After celebrating the Liturgy of the Word in the seated space of St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco, congregation and clergy process (with a Tripudium hymn and drums) into the adjacent rotunda, or standing space, gathering around the holy table for the Eucharist. Children from the Sunday school emerge from the kitchen, at right, bearing the gifts of bread and wine to the table.Most services conclude with circle dancing on the rotunda’s wood floor, designed for this purpose; a gallery of dancing saints encircles the walls above. Photo by David Sanger.

Sacred Precincts and Holy Houses

By Donald Schell

Is a “holy house” a “sacred space”? Dictionaries tell us the words holy and sacred are synonymous, but I hear a whisper of difference between them. Sacred sounds high, exalted, and important. It carries a hint of the power of mystery. Holy sounds homely and has a hint of God’s blessing on the everyday. A holy space could be anywhere—someone’s kitchen, for example. A sacred space sounds more set apart, carefully shaped and defined by boundaries that impede casual access. In designing St. Gregory’s Church, we took a careful look at this difference in order to create a welcoming place of worship.

Frightening Gods or Divine Embrace?

Human thought and feeling about divinity begins with our animist forebears who felt the awe-ful presence of divine power in everything. The divine filled them with awe, terror, and dread because either life or death could spring from it, mysteriously and unpredictably. In such a world the invention of distinct sacred spaces offered huge relief. Confining the sacred to the defined, bounded space of a temple removed from daily life some of its threat and dread. Gods or spirits might still lurk in unexpected places, but if something were done amiss to disturb them, the temple offered a place and a ritual expert to make it right.

Whatever we hope to say about church buildings or anyone’s sacred or holy spaces will touch on this ancient root of ritual and temple. Though we may profess the infinite compassion of God’s embrace, we still carry in us some recollection of this old sense of danger, God and gods to keep confined and at a distance, God the destroyer, whose wrath must be appeased.

Christopher Alexander prompted my reflection on our urge to define the sacred by making barriers to it. Alexander, a pioneering architecture professor at UC–Berkeley, offers powerful help in thinking about human spaces and their function with an analytical tool he calls “pattern language.” Pattern language is the distillation of something like anthropological observation of the many kinds of spaces people make and the distinctive ways we act in them. This language has dialects for many cultures, but some of the basic grammar and vocabulary appears to be universal.

Alexander observes what he says is a universal pattern of sacred space. We’ll call it temple. He observes that humans predictably make temples by surrounding a ritual sacred center with walls and gates to create a sense of solemnity and transcendence. Temples limit access while offering tantalizing glimpses of what lies within. His description fits the biblical temple in Jerusalem perfectly. It also describes a classical Egyptian or Greek temple, and the palace of a ruler reckoned godlike or divine. Using this pattern, Alexander gives a good description of a classic English Gothic church:

Even in an ordinary Christian church, you pass first through the churchyard, then through the nave, then, on special occasions, beyond the altar rail into the chancel and only the priest himself is able to go into the tabernacle [where] the holy bread is sheltered by five layers of ever more difficult approach. This layering, or nesting of precincts, seems to correspond to a fundamental aspect of human psychology. We believe that every community, regardless of its particular faith, regardless of whether it even has a faith in any organized sense, needs some place where this feeling of slow, progressive access through gates to a holy center may be experienced. When such a place exists in a community, even if it not associated with any particular religion, we believe that the feeling of holiness, in some form or other, will gradually come to life there among the people who share this experience.

You may notice that Alexander doesn’t distinguish between sacred and holy, and that he is observing what I call the temple pattern in “an ordinary Christian church.” We’re exploring a distinction here that he doesn’t acknowledge:

In all cultures it seems that whatever it is that is holy will only be felt as holy, if it is hard to reach, if it requires layers of access, waiting, levels of approach, a gradual unpeeling, gradual revelation, passage through a series of gates. (Both quotations, Christopher Alexander and others, “Holy Ground” in A Pattern Language, p. 333).

When we were designing the new St. Gregory’s Church I struggled with Alexander’s description. What he said about temples made very good sense of those buildings and helped explain why we experienced “the sacred” in them. He’d seen something real in human thought and behavior around the building of sacred space, and his description fits many churches.

