Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sacred Spaces & Sacred Places

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about "Thin Places". A little while later they sent me the following by John Crossley Morgan.

"I was taking a morning walk down a path outside the Tintern Abbey in Wales when I discovered a rather small but sprawling tree, its branches beckoning to travellers who might rest under its shelter. I crawled under the branches and sat quietly to watch the morning sun break across the ancient abbey sky. It felt safe and even sacred there, a place you might go to rest and reflect on the mystery of life. I sensed the presence of others who had sat in that spot before.

Later over lunch I spoke with a local resident and told him how I had felt sitting under that tree. He looked at me and said quietly, “it’s called a thin place.” I had never heard the name before, so he patiently explained that to the Welsh a thin place is a very special place, a sacred spot, where you feel a presence so deep and mysterious that you have to stretch language to describe it. “That sounds like what inspires poetry.” I laughed. “Maybe that’s why the Welsh are such poets,” he said.

In the months that followed, I became more aware of “thin places” in my life, whether in my backyard garden or by a river. I came to understand that once you feel the power of thin places you tend to experience them often, in places you might have missed before. More surprisingly, I learned that when you carry a thin place in your mind and heart, you can go there wherever you feel the need. I did so not long ago before I was wheeled into surgery - scenes of a Welsh countryside before me rather than the white gowns of nurses and doctors.

Now I carry with me the idea of a thin - place where the veil separating this reality from another is temporarily lifted, so faith and imagination can catch a fleeting glimpse."

I thought it was beautiful and it got me thinking and feeling many things, many things that keep on returning...

A few months later, this Monday to be precise, I woke up with the question “What is sacred?” I have no idea why it was there that morning all I know is that it was all over me as I stepped into the day and I began the process of preparing myself to prepare the worship for Sunday.

I did what I always do each week. I posted the idea on facebook and waited to see if anyone would respond with thoughts. I then began to look for appropriate material, for readings etc. As the day progressed ideas began to form and formulate within me. The thoughts took me on a journey more towards places and spaces than general ideas about always it was an interesting journey.

The next morning after enjoying coffee with my usual Tuesday morning friends I walked up towards Dunham Road Chapel where I live to continue my work. As I approached the chapel I smiled as I read the banner marking 200 years of Unitarians in Altrincham. Ok we’ve not always worshipped in this building for two hundred years, but the sacred space has existed that long. There has been a community dedicated to free religious expression in Altrincham for 200 hundred years. A place where people can congregate and worship together unconstrained by creed and dogma. It is indeed a special place, a sacred place, I am coming to truly understand and appreciate this.

I sometimes like to go into the chapel and sit in different parts of it; I sometimes like to walk around it too and look at the many and varied aspects of the inside. Dunham Road Chapel has a Tardis quality about. It doesn't look much from the outside and yet when you walk inside it seems to grow in both size and beauty, it is an awesome space and place. I know it will take many years to fully know the place. I love the gardens too and often just like to stand in various spots there. I have recently developed affection for the rose trees, especially those one or two yellow winter roses that I have seen these last few weeks; I’ve been carrying a vision of those around with me these last few weeks.

Now I know Dunham Road is not one of those Celtic “Thin places” that John Crossley Morgan described above, at least not in the traditional sense and yet somehow it is. I completely connect with him when he writes “I came to understand that once you feel the power of thin places you tend to experience them often, in places you might have missed before. More surprisingly, I learned that when you carry a thin place in your mind and heart, you can go there wherever you feel the need. I did so not long ago before I was wheeled into surgery - scenes of a Welsh countryside before me rather than the white gowns of nurses and doctors.”

I carried the image of those yellow roses with me as I carried my grand dad’s coffin and spoke about his life, at his funeral a week last Thursday. It was a "thick" and deeply felt time. In that time and space I felt held by a greater reality as I have at other moments in my life, especially when I have needed it the most. There was an absolute sense of being at one with all time and space as the sacredness of the space held me in my grief. I have also felt it as the week has unfolded and I have spent time with family as we have come to terms with the loss of my step brother, our Allen. I don’t always feel this held, this connected, but then thankfully I don’t always need to.

I was recently sent the following poem "How to be poet" by Wendell Berry

“How To Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

The poem is a reminder to Wendell Berry himself on how to truly be a poet. There is much in it that speaks to me as a creator of material for worship and to some extent a writer. I could write so much about but this blog is already longer than perhaps it ought to be, so instead I will discuss just three lines at the end of the second verse. These read:

“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”

In the poem he is speaking specifically of the space where he writes and the need to keep it pure. He seems to especially have a distrust of technology. Now I’m sure Wendell Berry would disapprove of the space that I sit and write at. I have wires and books and all sorts of papers piled up. I communicate through modern media all the time I am working and yet whatever needs to come through makes its journey there. It is most definitely not a desecrated place.

