Here at OLM, our church’s sanctuary is a rather small space, but it is nevertheless a powerful focus for our prayer. We human beings have an innate need for ritual and for religion, and part of that need is to find a focus for our prayer and our praise. In a sense, God is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but if we are to turn towards God in prayer, we need a locus upon which to focus (so to speak). This finding a prayer focus is often accomplished by setting aside a space for the Divine in our lives. These spaces vary in sizes. They might be as small as shrines in the corner of our bedrooms, or they might be as vast as a cathedral. The idea is that this space is sacred, set aside as a focus for our individual prayer or our community’s prayer. This space belongs to God.
This is a very Biblical idea. Consider the Old Testament. In ancient times, there were “high places” where sacrifices were offered up upon altars. Abraham took Isaac up a high mountain to offer sacrifice, and prophets would take to the mountains to commune with God. If there was a Divine encounter (say, for example, Jacob’s dream of the ladder), the one who encountered the Divine would build a shrine there to remember the event. Many times, these shrines would hold relics of the events. Goliath’s sword might be kept so that people could look upon it and remember the tale of young David and his slingshot. There were multiple shrines in the Holy Land, but one place eclipsed the others by far. During the exodus from Egypt, the Lord had commanded His people to build a Tabernacle. This Tabernacle was to become the central tent within their Bedouin compound, and it reminded the Hebrews that wherever they went, God went with them. King David eventually brought that Tabernacle into the captured city of Jerusalem, and his son Solomon made it more permanent with the building of the Temple atop Mount Zion. Thus Jerusalem became the place of great pilgrimage up to and until today.
Even within the Temple, there were degrees of holiness. The most holy place (the Holy of Holies) was where they kept the Ark of Covenant, which is said to be the place where the glory of God rested upon earth. But even after the Ark was removed, that chamber was a focus for prayer (even for the prayer of Jesus in the New Testament, as He and the apostles deeply respected the Temple). After the Temple was destroyed, Jews to this day still turn in the direction of Jerusalem when they pray.
These stories relate to our Christian sanctuary here in our parish church on many levels. First, the word “sanctuary” is related to our Latin word “Sanctus,” which we chant at Mass (it means “holy”). The sanctuary in a Catholic Church is not the whole building, but that holiest part of the church. It is set apart from the rest of the space. It has steps to remind us of all those holy mountains in the Old Testament (in particular Jerusalem), and it includes an altar within it (and our word “altar” is related to the idea of something that is raised up or high). Our sanctuary also has the beautiful brass Tabernacle, which is the ultimate focus of our prayer, as it is here where the Eucharistic presence of Christ abides, and reminds us wherever we go, He goes with us. As in the Old Testament, not just anyone can approach the sanctuary; it is set aside for the priest, the deacon, and a handful of necessary liturgical ministers, but it should not otherwise be trespassed. It is a special place. When we approach it, we genuflect to the presence of Christ our Lord and our God, enthroned in the central dais of this, His royal hall, or we bow reverently towards the altar.
In recent generations, some folks got confused about sanctuaries. They began to see the sanctuary more as a place of exclusion. It was as if sanctuaries were bad, because not just everyone could walk through whenever they wanted. And so in many churches, they tore down the steps and ripped out the altar rails that set apart their sanctuaries, and essentially obliterated the recognizable elements that made a Catholic sanctuary identifiable as such. Often, they went so far as to remove the tabernacles and bring the altars down low.
By contrast, our parish church still maintains a traditional sanctuary setup, but let us be very, very clear here – the idea of setting aside a special place within a parish church is not to demonstrate God’s distance from His people, but rather the opposite. A sanctuary is there to make clear the Lord’s proximity, just as churches are built among our villages, towns, and cities to remind us that the Lord dwells among us, even until the end of the world. So keeping the space sacred is part of the respect we owe to the Lord. It reminds us we should always carve out some space in our daily lives to turn towards Him in prayer.
Thus the sanctuary is special because the Lord is present there, and because this space has been blessed and set aside for holy rites. And how a community treats the sanctuary reinforces this as well. So a sanctuary should not be cluttered, but should always be noble. It should be a place where our finest craftsmanship and care is focused. The linens on the altar should be beautiful. The altar ware (that is to say the brass candlesticks and silver chalices) should be finest the community can afford. The candles and the flowers should be only the best. This is the holiest place in our community. It is the throne of God here in our little mountain town.
Beyond that, design or decor can also help to set apart the sanctuary (again, as a focus of our prayer). For example, our sanctuary has a stone floor and wall to set it off from the wood floor, walls, and ceiling in the majority of the church. So what we lack in floor space we make up for with architectural drama. Consider the reredos – that high wall of wood with its imposing crucifix makes an impressive backdrop for our little sanctuary. And the large pair of flanking stained glass windows also help to center our attention on this spot.
In the months ahead, we will begin to see even more art to adorn this beautiful little sanctuary. Soon the arches in the reredos’ roodscreen (those small arches in the organ casings) that sits atop the stone wall will begin to be filled in with icons of saints. These icons will remind us of heaven, as these saints are in the presence of Christ, and they will help the sanctuary become an even more unique and beautiful focus for our prayer. The icons of these holy heroes do not compete with Christ, but these saints point to the Lord, as they also inspire us to be, like them, holy. The ongoing project of the reredos roodscreen will take months if not years to complete, as all of this is by the hand of one artist, Kristina Havens, whose work will carry on as we can afford to commission new icons, and at the pace she sets for their completion. But each new icon will be an opportunity for us to learn more about the saints and their wonderful stories. If any of you would like to come forward to sponsor an icon, you can reach out to Father Byrd for details. It should be a beautiful reredos once finished.