Monday, January 18, 2010

Cluttered Sanctuaries, Cluttered Lives

A message to our church, WPC, from J. Philip Newell's One Foot in Eden: A Celtic View of the Stages of Life:

Jesus' cleansing of the temple expressed his depth of inner passion. This was no superficial religious concern.  Its parallel today is not a fastidious protectiveness of our church sanctuaries from all noise and liveliness. Rather the Mystery that was guarded in the half-light of the temple, and the love of God that was taught in the Scriptures and ritual of the sacred place, pointed to the Holiness and the Love that are at the heart of all life.  Jesus' outrage was motivated not by a liturgical fanaticism for decorum in the temple but by a passionate desire to reclaim an awareness and a reverence for the One who dwells in the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Life itself.  Let us be passionate about recovering a sense of space and stillness in our holy places, but in doing so let us know that at the heart we are pointing to the stillness within ourselves and within all life that need be cleared out, uncluttered of all that opposes or obstructs our awareness of God's presence.

Physically our churches, if they are in a state of clutter, will speak of a lack of space and stillness.  The sometimes absurd hoarding of bits and pieces from the past, with sanctuaries strewn with unnecessary furnishings and a confusing assortment of papers and books, can convey an absence of inner composure. It may be that what is needed in many places is for most of our religious paraphernalia, including the great fixed pews of many sanctuaries, to be thrown out of our church doors.  We need to recover simplicity and uncluttered attentiveness. Think of the way, for instance, in which a bedroom will be prepared with nesting instinct before the arrival of a newborn child. Cleaned, freshly painted, and uncluttered it is a symbol of waiting and welcome.  Simplified and focused places of silence and prayer will similarly speak of yearnings in us to receive the life that is born from within.

More important than rooms and buildings are our minds and bodies, which as St. Paul said are living temples of God.  What are the distractions or obsessions that need to be cleared out if we are to be more aware of the silent mystery of God within us and within the body of creation?


  1. There are times when sanctuaries should be places of stillness, with periods of prayer, reflection, comtemplation. But they can and should be hubbubs of activity at other times.
    For me, the "great, fixed pews" can contribute to a sense of "space and stillness." Maybe even security.
    On a very basic level, I would wonder about the practicality of any any seating arrangement of a sanctuary that has not been specifically designed for, say, circular seating. Southside in Tucson was built for such an arrangement and is wonderful. Our rectangular sanctuary is otra cosa. After tossing out our pews, we would need yet another committee to arrange other seating before Sunday services.

  2. I always liked the passage about Jesus clearing out the temple because he shows a lot of emotion just like some of us :-)

    I think it is important and good that church surroundings be simple and uncluttered. I was just noticing Sunday that there weren't any big stained glass windows at WPC with names of those that donated them prominantly displayed below. I appreciate the simplicity and lack of trappings. If you've ever been to the chapel at Monastery of Christ in Desert, you know how simple and amazing it is. The chapel is built to emphasize the light and beauty outside and is very conducive to contemplation and prayer.

    It is important and good to be reverent of church surroundings. This reminds me of my grandmother that would never throw church bulletins in the garbage. She saved them up and we burned them in the fireplace in the winter. That may sound weird but it was one of her ways of being reverent and I think it was pretty cool.

    Speaking of tossing out church pews, there is a dept of motor vehicles in Rochester, NY that has salvaged old church pews for seating. Maybe it calms people down while sitting on church pews while they wait the looong wait for their number to be called? :)

    As far as creating space and stillness within oneself, I find that meditation works wonders.