I take long walks whenever I get some down time. I love walks. It’s a time to relax, get exercise, slow down, listen more, talk less, and de-stress from much of the day’s activities. More times than not, I usually end up at a prayer garden that was built by the local Catholic Church, St. Peter. I discovered it randomly one day during one of my ‘evening constitutionals’, and I love it! The garden is filled with statues of religious figures, a running stream, wonderful flowers and trees, and even gold fish…or koi…or whatever they are. The walkway is circular in nature and has the various ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic tradition, as well as the stages of the cross. I’m not totally familiar with it, but I believe it is laid out so that you can pray with the rosary as you go. My favorite part of the garden is a ‘grotto’ where Mother Mary is displayed. It is filled with candles, flowers, and various tokens of offering faithful followers leave behind.
Even though I work at a church full-time, I find myself going back to this place to sit, to read, to listen to Taize music, but mostly to think and pray. I’m not Catholic. I don’t know all of the intricacies of the garden itself. However, it’s a place where I feel that I am in a ‘liminal’ place just for those few moments. This is where I worship. This is where I encounter the divine.
I think many people have these experiences, whether it’s at a church (I love to just sit in the pews, even if nothing is going on), or at a garden, or maybe even at the beach. But the thought that I came back with today was ‘people need the sacred places’. And this got me thinking further: where are these places, and who is protecting them?
I guess this all goes around once again to my own questions about church and ministry. Should we, as ministers, dress up in robes and stoles? Or should we just be ‘one of the boys’? How should we act on Sunday mornings as opposed to Friday night? And for the church: should our architecture and decoration communicate such a ‘divine’ space? Or should it acknowledge the divinity within all of us, and be just like any other auditorium? As a churchgoer, should we dress up to encounter the sacred? Or is it okay to simply ‘come as you are’ to worship?
To be honest, I go back and forth with these questions quite a bit. To be even more honest, I wish I would just decide already and stick with it. The short answer is…YES. All of these expressions of faith are appropriate and faithful in my opinion. I have felt God in beautiful cathedrals, and I have experienced God on the street corner with a bunch of teenagers. God continues to move in this world, regardless of how we build our churches or what we wear. However, there is a part of me that NEEDS those special places. Part of me needs the clergy to ‘play dress up’ with their robes, albs, and stoles. Part of me needs the statues, the artwork, the organ music. Part of me needs the prayer gardens, the rosary, and Mother Mary.
And after all of this; after my criticism of lacking intellectual integrity in theology, boring church music, and ‘stuffy’ church members, I see a need as a pastor to serve as ‘guardian’ of these sacred experiences. Even after the worship services become outdated, the building needing more and more maintenance, and the church members getting older and grumpier, I feel that it’s part of my responsibility as a pastor to point people to the divine, and to help create a context where each person is able to experience the divine, whether in a church, during youth group, or in a garden.