Sensing the Sacred

The church I grew up in is possibly the best space ever designed for a good game of hide and seek. There are multiple levels and all kinds of secret nooks in which one could hide away undetected for a seemingly infinite amount of time. I recall one particular game of hide and seek where I crouched in a corner of the darkened sanctuary for a good while, waiting to be found. It was a satisfyingly creepy experience for a kid- the darkness, the expanse of the room, the sense of anticipation: When will the door open? Will I be able to pop out and scare the seeker? What if someone else is creeping about the room and I can’t see them?

What I particularly remember about that night though, was a feeling of slight disappointment. Here I was, hiding in our church’s sanctuary, and it felt utterly empty.  If this was indeed a holy place, why were we able to use it for a game? It was a fleeting feeling, but it’s something I will never forget.

Granted, I come from a free-church tradition. I realize there are Protestant denominations that have a more Catholic flavor in regard to sacred space, etc. But I did not realize until I was no longer Baptist how barbarian I was in terms of my regard for all things holy. (Indeed, what was there to regard as holy besides the mere concept of God?) I had never kneeled to pray in my life until we began our journey into the Catholic Church. Ditto for genuflecting or crossing myself. Completely foreign and initially very uncomfortable to do. Those are just for people making a big show, right? That was the classic accusation I heard spat about making a show of reverence. “Wouldn’t want people to think we actually take this stuff seriously” was actually the message I took away when I heard those objections.

This all came to mind this past week when I took our two youngest girls to our first holy hour for children. In the chapel, the children all kneeled around the altar while the priest talked to them, led prayers, sang songs, and led them in Eucharistic Adoration. As all those little people were gathered around the altar, I marveled at the opportunity we Catholic parents were given to help teach our youngest children how to have reverence for Our Lord.

Children are children and of course, this is all done on a learning curve; did my two-year-old run away from the altar and climb up on my back out of fear of the smoking incense?
And did I have to repeatedly pull same toddler down off the altar? Did a little kid whack my other daughter in the eye with a Rosary? Yes, yes, and yes. But someday, I hope that like her barbarian mama, our youngest daughter will see with her own eyes of faith the reality of Christ’s presence in our Holy places, and she will bend her knee of her own accord. It was payment enough to see her attempt to cross herself when the Host was elevated.

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12 Responses to Sensing the Sacred

  1. Fr. Bryan says:

    Interesting post, Nikki. Appropriately, here is what a protestant Pastor from my area tweeted this morning: “Backstage at Mars Hill OC. Starting up in an hour.”

    Backstage, huh? My favorite band tweets similar things before they perform for their adoring fans.

    Very different from the way we refer to a sanctuary where God is worshiped and his word is preached. If that sounds self righteous on my part, it probably is, but I also think it illustrates the point you’re making fairly well.

    Happy Sunday.

  2. Brydon says:

    Your post reminding me of playing war at night in my Church of the Brethren church building. There were lots of good hiding places and “secret” passages. This was in a pacifist church! I remember having a similar empty feeling. For me it was a lesson that the church building itself isn’t holy. We do not worship the building.

    In fact, isn’t this the reason that many Protestant churches historically have simple and relatively spartan sanctuaries?

  3. Nikki says:

    Catholics don’t worship the building either; they worship Jesus. Like many of our posts, this issue goes back to the Real Presence. Differences in theology regarding this will result in very different practices.
    Anyway, what Protestant church really adheres to the whole “spartan” thing beside maybe Anabaptists? I don’t know any senior pastor who wouldn’t be drooling over the prospect of having a super-modern, state of the art AV-equipped facility on a prime piece of real estate. Building worship?

    • zeeehjee says:

      Thanks for pointing this out, Nikki. I used to feel ashamed when protestants would boast about their simple Church designs. “We don’t spend money on ornate Churches so we can spend more on getting the word out!” I thought they had a point… until I started realizing all the expensive sound equipment, video equipment, and all the people they need to employ to keep it all running.

      There really is not much of a difference between an ornate Catholic Church and a pricey protestant Church, except that our ornate stuff tends to stay in style…

  4. Nikki says:

    Along those same lines, the argument I’ve heard before comes to mind that if Protestants were that concerned with simplicity, they would also be setting the example of dressing as simply and frugally as possible and having houses that meet their most basic needs, furnishings included, so that the rest of their money could go toward evangelization. Again, the only Protestants I see living that out are the Amish.

  5. Brydon says:

    Are you saying a Catholic church building is a holy place because of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? A Protestant church building is not a holy place because although Jesus is present, He is not present in the form of wine and cracker? Or are you saying Jesus is never present in a Protestant church?

