My church’s sanctuary is of very modest décor.
A long center aisle of red carpet parts two sets of wooden pews, the ends painted white with a dark natural finish for the backs and trim. You’re able to sit on red cushioned seats that match the floor, facing frontwards in straight formation.
The walls are a bare white, save for the bottom three feet, which are covered in wood paneling. Four clear glass windows line each side of the room, and depending on which side of the room you sit on, you have the option of viewing our cemetery or our parking lot and parsonage.
The focal point of the room is a large ornate gold Celtic cross hanging in the middle of the chancel, augmented by a velvet red curtain hanging behind it. The pulpit and lectern match the pews and walls: white with dark natural trim.
Above you is a polished dark wood ceiling, a remnant from the original sanctuary before various changes had been made. Six gold chandeliers hang from it, along with a large speaker that some thought would compromise the integrity of this beautiful piece before it was installed; sort of an intrusion on history, some may say.
Anyone familiar with church architecture may make the comment that this space recalls New England Congregationalism, and in large part I would agree. But this place was built by Reformed Germans, and it fits that ethos as well: a lack of art, icons, and stained glass so as not to distract from the preaching and hearing of the Word.
I love empty sanctuaries. There is something about a worship space in that time in between worship services that perhaps make them even more sacred to me than on Sunday mornings. The sense of released energy early in the week and the sense of anticipation later on contribute to this, but there’s something about these spaces besides that provides peace for my spirit.
For nearly five and a half years, it has been my practice to walk the aisles of my church's sanctuary a couple times a week. I pray, I rant, I give thanks, I think out loud about the sermon. Sometimes I’m moved to just walk without a word. Sometimes I don't even walk: I just sit in a pew, in the balcony, or on the chancel steps. Early on, I didn’t think of this as any kind of spiritual practice or discipline, but in more recent years I can’t fathom that it’s not. I miss doing it on the days when I don’t have time: it’s become a very centering activity for me.
The time of year affects my walking; I’m very conscious of the liturgical calendar when doing this. Ordinary Time in January is much different than Ordinary Time in July. The room has a much different feel when the Christmas decorations are up, or when the red paraments are up for Pentecost, or when the extra elements used for Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday are sitting on the altar. The presence of these things provides guidance for how I spend that time, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
As I walked last week, I became aware of two truths. First, this room has remained largely unchanged over the years that I’ve observed this practice. Major alterations have been made to this space over the years, but not during my time of ministry. Maybe someday somebody will care enough about the little imperfections--the scuff marks on the pews and the worn corners of the polished wood—to suggest changing it. But to me, these things are part of the room’s character. It shows that this place truly has been used; has been worshipped in and lived in by people with joys and anxieties and heartbreak. I actually don’t think that I could abide that suggestion if it was ever brought up.
The second truth is that I was quickly coming up on a five-week stretch of time when I would step away from this space and this practice. It is of my own accord that I do this, of course. Nobody forced me to take a sabbatical. Nobody is even forcing me to make a complete break with the church building. But it is a best practice of sabbatical time for these types of guidelines to be observed, especially for somebody like me with some workaholic tendencies.
Beginning today, I will go five weeks without that empty sanctuary. Maybe it’s for the best. After all, there is a such thing as becoming dependent on a practice to the point of neglecting or escaping real life. I’ll treasure it that much more when I return.
I also know that there will be other rooms in the meantime. There will be the retreat house that I will visit several times. There will be my hotel rooms in Columbus and Nashville, which will provide times for processing and decompression in the midst of enriching activities. There will be the various rooms of my home, through which I’ll chase Coffeeson and in which I’ll enjoy extra time with Coffeewife. There will be the rooms of coffeehouses and wineries that I’ll visit. There will even be other churches’ sanctuaries or chapels, whether for worship, for special moments in my family's life, or that I may even borrow for a couple hours when they are empty themselves.
Barring a worst case scenario, the familiar space will still be there when this time comes to an end. But until then, there are other rooms that will act as settings for my spirit's nourishment.