Spirituality of place, 2: Contrasts

13 Mar

Place is at least as important as time, or what we have thought was the realm of history, in our basic understanding of who we are and where we are with God.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to visit a number of places which showed this to me.

One of these was the compound where the ‘Branch Davidian’ sect used to be, until they were destroyed in a massive explosion, in April 1993.
These are some notes I made, after visiting there in 1995:
“It is a hard place to find; it’s really just a large field in a lush farming district. But it is one of the most desolate places I have ever visited. As you enter a farm track, there is a timber hut bearing numerous signs, one saying ‘The Most Persecuted Church on Earth’, and others decrying the US Government and announcing that here is the true Lion of Judah, the people of God, etc. There’s a tent museum, with photographs and newspaper clippings, telling of what happened there, and several attendant people, who live there still and will tell you all about it, if you give them half a chance. Further down the track, there are two huge mounds of rubble, bull-dozed some time later, and near them a grove of young trees, each one having beneath it a plaque bearing the name and national flag of the 120 or so people who died in the fire, many of them young children, lots of them the teenage conquests of David Koresh. And amongst all this, a caravan, where lives a Seventh day Adventist pastor, who will rush out to give you another leaflet, denouncing the Davidian Sect and offering the real truth about it all.
    This place was the site of religious madness.

Here claims to revelation, received without critical reason, led to
destruction: and the whole scene is pervaded by a deep and hollow sense
of tragedy. Still the bitterness and bickering goes on: and in the name
of God, all those people are dead, even some who are still walking
around.”

About a month later, on that same overseas trip, I went also to Assisi,
a delightful mediaeval-Italian town. Here,  St Francis of Assisi lived
and ministered.
There are two great basilicas there, one named after Francis and the
other after his companion Clare. You can if you wish go and see their
remains, their clothing and so on. But in St Clare’s cathedral you can
also pray at the cross before which Francis was praying, when he heard
Christ call him, challenging him not only to renounce his own wealth
but to work to restore the church, to call it back from its fixation
with wealth and power, to discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth, to become
again a church of the little people: and this inspired the Franciscan
mission.
I count myself as one of those touched by his call, and I found it deeply moving to pray before this same cross.
In that town,  thousands of people come on pilgrimages, daily throngs
of people, but for all that the whole place is pervaded by peace and a
wholeness: It is a place of healing which has also this sense of
presence, this sending presence.

The search for our place is an interesting theme running right through
the Bible. The first question that God asks of human beings is not who
are you, not what have you done, it’s:  Where are you? But the long
flow of the tradition sees the human beings answering by telling God
where God should be. They keep trying to create a place, a defined
space, which they can call the House of God. If we can just get God
into some defined place, we can work out where we stand.
    In the same tradition, God keeps on offering us space: the earliest
Hebrew ideas of salvation were of somewhere to be, a place, ‘a wide
space where there is no cramping’ (Moltmann): But always it seems the
people want to take God’s space and define it as theirs, exclusively,
rather than as a sign of inclusion.

I’m challenged continually to realize more of this spirituality of
place. I like the ancient Celtic idea of ‘thin’ places—places where the
spiritual reality of God is more tangible. Maybe all places can be like
that, I don’t know.

What is your experience?

Those interested in more reflections of a spirituality of place will greatly enjoy the blog site of my colleague Simon Holt: Simply Simon. He really knows about this stuff!

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