Rough plan of the seating arrangement for St. Gregory’s services as held for many years in the chapel of Trinity Episcopal Church, before St. Gregory’s building was created. As now, the Eucharist was celebrated with the people standing in a circle around the altar table. Drawing by Jeannie Pettigrew from a source by Stephen Hassett. 

Still, I wondered, is there another pattern he’d overlooked? The temple pattern doesn’t describe Christian church buildings of the first four or five centuries. And it didn’t describe the pattern of church that Rick Fabian and I created for St. Gregory’s or for any of the congregations we’d been involved with that led to St. Gregory’s creation. We’d been using this pattern for more than 20 years in adapted settings, from a college chapel in the Northeast to the parish hall of an Idaho country church to a small chapel of San Francisco’s Trinity Church, where St. Gregory’s was located before we built our own building. The central aspect of this pattern is that it offers all who enter—church member and visitor alike—immediate access to the altar table, without any forbidding distance, barriers, altar rails, or boundaries.

The holy house where saints gather welcomes all sorts of human activity, because, as Jesus and Paul make clear, God is at work in anything done with charity and an open heart. In every generation since the beginning, Christians have built at least some churches that spoke expectant welcome to the people assembled.

Sacred Space and Holy House in Another Culture

Writer Tony Hillerman fills his mystery novels with meticulous observation of the religion and customs of the Navajo people. A Roman Catholic, Hillerman says that learning another people’s customs and rituals and including them in his novels gives him a perspective on religious practice he wouldn’t have if he were writing about devout Catholic characters. We’ll follow Hillerman’s lead to step outside our own experience, hoping to know it better for the diversion.

Thinking about our experience of holiness and its inconsistency with Alexander’s pattern of sacred space, I recall scenes from Hillerman’s books, as well as a visit I made in 1977 to St. Christopher’s Mission in Bluff, Utah (Diocese of Navajoland).

After Communion, the congregation places gifts of money for the church and food for the poor on the table. Photo by David Sanger. 

Fr. Liebler, an Anglo-Catholic missionary priest, founded St. Christopher’s and built the original log chapel with his own hands. An arson attack some years before I visited had reduced the original low-ceilinged, cramped, dark church to a pile of ashes. Fr. Liebler rallied support from his friends back East, who hired a respected East Coast architect to build an exciting Native American Episcopal church. The architect took his inspiration from the tipi of the Plains Indians (not the Navajo), designing a conical building 50 feet high with a skylight at its apex. Further imitating a tipi with the bottom couple of feet of covering rolled up, his building’s shingle covering stopped a couple of feet from the ground. From there down was glass, so from within the soaring cone seemed to hover in the air. Seeing this tipi-church for the first time, I found it a reverent, powerful building. I loved all the natural light in it.

The new vicar had been at St. Christopher’s for a year or so when I arrived for a Sunday liturgy. The vicar led the prayers and celebrated the Eucharist from the altar (behind rails) at one edge of the big circular space. Clustered close at the other edge, the Navajo congregation sat quietly with their eyes down through almost the entire service. Liturgy in that radiant space seemed flat.

Afterwards the vicar told me that the Navajo didn’t like the tipi-shaped church at all. “Their sense of holiness has nothing to do with this high, light, airy space,” the vicar explained. “Fr. Liebler’s low, dark log church reminded the people of their log hogans.”

The traditional home of Navajo families, the hogan is a small, seven-sided, one-roomed log house. For long centuries before Fr. Liebler came, Navajo people had prayed crowded tight together in law, dark smoke-filled hogans. A hogan isn’t just shelter for eating, sleeping, and lovemaking, it’s the ritually necessary setting for complex holy practices of healing and blessing, rituals of smoke and water, song and sand painting. In the log church, Fr. Liebler’s Anglo-Catholic ritual with its clouds of incense fit a Navajo sensibility of holiness. Traditional singing and the old wooden chapel were signs of home. In Navajo religious practice, home is the sacred space.

The traditions of the Navajo point to a pattern of the holy we can call house, and which might have shaped the first Christian churches. The table that came to be called altar was first the dining table in someone’s home. But something is missing, for church thinking, from a purely a domestic pattern of the holy, and Hillerman offers an important clue. Visiting a traditional Navajo’s hogan—even if you are a good friend and of the People, even if you’re expected, and even though seeing your friend’s pickup tells you that your friend is at home—courtesy and custom demand that you wait at a respectful distance from the door until your host comes to beckon you in.

