To be human is to be created for relationship with God, and anything other than such a relationship leaves us unsatisfied, even when we cannot name what we want.1
This profound truth was stumbled upon in late 2005 by that most Presbyterian of entities, the Christian education committee—the Families with Children and Teens (FCAT) committee, to be exact. We knew this, of course—longed for it—but were wrapped up in the usual busyness of being church, when a simple statement caused us to pause and ask questions and imagine something entirely new.
The statement: I think we should create a spirituality center for the church school children during Lent.
The question: What’s that?
The answer: A special place to be quiet enough to pray, think, and imagine; a time to experience God through various activities that engage the mind, the heart, and the senses.
The reaction: Why should that be just for kids? I want to do that, too!
So we began to imagine what that would look like. The result, like nothing we had seen, done, or experienced before, was Sacred Space.
Sacred Space is hard to describe, because it is so experiential, so sensory, so individual, and yet so communal. The experience is visceral, but the setting is specific and concrete; it is a product of human imagination and effort, and yet is possible, is imbued with power and meaning, only because of the One whose Spirit inspires and ultimately creates it. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to break it down into its component parts:
The purpose: To provide a place set apart for persons of all ages to be attentive to and experience God.
The space: Any place that can be dedicated to the purpose for the duration of an individual session, and preferably all the sessions. For the first three years, the fellowship hall was used, a modified labyrinth path was taped onto the floor, and stops or stations were placed along the path. Each station was supplied with everything necessary to complete the described activity. An effort was made to transform the look of the room with the liberal use of candles, plants, baskets, and fabric.
The experience: A guided, meditative walk between stations. Participants check in and are given a personal CD player with headphones and instructed how to use it. They are also provided with written guidelines and a map, if necessary. The soundtrack contains instructions for each station and music for walking. Taking all the time needed, entering a place set apart, leaving business and busyness, concentrating on the present, slowing down, and being open to an encounter with the Holy are stressed.
The schedule: Drop-in within set, publicized hours, such as consecutive Wednesday evenings during Lent or several days during Holy Week. Also consider requests from groups for hours outside the published schedule.
The content: Come. Be. With. God. Take off your shoes; you are standing on holy ground.
The themes have been both general—walk this path and get in touch with yourself and God—and particular—Jesus’ Last Week (with each session’s theme being a different day in Holy Week).
In 2009 the theme was WideOpen, based on the words of Paul to the church in Corinth: “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!” (2 Corinthians 6:11–13, The Message).2
For the first time, the entire campus was used, and participants had the choice of which station to visit and when. Attempting to address all the ways persons learn and perceive the world, stations included:
- Word—Hear one of the stories of God3 in the children’s worship center.
- Sanctuary—Think, pray, meditate, be. This is a space to be with God and God’s space to be with you.
- Cleanse—Think about sin—your sin. Place your hands in the dirt, work it into your skin, and confess. Hear the good news: In Christ we are forgiven. Wash your hands clean again, and believe you are forgiven.
- Grounded—Ground yourself in God’s goodness—touch and see . . . gaze at the stars; walk barefoot in the grass and on the sand.
- Direction—View images of the roads we travel, and contemplate the direction of your life. Light a candle and commit yourself to move in the direction God is calling you.
- Breathe—Create a breath prayer by choosing words from displayed posters; let your breathing and your needs shape your prayer.
- Dust—Sit in the columbarium and remember that in life and in death you belong to God. Use the ashes to make the sign of the cross on your forehead or hand and “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
- Blessings—Celebrate and say “thanks” to God. Write a prayer and post it on the prayer wall.
- Letting Go—Hurl a stone into the canyon and let go of the anger, the grudge, the sadness, the worry . . . Launch the stone as far from you as possible.
For children: Yes, this did grow out of a desire to provide sacred space for our children. They walked it each Sunday morning, guided by leaders who helped them interpret specific stations with the same or modified activities, always hearing one of the stories of God in the center or sanctuary.
Sacred Space is now one of the most talked about and eagerly anticipated events in the congregation. People enter wondering what lies ahead, and they exit speechless, wanting to talk, in tears, with questions, with a whispered “wow”; the expressions and reactions are varied, but they are all profound. Comments have included: “Throwing that rock was cathartic”; “I’ve never heard the words of Scripture that way before—to see and hear this was a revelation”; “God is here in this place.” To see a recent widow exit the Dust station with ashes on her brow, to witness the clerk of session who is unable to resist touching the sand in the desert box after hearing the Exodus story, to bear the look on a young mother’s face as she meditates on the question “I wonder if you have ever felt trapped and someone has freed you?” is to testify to powerful encounters with the Holy. We have not heard the words, but we have seen the people and know that deeper, more satisfying—even if momentarily more troubling—relationships with God are being forged.
1. Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 22.
2. Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).
3. The stories were chosen from Lenten and Holy Week stories found in Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman, Young Children and Worship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989) and Sonja M. Stewart, Following Jesus: More about Young Children and Worship (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2000).
By Susan Thornton, director of Christian education at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California.