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On October 22, a fire destroyed most of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, where I teach. Built in 1871, the chapel has been a sacred space to many generations of seminarians and clergy in the Episcopal Church. Despite heroic efforts by the firefighters who were on the scene immediately, the chapel burned in about 40 minutes, as the community watched in awed disbelief. No one was hurt; no other buildings were burned. But it was a deeply traumatic loss. And in the week since then we have been very aware of what sacred space has come to mean in our lives.
Exactly a week before the chapel fire, I was traveling in Wales and reflecting deeply on this theme of place and sacred space. I spent that Friday at a beautiful, remote place called Capel y ffin (the chapel at the end of the road – aptly named) which was once home to a community of Catholic artists and craftsmen, led by the English sculptor Eric Gill. Capel y ffin was a formative place for the artist and poet David Jones, whose work has been important to me for many years. (Read more about Jones and his work here) Jones wrote of the “strong hill-rhythms” of the countryside here, which was formative for his artistic and poetic vision. His paintings capture well the rounded hills and pastures (the “landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plow” – as the Welsh poet Hopkins wrote) and the curious “aliveness” of the landscape that one experiences in this place.
In this region of Wales – near the black hills – I was also impressed by the ancient stone churches – some of them a millennium old – at sites with strange place names like “Partrishow” and “Clydwch”. The sites would include, typically, a tiny grey-stone church, with old wood interior, silent yet filled with echoes of centuries of prayer. Beside the church, there is typically an ancient (and sometimes still active) cemetery, together with a stream and a holy well, whose sacredness dates back to pre-Christian times and is often incorporated somehow into the story of the saint of the place – for each one of these places has a story attached to it. There is a sense that these churches and tombstones and celtic crosses mark a holiness beyond what can be contained. Inevitably, here, I thought of lines from a David Jones poem where he celebrates:
The adaptations, the fusions,
the inward continuities
of the site
of place (The Anathemata, p. 90)
Having been so recently immersed in this awareness of sacred place, I was available to the depth of grieving the VTS community was experiencing at the loss of the of course much newer “historic” chapel. In particular, I have been watching and listening during this past week as students and alumni (a few of them in purple shirts) visited the campus and simply stood, gazing, in sad homage, at the charred beams where the chapel ceiling once was, open to the sky below the cross that still stands on the front of the chapel. Soon, the conversations around the seminary will turn to what was not destroyed and what can be restored and carried forward. We know that “the Church is not a building. . . .the church is a people” – but this grieving-time has invited more reflection, for me, on what places mean to us, in a sacramental tradition.
We remember sacred places, often, because of what happened here. Every one of the Welsh churches I saw was sacred to a saint who had a story. And as I have spoken with grieving members of the community, I have heard stories. People remember the events that happened in the chapel: a classmate buried, an ordination, a profoundly memorable liturgy or sermon, the daily round of prayer that is part of community life and forms us.
Liturgy itself is an important part of what sanctifies places for us. At my own church on the Sunday after the fire, I found myself experiencing those “flashbacks” that we get when we are grieving, where one thing recalls another. We sang the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness” on Sunday, and I recalled, with quick tears, that that was the last hymn that I sang in the seminary chapel, at Morning Prayer the day before the fire. Receiving the chalice from our seminarian, who is a VTS student, I recalled receiving the chalice from his hand a few weeks before, at a noon Eucharist in the chapel, with its scent of old wood, faint mustiness and beeswax, and midday light filtered through the “great commission” stained glass window, now gone. Receiving the presence of Christ in one place, I was remembering another place where I have met Christ, and been shaped and formed by that experience. It reminded me of the paradox that the presence of Christ is not confined to any particular place, and yet meets us where we are, in the world: and that involves place.
The first community Eucharist, the Monday after the fire, was held in the light-filled Georgian sanctuary at Immanuel Church on the Hill, across Seminary Road. The space recalled for me the New England Presbyterian church where I grew up. It could not have been more different from the Victorian feel of the old chapel. What was most consoling in that service, for many, was what we did together there. Dean Ian Markham named in his sermon what I was feeling from the opening sentences. The words of the Eucharistic liturgy, the familiar faces of the community, the celebration – our actions together – actions and prayers we had offered in other places – were what sanctified this gathering place for us, despite undeniable loss. This is true for any space where we gather in for worship – especially for Eucharist. And yet we are people of flesh and blood, and our lives are shaped by what we can sense, touch, feel, smell, and by our receptiveness to beauty. The places that shape us are not themselves sacred, and yet, they form us, open us, make us ready and able to receive the gift of God – body and blood, as people of flesh and blood, standing where we are.
And this took me back to David Jones, whose long poem The Anathemata revolves around the celebration of a mass in a London chapel, during the blitz. The celebration is the pivotal point of a long meditation on what holds us together, as Christians, when much that is recognizable in the surrounding civilization is crumbling away. Jones’s poem connects this particular Eucharistic celebration to the place and the time of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, which happened at a particular time and place, and to gatherings of Christians at the altar down through history. In the poet’s vision, the priest at the altar, blends into Christ presiding over the Last Supper and fulfilling the story in the mystery of the Cross. Contemplating the priest at mass, “Here in this place,” “at a time’s turn,” the poet concludes:
He does what is done in many places
what he does other,
he does after the mode
of what has always been done.
What did he do other,
recumbent at the garnished supper
What did he do yet other
riding the Axile Tree? (The Anathemata, p. 242)