Claiming, Cultivating & Creating Sacred Space

A GUIDE FOR REFLECTION & CONVERSATION

Editors Note: Each month, Bearings contributors offer insights on a key theme in the practice of life-as-ministry. As the final installment in the issue, The BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence Pamela Shellberg, PhD reflects on the articles in the issue and poses questions for further reflection by Bearings readers and the communities in which life-as-ministry plays out for them.


The authors of December’s pieces in Bearings explored the nature of sacred space—what it is, how we find it, and how we might create it. In a more subtle but no less compelling way, they also explored our need for sacred space, the nature of the ache when we long to place ourselves in a sacred space.

The question of sacred space invokes a quite a lot of spatial terminology, all of which gestures toward its physical dimensions. There are words that suggest directionality, revealing us as the center of the compass rose and the point from which movement in physical spaces is referenced: up, down, outward, inward, going deep. There are words that imply the expansiveness of space as well as its limits when constrained by boundaries. There are chalk outlines on a hard floor, there is a castle, there is a Mexican restaurant.

But what makes a space sacred or not sacred is not anything that is necessarily integral to the physical place itself, but rather a felt experience, a particular quality to the apprehension of the space. In the Christian tradition, we are accustomed to making a distinction when speaking of time, calling the regular ticking of the second hand or the turning of calendar pages chronos, while referring to a time of some significance, a time with a special quality of purpose or fullness, as kairos. Belden Lane, in Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, illuminates a similar distinction made when talking about time: topos points to a measurable, quantifiable point, a “mere location,” while chora refers to a place with an energizing force, one that engages the imagination in drawing connections to other aspects of our life. Lane draws on Plato who referred to chora as the “wet-nurse,” the “suckler and feeder of all things,” and “the capacity of a place to resonate to the immediacies of human experience” (p. 39). It is generative space just as kairos is generative time.

The human experiences to which sacred space resonates for the authors are best described with the spatial language of distance, space becoming sacred whenever that distance collapses. Mark Collins has misplaced himself, absent from himself and distant in depression. Hazel Cherry feels unknown, distant from God in her grief, anguish, and discontent. Paul Blankenship reports that for his friend Robert, the most miserable part of being homeless is alienation, being distant from human community. All three long to close a perceived distance—from one’s self, from God, from each other.

Mark Collins  “How the Grinch Told Christmas: Or, Sacred Space Is Where It Finds You

Mark Collins says that he “misplaced” himself, that he discovered that he was clearly “absent” from his life. Although he could see himself in the mirror, Collins didn’t find himself there. The mirror is a topos kind of space, the mere location of his reflection. And, he notes that mirrors lie. On the other hand, when he helps an elderly couple who needed directions, he sees through himself, past topos to chora, to a place where there is something other than himself—his more angelic self, a self that has a part in something greater than himself.

  • Can you relate to Collins’s experience of having “misplaced” himself? What circumstances lead to feeling lost to one’s self?
  • What exactly does he find in looking toward the older couple who needed help?
  • What makes the space he now occupies “sacred”?
  • What other spatial terminology do you find in the article? How does it expand or extend Collins’s ideas about what makes sacred space?
  • What is the character of sacred space for Mark Collins?

Hazel Cherry: “Where Can I Run To? Creating Sacred Space as a Black Woman

Hazel Cherry locates herself in a space often circumscribed by classism, sexism, and racism, and also by the anguish of deaths and broken relationships. Having been “lynched” by life’s tragedies and feeling forsaken, the sacred space Cherry seeks is one of healing and of being intimately known. It is a space in which each aspect of the fullness of her human experience is affirmed as holy—something she does not find in traditional church or the world. She doesn’t seek external refuge, but instead goes deeper within herself, entering what Teresa of Avila the “interior castle” and the path that could “lead her home.” Imagining God as a Black Woman, listening to music by Black women artists singing her life story, and addressing God in her journal by the familiar names of her grandmother, her friends, and significant historical figures all serve to open a space within her in which she recognizes herself as intimately known. The distance between God and her collapses into chora.

  • If sacred space is the capacity of a place to resonate to the immediacies of human experience” how does Hazel Cherry’s construction of sacred spaces resonate to the immediacies of her experiences?
  • Try to map, with some specificity, her experiences and the practices that lead her deeper.
  • How could you similarly construct space in which your deepest needs are acknowledged and would “lead you home”? What music? What writing? What rituals?
  • What other spatial terminology do you find in the article? How does it expand or extend Cherry’s ideas about what makes sacred space?
  • What is the character of sacred space for Hazel Cherry?

Paul Blankenship: “Make a Place for Yourself in the Darkness

In the context of our current political climate and the particular challenge that people who support Donald Trump pose to many progressives, Paul Blankenship demands that we consider how it is that sacred space must hold all those who seem most “other” to us, whoever “they” or “us” happens to be. Blankenship takes the measure of what liberals say about Trump supporters as they try to make sense of Trump’s success­. But the article isn’t specifically about this political situation as much as it is proffering an example of all the ways we speak about, explain, and interpret those who are disturbingly different from us. Sharing the story of Robert, a homeless gay man in Seattle who supported Trump, Blankenship challenges Christians by saying that in order to actually be a Christian, the Christian must create a space for the judgments made to be at least temporarily untrue.

Blankenship makes the creation of sacred space a communal obligation, in service of the sacred work of reconciliation. What makes the space sacred is that it is a place where people can “suspend their immanent identities” and “practice their transcendence.” Quoting Emanuel Levinas he asserts that, “When we try to contain another person in our thoughts, we do violence to who they really are. And that prevents the possibility of authentic, ethical relationships.”

  • How do you react to Blankenship’s propositions to the church?
  • Transcendence can be considered movement into a space beyond what is physically apprehended. Explain what you think Blankenship means when he talks about suspending immanent identities and practicing transcendence. For whom would it be most difficult for you to create a space where immanent identities could be suspended? Do you agree with this as a way to characterize “sacred” space?
  • What is your response to the quote by Emmanuel Levinas? Have you ever felt victim to this kind of violence? Can you think of a way you have done this kind of violence to another?
  • What is the character of sacred space for Paul Blankenship?

A Convergence of Sacred Space

Mark Collins talks about love pointing outward, that the sacred is found in acts that gesture away from one’s self in the direction of another. Hazel Cherry quoted Teresa of Avila who described the interior castle and an interior path that leads you home. What might a conversation between Mark Collins and Teresa of Avila sound like?

Paul Blankenship asserts that when we try to contain God or another in our thoughts we do violence to them. How do you think containing one in one’s thought might apply to Mark Collins as he stands before the mirror?

How does Blankenship’s idea about the sacred being a place where immanent ideas are suspended and transcendence is practiced relate to Cherry’s and Collins’s ideas about the sacred?

Who would Cherry, Blankenship, or Robert see in Collins’s mirror?

Do Cherry and Collins suspend their immanent identities and practice transcendence? In what ways?

Can it be that one’s own self is the person we try to contain in our thoughts, doing violence to who we really are? Can you see a way that you do violence to your own self in this way? How could you create a space for the judgments you make about yourself to be at least temporarily untrue? What would you imagine that transcendence to be like?

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Cover photo: Caterina Beleffi, Untitled (May 26, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license. Resaturated.

Inside photo: 贝莉儿 NG, Untitled (April 24, 2015). Via Unsplase. CC2.0 license.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

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