As we gather for worship today, we acknowledge our place in God’s world: the Quinnipiac River watershed where we live and worship, and the traditional custodians of this land, the indigenous Quinnipiac peoples.”

A third, very different experience of place interrupted these two elements in my thinking about naming place recently.  This experience came in the form of a quite particular, very unsettling church building I encountered.  I am speaking of brutalist (for lack of a better word) architecture of the Basilica of the Holy Cross at the Valle de los Caídos near Madrid, Spain.  The monumental memorial of the Valley of the Fallen was Francisco Franco’s idea, to honor his comrades who had died in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).  The memorial was, in part, built by forced labor, and although later made to seem inclusive of all the war dead, is highly controversial in contemporary Spain.  The massive basilica, which is hewn into a granite ridge, is as unsettling as its history: somber (since without any natural light), monumental, and yes, totalitarian — these are the words that come to mind as one enters the building.  A Benedictine monastic community, begun by monks from Solesmes, has settled in this place.  The monks pray for all the victims of the Spanish Civil War; and the community has a chant school at the Valle de Los Caídos (none of which, sadly, can erase the fact that the tombs of the creator of the extremist Falange and of Franco are in the center of the sanctuary).

I continue to be troubled by this place.  Having now returned to the community with which I normally worship on Sundays, I am struck by a Marty Haugen hymn we often sing: “Gather Us In.”  The hymn begins with a phrase that is repeated throughout the verses: “Here in this Place…”  Our sanctuary is airy and light, far removed from the brutalist architecture of the basilica of the Valle de Los Caídos.  Yet we too, in this hymn practice a form of oblivion, in that we claim “this place” is basically about “us.”  In contradistinction, think of a liturgical initiative in New Hampshire, where a “Church of the Woods” has opened in the midst of a hundred acres of wild woods and wetlands.  The Rev. Steve Blackmer includes in his congregation both pines and porcupines as well as human congregants (for more, click here).  It is a sanctuary deeply rooted in the created matter of its natural place.

I end with a thought on the one foundational “place” in which we all stand before the Living God, namely, as sinners: liturgy on the whole has been good about acknowledging that place of ours, I think.  Yet even our sinfulness is always shaped by the concrete place we inhabit, and sin against.

From our place in the universe to our place in a sanctuary, how do we best name our place, in worship?


  1. We also sing “Gather Us In” at my parish, but we omit the 4th verse because of its references to the Kingdom NOT in the future but NOW. You’ll notice most recently published Catholic hymnals now omit this verse too. Nice article. Thanks

    1. Didn’t Jesus teach that the Kingdom of God begins in the here and now? That is the point of the verse as I understand it.

      1. We’ve never gotten as far as the fourth verse, but I just looked it up. I landed in Robert Addington’s position.

  2. Teresa, many thanks for this reflection.

    I noticed the porous and contingent nature of “place” when I led baptism preparation for a decade or so. Our suburban area isn’t very enticing to young couples: it isn’t hip or trendy, with very little night life, and there aren’t a lot of housing options within financial reach of young people. So one would expect that baptism prep would be lightly attended. But that wasn’t the case: most months, we’d have a half-dozen or more first-time parents. But at least half of them were couples who lived far away and had traveled quite a distance to attend. Why? Because one or the other had grown up in the parish. They had subsequently moved away, frequently enough to the big city; but they had never put down roots in their local parish. To them (or at least to one of them) our parish was still “home”, even though it was, quite literally, far from home.

    Why don’t they take the leap and find a parish closer to where they live? Well, some do, eventually. And quite a few are in that anomalous situation in which they themselves aren’t really “churched” but they come from extended families that are, and so they choose (and/or feel coerced) to baptize the baby. And I think some are in a situation in which the place where they live now is not something they consider to be “home”. E.g. they are renting an apartment and they’d really like to be a home owner. Or they are in the condo they bought when they first became a couple, but want to move to a house.

  3. I would really like our parish to become more of a “virtual place”. I’d like us to leverage social media much more than we do. I’d like us to webcast our masses live each Sunday. So I don’t think the changing nature of “place” is all negative for the church. The fact is, territorial boundaries have been more an ideal than an observed reality for decades. Technology can now enable the territorial walls to be completely broken down, and I think our churches would be wiser to embrace that fact than ignore or resist it.

    1. I wish you could do both at the same time, and do each well: namely to root our lives of faith deeply in commitment to one local place (with its waterways, histories, cultures, etc.), and at the same time inhabit virtual spaces, authentically and without fear.
      Thank you for your good thoughts, Jim.

  4. My sense of “virtual space” that has developed over the last 20 that it’s more of a visually/temporally enhanced form of correspondence than a form of place-ness, as it were.

    Part of this comes from observing the difference in experience when a community has Mass with overflow to another space, to which there are two basic approaches:

    1. Mediate the worship through technology to include the congregants in a single service; or
    2. Have an additional Mass in the overflow space.

    Having experienced both, the latter is feels more participatory and direct, while the former feels more attenuated in a way that more than offsets symbolic unity of action. Perhaps this is a reason I am not a fan of mega-Masses where the acoustical and visual connection of the mass congregation is mostly mediated through technology rather than more direct. (Note: in general, in terms of active participation in the liturgy, I prefer congregations to be sized proportionally to the natural acoustical and visual properties of the space. It is actually possible to forego amplification (other than the hearing impaired) in even churches of a rather large though not very large size, if speakers slow down and use a voice for public elocution – something that was done for centuries…. In any event, it’s probably the Tridentine Mass that works better for mega-gatherings…)

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