Proximity to the Holy in Time and Space

Iconostasis of St. Bartholomew Church (now St. Nectarios), Wandsworth, Great Britain

Recently I’ve been doing some research on iconostases and other forms of liturgical screens, including the various barriers and veils in the Jerusalem temple, European rood screens, and the more recent altar rail. Some of these barriers have at times served practical purposes, clarifying spaces where certain people should stay and protecting access for others who need to be able to come and go. Early Church writers describe scenes of rather unruly congregations; against pushy worshipers, the ministers of ritual in some cases needed the protection of a raised walkway to get to an ambo in the center of the nave! At another period, monastic churches included walls separating the choir, to provide privacy as the community came and went from the cloister.

Most often, though, these steps or walls or rails or curtains demarcate increasingly sacred space. Passing through them means entering into proximity to the holy. So we have our sanctuary, our tabernacle, our Holy of Holies, and only those prepared and deputed are to enter into such space. Yet while the priests have their work of consecration to do in one space of the church, members of the laity also have their own work of prayer to do in another space, consecrating their lives and the world to God. Both the ordained and those belonging to the priesthood of all believers have a consecratory role to play within a sacred space.

Byzantine Chapel
Byzantine Chapel, Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

In today’s world, this arrangement may seem a little old fashioned. How undemocratic, to give certain roles and spaces to certain people, to suggest that one might live and work in greater proximity to the holy than another. We like to remember that God is everywhere. In a time of pandemic, when so many have been cut off from the fullness of access to holy ritual space, we want to offer the comfort of remembering God’s transcendence. We know instinctively that God can traverse time and space in the sacred Word, in acts of charity, and in other forms that do not depend on being together in this particular time, in this particular space. Holiness is not bound only to the few. And yet, if all space were the same, if all time were the same, how would we remember that God is HERE, NOW? The act of consecrating this space for God, this time for God, this person for God is to mark that the holy is here. And if it really is holy, we must take care. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans is not a force to be messed with. It is a mystery so powerful it could kill us, and yet it is fascinating. We are drawn back to it again and again. The holy matters.

Rood screen
Rood screen from Church of All Saints, Norfolk, Great Britain

In a time of increasing secularization, perhaps it is the suggestion that “it doesn’t matter” that rubs the most. Yes, having a relationship with God matters. It matters if we have access to the sacraments. It matters if we observe the opening of Advent. It matters if we are attuned to our soul’s being not quite ready to enter into the full presence of God yet. The universal call to holiness may sometimes feel like a democratization of access to God, as if we’re all the same, as if all time and space were the same. And yet we are different from each other, each with our particular role to play, each with our particular space to occupy, our particular part of the world to consecrate. Access to God matters.

As we enter into the mystery of Advent this year, let us prepare to encounter the holy as if moving through the space of a gracefully demarcated church, passing from the ordinary through the liminal space of the narthex, into the communal ship of the nave, into communion with the saints and all the holy ones who invite us from the sanctuary. In a world where it can be hard to know exactly where God is right now, let us be open to entering into proximity with the holy.

Eastern church narthex, St. Louis


  1. yes, and
    At the age of 65, I was released from this and released from that and then along came covid and whatever else wasn’t released — was. Instant, desert spirituality, ready or not. Suddenly, solitary. Yes, there once were a daily diminished gaggle of cenobites but then this one can no longer drive and that one can’t see in dim lighting and mobility options disappear by 3PM. And no one was the insurance risk of transporting walker people or wheel chair people – and get to close and you may get sucked into being a caregiver for someone you don’t even like and have no blood obligation to tend.

    I keep pushing back when the topic is the “geography” of faith. I keep pushing back in the hopes of reminding all liturgical ministers that there is an ever increasing number of us who can not engage with a “go to” model of church, for receipt of sacraments as we draw closer to the end of life. Singing praises of geographically boundaried faith and celebration no matter how eloquently phrased cuts us adrift, unmoored not even in life boats, wearing ill fitting life jackets if that.

    YOU, yes YOU, will have to become for us the “face” of faith, the face of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the face of the Blessed Trinity — at our doors, at our bedsides, in our nursing homes, in our hospice journeys.

    How can we, the depewed elderly, make you comfortable enough to see, to know, that were two or three are gathered together in the Name of the Lord, THERE is holy ritual space. We know that, we experience it daily. How can we guide you to celebrate with us in our midst?

    While the Protestant communities have long found joy in “bringing” the Word of God, Catholics are still organizing and structuring ministries to serve their ministerial needs of pew people. Live Streaming Mass, is a yes and. I beg the readers and writer here at Pray Tell, to make space for us specifically in the conversation. Please, acknowledge the validity of our ministerial needs, and the necessary theological innovations required to…

    1. Beautiful, touching remarks, Jean-Paul. The Eucharist has to travel as well as the Word. Jesus has to get out of the Church, as well as allowing people into it. As a member of a religious community with a number of aging members, I feel your request keenly.

  2. A half century after Vatican II I find this article unsettling. Spaces becoming more and more sacred, and therefore restricted to fewer and fewer people? What is more holy than the living Body of Christ gathered around his Table to share another meal with him?

  3. Can one assign God to particular spaces and expect Him to stay put? I doubt it. Likewise, I doubt He will respect a demand to save His most intense experience for a restricted number of (male) priests who have access to Holiest of Holies–no women allowed.

    Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality and the Self suggests that the Church has always had a “hierarchical’ versus ‘participatory’ divide when it comes to a Spirit that blows where it will and to whomever it chooses–despite our attempts at regulation.

    1. I think the tension I’m trying to name is precisely this dynamic between God’s transcendence and immanence. Of course we can’t control where God goes and how God works, but there also is value in naming and marking in a beautiful way particular places where we know God lives. These then become the places we can come when we want to be particularly open to encountering God. Hence the appeal of adoration, or at least knowing clearly where the tabernacle is. We have a deep desire for sacred space that reminds us of the holy. Meeting Christ and each other at the altar is also part of that.

      The other tension in all this is the fact that the hierarchical dimension of the Church means we have different roles to play, even as holiness obviously is not limited to those who are ordained. I am also interested in exploring and promoting ways that women lead in the Church. Clearly one doesn’t have to be ordained to do really important work that builds up the Body of Christ, but the way a non-ordained person does it is going to look different from the work that a priest does at the altar. We need our Sherry Weddells and our Carolyn Woos and our Kathleen Sprows Cummingses and our Kerry Robinsons, just as we need our priests and bishops. Both matter. And both need to be named. Affirming one should not mean denying the other.

      1. I’m still rather uncomfortable with saying that God lives in certain places and we know where these are. Rather than saying “places where we know God lives” perhaps it would be better to say “Places favorable for the encounter with God” because that seems to be what you are actually talking about: a living encounter with the living God in the Eucharist, in adoration, in contemplative prayer. I’m not denying the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But the doctrine of real presence does not intend to contradict what Scripture teaches: that God is not bound by time and space, as we are.

  4. Thanks Sister Visel for your response. I didn’t mean for my few sentences to simply dismiss what is clearly a complex and fascinating subject. Rather it was just an initial impression that you’ve addressed and have taken into account in your study.

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