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?