Waiting for the host to invite you into the house isn’t just Navajo practice. Every culture has some ritual of welcoming into a dwelling. Such ritual also serves to bar unwelcome visitors from the house.

Church is different here, distinctly not like home. People visiting a church for a liturgy know they can just come in. Even personal or family events like weddings or funerals may draw in passersby who will sit at the edge to listen and look. Church space and our shared understanding of its pattern tells them, “This isn’t private.” They’re right.

What pattern or patterns combine the domestic with something public? What patterns or activities join house, street or road, and marketplace? The earliest Christian congregations apparently met with the local Jewish synagogue for the Bible readings and prayers at the end of the Sabbath, then adjourned to re-gather in a home or homes for an evening Eucharistic meal. Those early gatherings began in a public place and went from there to a pre-designated home. A new Christian could find church by going to synagogue and leaving with those who would continue the church liturgy in a home; the household host or friends of the host could lead new people through the streets and alleys to a threshhold where host or doorkeeper could invite them in.

Early on a rift began to develop between Christians and Jews, and changes in the synagogue liturgy made Christians feel unwelcome. Yet even in the rift Christians knew they needed to continue the first-century Jewish practice of sharing faith and welcoming strangers. So they had to find other ways to make themselves and their worship more public, new customs and new patterns of public welcoming space.

Simplified floor plan of St. Gregory’s Church main building, designed by architect John Goldman and dedicated in 1995. In the seated space (top), congregants in movable chairs face each other across a raised wooden solea. Lessons and the Gospel are read from the reading stand, center; the presider preaches from a chair at the opposite end of the solea. The octagonal standing space centers on the altar table. At far right are the street doors; the baptismal font stands outside the doors opposite. During the Friday food pantry, tables holding free food ring the altar. At other times, this space serves as a concert venue or reception hall; the seated space as a meeting room. Drawing by Jeannie Pettigrew from a source by Stephen Hassett. 

The Holiness of the Ordinary

Jesus transformed earlier patterns of sacred space and holy house with his vision of human communion with God. When he began overturning the purveyors of sacred purity in the forecourts of the Temple precincts, he dethroned the sacred itself—the aspect of the Temple concerned with ritual sacrifice and setting the “pure” apart from the impure or ordinary folk. As Paul says of the Gospel, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels”—God’s holiness contained in something as everyday as pottery. Still more powerfully Paul speaks of the God-created irreducible holiness of people. In Paul’s usage “saints” are not unusual or heroic people set apart by their incomparable virtue, mystical experience, perfect lives or esoteric knowledge. God’s saints are all of us, the rank and file members of a community in Christ; the reconciling love of God binds together ordinary people in one reconciled community, making us all unreservedly saints, or to the use plain English translation of the Greek hagios, “holy.”

The holy house where the saints gather welcomes all sorts of human activity, because, as Jesus and Paul make clear, God is at work in anything done with charity and an open heart. The house and household makes its fullest sense as “holy space” when people are assembling in it and doing the things that people do when they’re gathered. In every generation since the beginning, Christians have built at least some churches that spoke expectant welcome to the people assembled and to the holy voices, song, movement, prayers, and shared silence they bring. In the Middle Ages the table gradually became an altar, and the area around it took on aspects of temple. But right up to the Renaissance, the nave of churches continued to be public in the wildest and most spontaneous way. The winter market set up its stalls right in the nave of the church—animals, farm goods, tools, everything. Altar rails were introduced in such settings to protect the altar from stray dogs peeing on its corner. Only later did that practical barrier come to speak of limited access to people.

As the Renaissance began, the logic of sacred temple transformed church again. Both Reformation and Counter-Reformation segregated social and domestic activities from liturgical ones. Until recent times, that has been the drift, though there are exceptions. When we built St. Gregory’s in 1995 and created a big 60-foot octagon (about as tall at its center point) around our wholly unobstructed table, we were replacing the pattern of the sacred with those of the household and market, where every ordinary thing we did could be touched by the power of God. We didn’t build a parish hall, but began with a church, and in this new church we put the holy table in the very center of a permanently multiple-use space for receptions, dinners, drama productions, parish art shows, and even a public school’s rummage sale. We’ll be building new classrooms, smaller assembly spaces and offices yet, but don’t plan to build a parish hall. We want multiple use to continue in the space where it began, the space on and around the table.