I do agree with Wendell Berry in his view that there are no unsacred places, everywhere is sacred although there are places that have from time to time become desecrated, by humanities inhumanity to humanity. This was very much on my mind last Monday, as I pondered what is sacred and what is profane in our world, on what was “Holocaust Remembrance Day”. I paused long and hard as I considered the places where inhumanity reighns. I also looked into my own heart and thought of the times I have failed to love and been overcome with hate. How many of us can truly say they have always honoured the sacredness of life and never desecrated anything or anyone, including ourselves?

All life is sacred every single aspect, even the things we don’t want and like; all life is sacred I have no doubt about that. All spaces are sacred too. That said there are still places and moments that touch us in much deeper ways. The Celts called them “Thin Places” and it seems they can be found anywhere and everywhere. And as I learnt again last week we can carry them with us when life gets a little too difficult.

Now while I do believe that everywhere is sacred I still find something extra-specially sacred about Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston,  especially during times of worship. So much of what I am and do is focused on what occurs at those places during specific times in the week. This time I share with the people I serve have become what I like to call “Thick Time” in  “Thin Places”. They have become a sacred times in sacred places. I see a growing purpose in the worship I share with the people I serve. I take it very seriously, although with some humour. There is nothing more serious than humour. I’ve been thinking a lot these last few months about the worship I share and how it is created. I have written before about the process, but really it’s beyond words. You can only stretch words so far.

Last September I attended a workshop led by the inspirational Unitarian Universalist Minister Mark Belletini. It was advertised as a workshop on preaching, but that was only a small part of it. It was really about creating worship in a free religious tradition. Mark shared his own personal experiences, which are vast as well as discussing what he saw as the purpose of worship. It really got me thinking about what I create and share and its purpose. More and more I see it as a sacred time in a sacred space, I see it as “thick time” in “thin places”.

A few weeks after Mark’s workshop I was reading The Unitarian magazine, particularly the editorial by Yvonne Abburrow that talked about the moments before worship begins. She talked of the need to make this time a holy time and the need to invoke “The Divine” to be present with us before worship began, it chimed very much with what I had come back from the workshop thinking. I had only a couple of Sunday’s before began to ask those I lead in worship to still themselves in silence and to "invite a loving presence to be here amongst us and to awaken within us". This was before the lighting of the chalice. It seemed important to separate that time from the ordinary and everyday; it seemed important to create time and space for worship. My intention was to create “thick” moments in these sacred times and spaces; my intention was to create “thick time” in these “thin places”

Now of course it has not been my intention to totally separate this time from the rest of time. I always end worship with a variation on the same theme with the blessings asking the congregation to take with them what we have experienced in our time together “in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.” The intention is to carry the spirit that touches us in this hour out into the world in which we live; the intention is to bless the places and hearts we touch, with the light of our time together.

The congregations gather together each Sunday seeking something. They come for a reason, even if are not wholly sure what that reason is. Each week in the worship we share together I attempt to create through words, music, silence, imagery and more a sacred time and space that will enable us to open our hearts and help us connect to the Greater Mysteries of Life, to the Web of Being to know the Spirit of Life and Love, to experience God and for this to impact on how we live our day to day lives.

In these sacred spaces at these sacred times where generations have worshipped I hope our hearts are opened and our souls are touched. That we connect to that Greater Reality and that we leave these sacred spaces carrying with us at least the hope that we can make our lives and the lives of those we touch a little more sacred.

Finally I'd like to end this little "blogspot with some words by Tom Barrett “What’s in the Temple?”

"What's In The Temple?"

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.

The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away.
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name.
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can't talk about God and make any sense,
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
and sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

We don't build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can't be contained.
Or maybe it can't be sustained inside a building.
Buildings crumble.
It's the spirit that lives on.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?

Go there now.

by Tom Barrett


  1. I am so sorry to read of the recent loss of two of your loved ones.

    As with your yellow roses, I carried a picture in my mind of small red roses. I had been going through a terribly difficult time where everything around me was falling apart. My life as I knew it had been tipped upside down and given a proper good shaking. I was scared and felt very alone as I desperately tried to put all the pieces back together.

    One day during this time, as I sat in my car in a small car park, my eye was drawn to an area planted with miniature rose bushes. Even though my thoughts were in turmoil and I felt an ever present fear, I was still able to appreciate the beauty of the delicate red blooms. I held on to this thought. It gave me a sense of hope that all was not lost, and a peace I hadn't felt for some considerable time.

    I carried those tiny red roses around with me in my mind's eye. They were such a comfort to me as I struggled to rebuild my life all those years ago.

    I am now facing new uncertainties, but they no longer hold the same fear as they once would have done. I know I will cope. Afterall, I do have a 100% track record of coping! :)

  2. Lovely and thank you Mel...Hope life's most priceless commodity...I received an amazing gift today. A beautiful yellow rose was left attached to the chapel door with a note attached to it that read that read "Pass on the smile, Pass on the flower"...Heaven sent

    1. What a beautiful gift! It made me smile too :)