I recently talked with a low church evangelical who recently went on pilgrimage to Palestine/Israel. He reported that it was amazing, but that before the trip he hadn’t given much credence to the possibility that space, architecture, and place could be imbued with Spirit. Based on his experience at the pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem, he was convinced that those places were Spiritual, whether other space and places could also be he remained agnostic.
I’m astounded by how often I run across this attitude that all places and spaces are the same that the Spiritual and the holy don’t attach themselves to place or architecture or space. This seems particularly strange to me among those whose very belief system claims that God became united with matter and a body in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who as his name states was from a particular place and at a particular time, 1st century Palestine.
We perhaps get caught up in how this might be? We can’t believe that a reality free of the constraints of physicality would allow itself to be limited by the physical. Yet this is exactly the claim of the incarnation. As St John of Damascus says in his defense of icons in On Orthodoxy ” the uncircumscribable became circumscribed.”
In The Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann claims that our sense of the separation of the physical and Spiritual, mater and divinity isn’t the ultimate truth. Rather God intended that all creation be the place of meeting between creature and creator. The Sacraments work because in our unfallen state the whole world was Sacrament to us, God had always intended to meet us in and through the physical and material world.
I’m drawn to forms of Christianity that take seriously that space, architecture, place and physicality are Spiritual. I’m also drawn to those forms of Christianity that then say what we do with the reality of the coincidence of the material and the Spiritual means certain things for the spaces we pray in, the images we look at, and the way we sing. All of this isn’t necessarily as bounded (from my current point of view) as these Christians may assert. I do believe that the tradition of the Church has a form, and not all Christian activity fits into that form. I’m still questioning that form, I’m still seeking to think into that form.
My sense is that the Church has left its mark. The Holy Spirit as the spirit of Christ comes to us through forms created and passed down (that is Tradition). Place matters, the forms our buildings take matter. These things have meaning. I encourage us to take pay attention to the physicality of our spirituality, and to recognise it doesn’t necessarily mean all the same thing. Difference in form is also difference in spirituality and faith.