    The expensive sound equipment, etc. are tools for getting the word out.

  6. Nikki says:

    Yes to the first question. To the second question, I’d say Jesus is present in a different way- I’d have to defer to one of our priest readers for a more full answer, though.

    And the sound equipment..if you’re going to rag on Catholics for having too much bling, why shouldn’t ya’ll just abandon your expensive sound equipment and use a megaphone or design churches with better accoustics? I say that tounge in cheek-idly (if that’s a word), but Catholics see the “stuff” we use in our churches as necessary to getting the word out as well.

  7. Brydon says:

    When I compare the RCC to my Protestant experiences, I’m not “ragging” on anybody.

    There is a difference here. The RCC believes it is the one true church founded by Christ. I’m guessing, but it probably has ornate sanctuaries to project the image of being that one true church. Its teachings are equivalent to scripture. The church has the red phone hotline directly to heaven. Because of this perspective, its sanctuaries, therefore, are designed to feel like holy places.

    To many Protestants, however, the institution of the church exists for functional reasons. We gather for worship, Christian education, and missions. In the Baptist denomination, the autonomous local churches formed associations in order to do missions. Protestants are fearful of idolatry. So, out of this tradition, many sanctuaries have minimal decoration. For such churches, the sanctuary is designed to meet functional needs. Those functional “needs” can include $1,000s in sound and video equipment!

    Christ is present in the Catholic and in the Protestant sanctuaries. I need to do my own research to see why the Real Presence is any more real than His real presence in a Protestant sanctuary.

  8. Nikki says:

    Um, no. The Church does not have ornately designed buildings to display a show of power or authority. The Church has ornately designed buildings to point to the majesty of God and to speak to the truth of what is contained within her walls. It raises one’s thoughts to something higher.

    That doesn’t mean all Catholic churches are like that, though. I think those of the Franciscan tradition and other orders may be more simple.

    But to say that Catholic Churches are more ornate than most Protestant churches to project power is just plain wrong. What of churches like the Crystal Cathedral or the National Cathedral? What is that supposed to show?

    I also don’t think the Catholic Church would claim to exist for reasons other than “functionality”. It is wrong (to put it the nicest way I can) to say that the Catholic Church is not also about worship, missions and education.

  9. Brydon says:

    I did not say the RCC decorates its sanctuaries in order to project power. I also did not say the RCC is not about worship, missions, and education. It certainly is about those things. I am not in any way criticizing the RCC.

    I’m saying that many Protestant churches do not take the “church” as seriously. The RCC believes it is the one true church. God communicates His truth through the RCC, Catholics believe. The institution is an instrument of God. It’s sanctuaries, therefore, are decorated to project a sense of holiness. The church is special.

    In my experience, Protestant churches do not have the same level of reverence for the institution. The church exists for functional reasons. If you don’t like your Baptist church, it’s no big deal to switch to the Methodist one down the street. Although it’s not the only reason, this may be one of the reasons for the difference in decor.

    • Jason says:

      Not sure I’m reading you right here, but I just wanted to make something clear that appears might not be: the Catholic Church does not teach that there is no truth whatsoever available anywhere other than in the Catholic Church. Rather, the Church teaches that the “fullness” of Truth is available only in the Church. The Church teaches that truth is communicated to us in all kinds of ways–through the natural sciences, through the arts, through moral philosophy, etc. And there’s certainly plenty of truth in Protestantism.

      Also, you’re right that the Church is quite intentional about church architecture and decoration. There’s a great talk on this subject, available on the Institute of Catholic Culture’s website, called “The Church as Sacramental Building.” The Catholic position is that the building itself is to show forth the glory of God (as best it can), and that certainly is driven by Catholic belief that, in every Tabernacle in every Catholic Church, Christ Himself is Truly Present. As Nikki said, the point of the building is to exalt Christ–not to project a particular image of the Church itself. And, to Catholics, that is being “functional”–indeed, isn’t that more truly “functional” than being able to stage a multi-media event in the sanctuary? If that’s the test, then all churches should be built like the Kennedy Center. All that said, would the Church go on without church buildings? Of course it would, and no good Catholic would contend otherwise. We worship Jesus, not St. Peter’s Basilica.

      One last thing: if “the church” is the Body of Christ in the world today, doesn’t that mean that if we don’t take “the church” seriously, we’re not really taking Christ seriously? I understand that might be a provocative question, but it’s one that certainly played a big part in our journey to Catholicism.

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