There’s an old cartoon of Charlie Brown looking through the back window of a car and exclaiming: “There it is! That’s MY church! Well, I don’t exactly mean it’s MY church . . . what I mean is that it’s MY church . . . Well, you know what I mean.”
Language is a wonderful thing but it often falls short expressing what we would like to say. Journalists say it by sticking to the facts, well mostly anyway, writers tease out and embroider the facts, while poets get right inside language to find its hidden heart. Charlie Brown’s connection to his church was clear and strong, even if he had trouble saying why.
During my years as a Pastoral Associate I noticed how families often returned to a particular church to celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals, to the place where they or their parents were baptised or “all our family gets married there”. In solemn or celebratory times they choose a space that, one way or another, taps into their God connection.
Most of our churches are built with care and an eye for what is beautiful, but without prayer and sacrament they are just buildings. It’s in the gathering there for prayer and Eucharist that the presence of God is encountered. Religious ritual makes the building a holy place, a sacred space.
Sacred places are where the gulf between God and us is narrowed. But it’s a mistake to confine them to church buildings. Such spaces can be as varied and personal as the MCG, a wayside cross marking an accidental death, a familiar beach or stretch of bush or a chair on the veranda. What sets the place apart is not the geography, but the something we call transcendence. In that space there’s an awareness of feelings too deep for words, of something just beyond reach, like the tug of an electric cable linking us to something that might just be God.
Uluru did that to me.
If Australia can be said to have a sacred space then it’s probably that giant red rock sitting in scrubby red dirt. I saw it first through the window of the tourist bus, a bump on the horizon, and it took my breath away. Out of the bus, I just stood there looking, overwhelmed by something that I couldn’t name. It was like a tangible experience of mystery, which only deepened as evening fell and the rock rainbowed into the darkness.
Pictured from space, Australia is something like a circle with a centre – a mandala shape, circled by ocean, and drawn to and away from our red rock centre by Aboriginal Songlines and the criss-cross of bitumen and dirt tracks. Uluru is a destination and the 300,000 visitors a year who visit it are invariably drawn into its silence.
It seems to be a human response to want to capture transcendent moments and roof them over. Remember Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, “Let us build three tents here . . . “. Maybe this is why the Church sets aside one day each year to celebrate the oldest church building in Rome, St John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral.
I hope that Uluru continues to stand alone in its ancient space, an opportunity to encounter what some call ‘other’ and others, God, a holy space, in a country that some religious leaders label unholy and materialistic. As Teilhard de Chardin said, “There is communion with God, there is communion with the earth, and there is communion with God through the earth.”