Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Unlikely sanctuaries

What makes a sanctuary, a church, a chapel, a mosque? Is it the walls and stained-glass windows or the people or something else entirely?
I had that question after reading an essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a brainy, fun and complex selection of non-fiction essays by David Foster Wallace. In his title essay, Harper's pretty much pays the him to take a cruise and write about his reaction. Being both semi- neurotically describes the impeccably dressed but creepily robotic staff, the heifer-like movements of large crowds of tourists and the fluffy bathroom towels "you could marry."
My favorite snippet is when he decides to attend mass on ship one Sunday. Here's a taste:

Genuflecting at sea turns out to be a tricky business. There are about a dozen people here. The Father's backlit by a big port window, and his homily is mercifully free of nautical puns or references to life being a voyage. The communal beverage is a choice of wither or wine or Welch's -brand unsweetened grape juice. Even the Nadir's daily mass's communion wafers are unusually yummy, biscuitier than your normal host with a sweet tinge to the pulp it becomes in your teeth. (Footnote: If Pepperidge Farms made communion wafers, there would be them.)

Wallace touches on a few absurdities of a mass-at-sea. The luxury cruise ship's communion wafers, normally papery-tasting and dull, have a hint of their own luxury, and kneeling to make the sign of the cross becomes a balancing act as the ship tilts in the waves. Despite this, the Mass itself stays exactly the same as it would be on land in a normal church anywhere: the communion, homily, etc are still present.

I chose this paragraph because it really illustrates what I believe about sacred spaces-- at any level of grandeur or crumminess, they still serve the same purpose: to reflect on a higher power in an area that is special to that act. Ironically, though, a sacred space's grandeur or crumminess reflects a truly human side of a practice that is meant to reflect divinity.

Take, for example, the trucker's chapels nationwide. Truckers who spend their lives on the road can stop by an ugly, ungainly trailer for Sunday services. It's gritty and utilitarian, but it reflects a lifestyle only truckers can appreciate. With a few short hours between deliveries, truckers don't have to worry about wasting time to don their Sunday Best. It's a "come as you are" approach that focuses less on the trappings of faith and more on the act of worship. Cuz when you get down to it, praying and reflecting is the goal--not primping.
Don't get me wrong, I love the splendor of famous churches and the awe-inspiring art inside--it's all meant to honor God's divinity. But in front of God, in God's house, you're still human no matter how pretty you dress up or how good you smell. Visiting an uncommon place like a truck stop chapel or cruise ship chapel calls that fact to mind even more for me.

What are your favorite sacred spaces? Do you drive up to the mountains to reflect and recharge?Do you love the traditional worship service? Or do you find solace with groups of friends at a bar? I'd love to hear about the places-- fancy and unfancy-- you call sacred.

Image via Transport for Christ , a group that provides church services for the trucking community.

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