John 4 v 5-7 & 13-14
Physical, geographical Sacred Spaces:
God has always been involved in His creation, since the beginning of time, throughout every day since, and will continue to be so until He comes to reclaim it and all things are reconciled back to their Creator.
We seem happy in church to sing of such things, proclaiming that ‘this is the day the Lord has made’ for example, and singing songs with lines such as ‘who told the lightening bolts where they should go? Or has seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow?’ Both of these are Old Testament scripture references (see here and here), but do we really believe them? Do we really believe that the earth, or the whole of the created order, are sacred, special and interact with the Divine?
The bible tells us not only that God is involved in his creation, like the verses above, and many others like them, but that there is a great Divine love for it! One good example is a reference to God’s love for the whole of creation which I believe has been greatly misunderstood. The verse I am referring to, in my experience, has been understood and referred to as saying ‘people’, that it is referring to humanity. But it isn’t. It is so much more than that!
There is more than one word in scripture to refer to the ‘world’ so as to be able to distinguish the natural created order (which includes people) from just the people (humanity) from ‘fleshly attitudes’, three distinct things. One of these Greek words, the word for the natural created order of things, is ‘kosmos’. And all through the New Testament the word ‘kosmos’ is used and translated as ‘world’, which is correct. However, there is one scripture where the word ‘kosmos’ is used, meaning the whole of creation, and is translated as ‘world’, which is correct, which we seem to have been conditioned to misunderstand as meaning ‘people’. That scripture is John 3v16. The original translation uses the word ‘kosmos’: ‘for God so loved the ‘whole of creation’ (kosmos) that He gave His only Son (then moving onto people) so that whoever believes in Him…’ etc…etc... To understand this verse in this way gives us a whole different perspective of God’s view of nature and the whole of creation. It was for it all, the trees and plants, the creatures and birds, the waters and the rock, that Jesus suffered and died and not just for human beings.
If this is the case, if God so loved the Earth that he gave his only Son, and if God so loved the birds, and animals, and seas and everything in them, if God so loved the trees and plants that he gave his only Son, then what difference should that make as to how we see and treat the planet upon which we live? What changes in our Spiritual Ecology do we need to make to enable us to be in line with the Divine perspective of the world, the Kosmos? Some good books to help you through this include: L is for Lifestyle by Ruth Valerio; Simple by Helen Jaeger; Toward an Eco-Spirituality (Church at the Crossroad) by Leonardo Boff. Also see ecochurch.arocha.org.uk.
But it is not only God’s love of the earth that the bible speaks of, but the response by or from the earth back to God (and I am not talking about people). Romans 8v19-22 speaks of the created order groaning in child bearing pains waiting to be freed from it’s subjection to the fall. I don’t know if you are aware, but plants do actually emanate sound. Flowers, for example, emit two tones which can be ‘heard’ by bees, one signals that they are full of nectar, a welcoming sound, and the other signals that they have just been emptied and need a couple of minutes to replenish their nectar supplies. This, some scientists believe, is why bees sometimes hover in front of a flower and then leave without going in. Plants communicate through sound beyond the normal human hearing.
I have the privilege of living at the edge of 152 square miles of protected forest. I often go out into this wonderful surrounding to meditate. On one such occasion a few years ago I was sitting in a lovely wooded grove. I had woven some vines together around a couple of tree trunks to create something to sit on, and planned to sit there all morning in meditation. After a couple of hours in stillness and silence I began to hear a sound. It was a low, very low, humming sound, although not like a mechanical hum, more like a vocal hum. As I listened more I could hear that it was not just a single hum, but multiple hums, and in different tones, but in beautiful harmony. I sat and listened for a short while more to this beautiful sound. Then I opened my eyes. As I opened my eyes I could see what looked like a heat haze coming off the tops of the trees surrounding me. This seemed a little odd as I was wearing a jacket to keep me warm that day. As I watched, in probably less than 2 seconds, the ‘heat haze’ disappeared, and at the same time the beautiful harmonious humming sound faded out too. Both disappeared together. I believe that what I heard, from within a deep meditation, was the sound of the trees responding to their Creator.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus commissions his disciples to go into the world (kosmos) and preach to the whole of creation (ktisis: all created things) 16v15. This seems a very odd thing to say! To go and tell all created things the Gospel of Christ. Unless, of course, we think that proclaiming the Gospel is more than just using words, but is also shown by our actions. Then acting out the Gospel, the good news of Christ to the whole of the created order is not so difficult to do. Perhaps this command by Jesus is a command to care for creation!
Creation is alive, has a ‘relationship’ with God (for want of a better word), and God is intricately interactively involved in every part of it in love (see Matthew 10v29 for example). We need to understand that the bible teaches that God has a relationship with every part of the whole of His creation, and not just the people of it, and that He dwells within it, and not just in His people.
