Sacred Spaces in Dallas House Our Values, History and Ambition

Without knowing it, I've spent the last six weeks preparing for Notre Dame to burn.This spring, in observance of Lent, I led a small group of contemplatives on a tour of several sacred spaces in North Texas. Each Saturday, we visited a different chapel, cathedral or monument where we simply sat in silent prayer for half an hour, then went to lunch. It was a rich time. Dallas is blessed with remarkable and beautiful diversity in its houses of worship. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, there were 6,144 religious congregations in North Texas in 2010. Most have a building fashioned for their unique identity and philosophy, and many are strikingly handsome.We visited Cathedral Guadalupe, busy with spires, statues and stained glass. And we visited the Cistercian Abbey in Irving with its bare, stone walls reflective of the simple life of the monks who live there. We mused over enormous reproductions of paintings by famous artists -- Magritte, Picasso, Dali, and Rembrandt -- at Irving Bible Church, my home church, where the building itself looks more like an art museum than a church. And we were delighted to decode the organization of stained glass at Highland Park Presbyterian Church where one group of windows represents apostles, another represents women in the Bible, another represents 16th century reformers, and another depicts the six categories of "the least of these" with whom Jesus identified.At the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, we gathered round a lantern suspended from the ceiling that holds Communion bread and a flame that is kept perpetually burning. At First United Methodist Church, we marveled at the immense pipe organ, waiting to fill the 93-year-old seating bowl with its sound. And at Thanksgiving Square, we imagined our prayers swirling upward with the curve of the famous stained glass spiral. We limited our tour to Christian sites this time (although several suggested a more ecumenical approach next year). And still, each week brought new beauty, a new expression of devotion, a new slant of stained glass light. All of this gave us a deeper appreciation for sacred spaces, and prepared us, if not for the shock of seeing an 800-year-old Paris masterpiece burn, at least to appreciate the loss.Here on the banks of the Trinity, as on the banks of the Seine, places of worship are collectors of a culture's values, history, and ambitions. I visited Notre Dame in 1999, and it seemed then to embody the beautiful, decorated, empty soul of the city. In just the same way, Westminster Abbey, Saint Peter's Basilica, Masjid-al-Haram, the temples of Angkor Wat, and millions of other places of worship do more than point us to God. They enshrine the values of the people who worship there. These are the buildings where cultures house their deepest wonder, their proudest virtues, their highest hope.The global mourning of Notre Dame points to something else about sacred spaces: We instinctively need them. We know, somewhere deep down, that our souls need a pause from the profane rush of our noisy world. But it is so hard for us, the products of our hurry-sick culture, to break from its pace and its insatiability, to sit without word or book or companion or smartphone and simply be. Of the 10 most important commandments of Christian and Jewish morality, the one we break most often is the command to rest. This is not just an unhappy cultural artifact. Our loss of sacred space and silent prayer is a threat to our spiritual well-being, and we don't know what we've got until it's gone. One of the quotes that guided and propelled our Lenten prayer tour comes from author Richard Foster who attributed our noisy, busy prayerlessness to prayer's enemy, the devil himself: "In contemporary society our adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds."That is why the invitation extended to us by sacred spaces is so important. The reverent hush of an empty room and the flickering light of an altar candle speak to us on a spiritual level.Churches are more than civic groups, and their buildings are more than lecture halls. At their best, churches are what the Celts called thin places, holy sites where the distance between heaven and Earth seems wispy and transparent. Places where one can imagine a divine finger reaching down in complement to humankind's dusty stone attempts to reach up.Ryan Sanders is a writer and pastor at Irving Bible Church. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

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