There seems to be some fear in Unitarian Universalism, regarding the whole idea of church. I get it. I really do. A lot of us are walking wounded from the whole church thing, even those of us who grew up within the faith. There’s some association between the idea of hymns and sermons and prayers and that sort of thing with Christians. Christians can be super rad, but they can also be insanely scary, especially if you’re an apostate (someone who turned their back on that god) or a heretical heathen (like me). I was raised in a sixth-source tradition while attending a UU church, and I literally had people throw rocks at me. Fear of church I understand.
However, I am not opposed to the idea of sacred space.
Here’s how that works. I’m Pagan. (That falls into the sixth source, which is earth-centered traditions.) Sacred space when I was a tiny, baby pagan looked different from how a lot of people think of church. Often we were outside, and often it was at night. There was usually some kind of fire, so that we could see. We would walk in and stand in a circle, so everyone would be equal, and a couple of people in the middle would get up and lead the ritual. In my father’s rituals, everyone participated actively. The people up front were just facilitators, and the people standing on the outside were the meat of the operation. There was singing and chanting and clapping, and sometimes drumming. We would move in and out of the center as needed, and it always smelled like incense. I’ve never felt safer than I did in that circle. To this day, the smell of a spice-shop can bring me to tears. It was safe. It was home. We were a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never-ending, and as long as I was there I belonged.
As I got older, I started to see my options for that sacred space change. I became aware of people who identified as “temple pagans” and started to realize that this was gong to be much more of my thing than the outside (which has bugs and no air-conditioning). Sacred space could be inside, and things like lighting or electric music could be added to enhance the effect. Cool beans. I was still going to primarily tribal and Sumerian shindigs, so it was still very similar to what I’d been used to. Then I attended a Wiccan ceremony, which, at least in that case, involved a lot of chanting, by the people in the middle, and talking, by the people in the middle, and movement, by the people in the middle. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could still feel that it was important, set aside, and special. It was still sacred. I started to get a feeling, a physical feeling, inside when I’d go into a space that was set aside as sacred and special. For me, it feels like a blanket is being placed over me, a warm, tingly blanket. I can also feel a peace in my heart and my mind. The next scary step was realizing that Paganism didn’t have a monopoly on the sacred.
I’d always been taught, in my particular tradition, that sacred things can be part of your every day life. The knife you use for ritual one day may be the knife that you use to cut rope the next day. Still sacred. What I didn’t expect was to find it in the building of another faith.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that the Catholics won me over a little bit. I mean, the chanting, the incense, the pretty statues, it felt homey. I liked singing in church, and I liked the way that the Latin sounded, as opposed to the very protestant-esque Unitarian church that my mother attended. I mean, Christianity still made me uncomfortable, but the space felt special. Going into the building, I felt like I was stepping out of my life and into a space where I could just be and focus on the matter at hind. (There is no time but now. There is no place but here.) Going into my Unitarian Universalist church, it didn’t feel special. We didn’t talk about anything different from what we talked about at the dinner table. It wasn’t super deep. It didn’t teach me anything epic and huge. I didn’t feel connected to anything bigger than myself, which is kind of insane considering that in UU, I’m connected to the entire interconnected web of existence. It felt like a book club. We went into a room and talked about some interesting things, and that was all. The end.
I get that some people take issue with the idea of the sacred. I get that people can get satisfaction out of something like a social hour and book club. I completely get that some people do not need the same spiritual things that I need, certainly not in the same way that I need them. I worry though. I worry, because if we’re getting together to have a book club, we’re not a church. We’re a book club. Religions can have book clubs, but they generally have a little more than that, too. I like the idea that we can have these areas that are sanctuaries, places where people can step away from the outside world, things that are kept separate and special, that make you sit up and pay attention when they happen.
Things that we do every day can be sacred. One of the lessons I was taught in my years as a youth was that you have an option of deciding that nothing is sacred or everything is, and I’ve chosen the latter. As a practicing Pagan, I have church-type stuff everywhere. I have a little altar in the kitchen, because that’s where a good deal of my practice focuses, and I try to be mindful when I’m cooking. I have an altar by my bed with dream-type calming stuff. I have a big old altar in my back room, because I’m an adult, and I can. That kind of stuff helps me to remember to respect the wonder that’s all around. I know others of my tradition who consider it over-kill. They still do what we do, and they do it very subtly. It’s all about doing what you need to do.
Whether you’re stepping into a pew or stepping into a circle, I’d like you to take a second and evaluate what about it makes that moment sacred.