Today it is perhaps the Celtic Christians who are most famed for seeing and believing in the Divine within creation, understanding it as panentheistic – God in everything (as opposed to the Pagan pantheistic view, which sees everything as a god). Perhaps, arguably, the best advocate of this from the Celtic Christians was John Scotus Eriugena who, in his Homily on the prologue of John’s Gospel states that we can ‘learn to know the Maker from those things that are made in him and by him’ and particularly in his book Periphyseon – on the division of nature, which as Oliver Davies says in Celtic Spirituality, ‘presents an understanding of the origin and meaning of the universe… [which] establishes the created world, both visible and invisible, as a theophany of God, who is unknowable in himself. God is thus simultaneously present in all things and infinitely beyond all things’. But it wasn’t just the Celtic Christians who believed this, many others throughout the Christian heritage did too, such as St Francis of Assisi, famed for his connection with nature, and also the Medieval German Mystic Meister Eckhart who said “If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar – I would never have to prepare another sermon, so full of God is every creature” (see here for a great book to explore examples of nature connection for Christians more deeply).
The concept of Sacred Spaces, or Thin Places has come from this knowledge over the generations of the Divine dwelling in the natural realms, that the spiritual and the physical are interwoven. Many specific places on earth have become sacred spaces, places where the Divine presence seem a little heavier, where the veil between the physical realm and the spiritual realm seems to be much thinner.
We can often better understand the spirit realms with a physical illustration; Jesus understood this, which is why He used so many illustrations. Hopefully this following one will help a little to understand the concept of physically sacred spaces:
If I have a large plot of ground and set up a sprinkler system above the whole of it, it would be true to say that the whole of it would be covered in the water. However, if I then took a hose pipe and held it constantly over one space of this ground, although the whole area would be covered in the presence of water, it would be true to say that the space under the hose pipe would be saturated to a much greater extent to that of the rest of the ground.
This is the concept of physical sacred spaces, that although the Divine presence is everywhere and in all places at all times, that there are specific spaces on the Earth where Spirit filled people have deeply saturated it in the Divine presence over long periods of time through prayer and worship, and so the presence of God is there to a greater extent than it is in other places, as the heavy presence of God dwells and lingers there.
A true story which may help to illustrate this:
Some years ago I lived and worked in London, and at a meeting I heard this testimony: There was a church which held a service one Sunday evening where the Divine presence became overwhelming to the people. The heavy presence of God, or to use a biblical/Hebrew word, the ‘Kabod’ of God, a wonderfully onomatopoeic word which means ‘the falling of the heavy presence’ of God, seemed to rest and dwell at the front of the church, similar to how the Spirit of God was over Naioth in 1Samuel 19v18-24. As people came to the front of the church, when they reached the front, they seemed to just fall to the floor under the presence of God. The meeting continued until it finished and all went home. The following day, as was usual, the cleaner came in to set things straight. One of her jobs was to remove the flowers from the stage and replace them the following week. She continued as usual to go to walk across the stage and take the flowers away. However, as soon as she reached the stage she fell to the floor under the continuing dwelling ‘Kabod’ of God which had lingered.
There are a great many sacred spaces which one can visit around the world. Some of those from the Christian heritage in Britain and Ireland include: Lindisfarne (also known as ‘Holy Island); The Isle of Iona; Glastonbury; Canterbury; St David’s; Bardsey Island; Caldey Island; Whitby; Skellig Michael; Glendalough; Kildare; Clonmacnoise; but there are so many others. Recommended books to help find these places include: Every Pilgrims Guide to Celtic Britain & Ireland by Andrew Jones; and Pilgrimage by Ian Bradley.
Inner Sacred Space:
I used the scripture passage of Jesus at Jacob’s Well at the start of this blog as an illustration of how the indwelling of God’s Spirit means we can also have ‘sacred spaces’ within ourselves as well as out side. Jacob’s well was a physical sacred space, but Jesus spoke to the woman about the spring of living water welling up within us, which is also a sacred space, an inner sacred space.
The move of God as recorded in the New Testament does not negate nor disregard that of the Old Testament - note that when the Apostle Paul spoke to Timothy and said “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” (2Tim 3:16) he was only referring to the Jewish scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. God did not stop all He was doing, but transformed it, and added to it, so we can now not only have sacred spaces in the physical world, like the Holy of Holies in the temple, but also within ourselves with God’s indwelling Spirit. This is what the tearing of the curtain in the temple at the moment of the death of Christ signified.
The way in which we create the inner environment to have and dwell in an inner sacred space is through contemplative prayer and practices such as meditation. There are many books which enable us to learn how to do this, including my own (which you can find here) as I believe that creating inner sacred spaces draws us closer to the Divine than any other form of prayer or worship or service, though all other forms are worthwhile, none draws us as deeply in the very heart of the Divine, into the Ground of our Being as much as contemplation.
God still intimately loves and dwells within His world, the ‘kosmos’, the created order, and works intricately in every part in a relationship with it all, and also works within His people, which He has always done. The need for personal alignment to the ‘Law’ is now no longer necessary, for we are now under the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Christ. All else, though, is the same, and we can encounter and dwell with the Divine Creator in physical sacred spaces as well as our inner sacred spaces. Find existing, or even create, external, physical sacred spaces, and also, through the practice of contemplation and meditation, create inner sacred spaces.