But if the church wants specifically to pattern holiness rather than the sacred, what sort of table should be used? The table at Richard Giles’s parish church in a fading factory town in England was made from a discarded industrial millstone. (See Richard’s photo essay in this issue on the renovated cathedral in Philadelphia). Our table at St. Gregory’s adapted a local furniture craftsman’s dining table. We commissioned him to use the same materials he’d use for a dining table in a version with a taller base (bringing it up to counter height since we stand, rather than sit at it Is this beautiful commissioned table sufficiently grounded in ordinariness to make God’s love of the ordinary and the holy power of the ordinary shine through? Or does its own glory shine and distract us from the deeper glory in the most mundane and ordinary things? We’ve lived with that dilemma for two thousand years.

Look at the transformation of holy vessels and furniture from the early church through the Byzantine era and Middle Ages. From the everyday domestic objects first used, we see first a shift to use of noble materials like gold and jewels for sacred vessels, stone for the table, and silk for sacred vesture. Century by century utilitarian objects of liturgy become showier, more elaborate, until finally churches were commissioning such fragile and ornate work that only a priest would want to touch it, and even then, cautiously. Too often the beautiful object becomes inviolable, sacrosanct like the temple that houses it. One of the graced memories of the terrible loss and bloodshed suffered by Russian Christians during the Bolshevik revolution is the story of priests and bishops who remembered what real holiness was, selling off jewel-encrusted gold communion vessels to help feed the poor.

The sacred seems to give precedence to visual symbolization, while the holy begins with humbler senses of taste, smell, touch, and sound. Hunger, taste, and satisfaction belong to the holy as they belong to home.

For the past three years at St. Gregory’s our weekly food pantry has offered our congregation a restorative dose of the holy. Every Friday afternoon the street doors to the church welcome in anyone who comes. People of many languages and ages, mostly poor, some crazy or even hostile select their own free groceries from ten tons of good food laid out on tables around the central table. People come to the pantry because together we create there a setting where everyone can remember who they really are. There’s no “need test” and no one is “qualified.” Church members and friends who volunteer rediscover each week the holiness in ordinary people. Often there’s music. An accordion player who sings with our choir returns on Friday for the pantry to play every popular and ethnic tune he can think of. Children’s eyes go up to the icons on our walls of dancing saints and of Christ leading the dance. They point upward when they find a saint that looks like them. Their mothers say, “You’re letting us in the front door.”

The holiness that Jesus practiced and taught and that Paul so daringly explained completes the circle for humanity. Sequestering the sacred in a temple or shrine guarded and administered by dedicated ritual clergy freed our ancestors from animist dread of the divine power present in every rock and blade of grass. The gods whose whim could kill or give life were safely contained and honored in their temples. So people gained a new possibility of freedom, initiative and risk-taking, so long as the sacred precincts were kept pure and hallowed and the proper sacrifices were made. Another hope and longing appeared in popular shrines in houses and by the roadside, plain holy places marked for passersby to pray or touch or make their own offering.

Jesus (like the Hebrew prophets and mystics of other traditions) saw God’s holy presence more in human relationships and work than in the temple’s round of sacrifices. For Jesus, prostitutes’ desires for life and love, or tax collectors’ vain delight in ill-gotten luxuries revealed God at work. Like our ancient animist ancestors, Jesus saw God’s immediate presence in all things. But he saw and taught us that the God and Father who was filling all things was always full of compassion, forgiveness and healing beauty.

We, who once were in terror because there was nowhere to flee from God, now hear Jesus proclaim and show great Good News, the ground of our hope: that our every moment, every place, and every event rest in God who is blessing and transforming all life into the holy harmony of God’s own life.

Donald Schell is rector at St. Gregory's Church. His essay “Rending the Veil” describes his experience coordinating the design and construction of St. Gregory’s, which won the AIA award for Best Religious Building of the Year in 1996; it was published in Searching for Sacred Space: Essays on Architecture and Liturgical Design in the Episcopal Church. Donald is also an Aikido black belt and teacher.


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