Wednesday, April 15, 2009



A place of refuge and protection.
-As defined by Merriam-Webster
There is a certain security blanket quality to routine when you are small. When I was younger, my mother had choir practice at church on Wednesday evenings, which kept her occupied for a few hours, and left my brother, sister and me to our own devices, wandering about the church.

Our church was a typical church building, not a super-mega church with Starbucks and seating for 35,000 inside, and not a store front in a strip mall. But also not a cathedral from the 1700's. I think it was built in the 1950's.

There were four or five stories of classrooms. We used to roam the hallways and duck into dark doorways, slinking through the catacombs like characters from the mystery books I liked to read. Always wondering if the Holy Ghost was the type to "haunt" church hallways.

I remember when we discovered the costume closet; a narrow room with rows and rows of tunics and angel wings and Roman Soldier breastplates and sandals and handmade sheep costumes for the preschoolers... Seeing the shepherds robes from the Christmas pageant and the sequins knotted onto the angels' robes right up close inspired a new respect for Church. Suddenly, it didn't seem to take itself so seriously.

The art closet was hands down my favorite find. It had a Dutch door . I always entered by ducking through the lower door, making me feel exactly like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Inside was organized like the storage room of an apothecary. There were two levels with floor to ceiling shelves. On the first level, the far wall cataloged reams of construction paper in every color a kid could dream up. Just inside the door to the left, writing implements of every distinction stood in soup cans wrapped in brightly colored paper, shipping boxes filed bottles of school glue, and gallon jugs by the dozen of Tempera paint caused the shelves to sag. The smaller room in the back stored egg crates and popsicle sticks and yarn and jars of buttons and beads and sequins and feathers and chenille stems and every other thing that could be glued on or otherwise bedazzle Sunday School projects. I would stand on the linoleum tile in the middle of that small room and look up toward the tippy tops of the shelves and imagine that they went on and on as if they were climbing to the top of the steeple with jelly jars filled with rhinestones and pressed flowers.
Occasionally, and only when most of the church was dark and there was next to no one milling around, I would heave the door to the sanctuary open and tiptoe inside. I always held my breath when I walked past the wooden organ, as if it were a great sleeping animal who might wake up and bellow and give away my secret hiding place.
In the summer, the fading sunlight would spill in through the long slender windows on the northern side of the auditorium. Sometimes I would sit on the steps leading up to the stage and watch the shadows move around the room. Sometimes I would lie down on a pew half way down the isle, my body only as wide as the blue velvet pew cushion. I think there are moments in life when time stops moving. Lying in the dark on the pew, my heartbeat was the second hand and all of time belonged to me.

I think children are susceptible to finding holy moments, mostly because they don't get all tangled in theology I felt just as much sanctuary squinting up at the shelves in the art closet as I did lying on the pew in the auditorium.

I am trying to remember how to lie still, how to be alone in the dark and listen to nothing or watch shadows play. I am trying to find my sanctuary again, in my grown up skin.

And here are the things I have learned about sanctuary:

  • It often changes shape
  • It is moments, hallowed ground, loamy earth.
  • It is an afternoon in the sun in the crisp spring air beneath frozen cherry blossoms where a holy voice speaks to you, simple and honest, asking you to be kind to yourself.
  • A safe place where truth creeps in and pushes open the shutters, and sometimes there is nothing left to do but cry at the raw potency of it.
  • It is location and idea.
  • It is being quiet and being heard.
  • Sometimes it has a pulse.
  • It is the extension of grace, of time, of understanding.
  • If time has two hands, it is where one holds the other...and waits.
  • A sanctuary collects laughter and allows it to bounce wildly around; it collects tears and memorials and secrets and lends a measure of holiness to the pieces.
  • It has allowed me to be broken, to be mending, to be stuck, still, moved.

I have been face down, dirt in my teeth, ashamed, mistaken. And I have been rolled over, forgiven, reset.
Over the years, I have found my sanctuary in my family, in my Sunday School attendance chart, on vacation, Following me around like a tethered pup, in a state of mind, as an elusive concept, tied to a memory of a fragrance, in ceremony, in a campaign, in the middle of the night, in the pages of a notebook...

I have found that sanctuary is something to be discovered and declared; and it is something to be reflected on, savored in review.

And I am beginning to understand that sometimes it just beneath my feet if I am willing to kick off my shoes.