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Sacred Spaces

Sacred Spaces.

And St Andrews church, Preston, nr. Weymouth.

I once wrote an essay about these. Sacred spaces, I mean. I’d started my degree course with the Open University back in 2013 and the final piece of work I needed to submit to get my first 60 points, on the long road to a full 360-point house and a degree, was about what makes places sacred. Are they inherently sacred or are places empty vessels into which we give meaning and sacredness? I compared Avebury and Stonehenge to Milton Keynes and got 84% for it. Milton Keynes might smack you as an odd choice, but it is more interesting that you may initially give it credit for. Have a look at a map of the town centre and you’ll start to notice road names such as Midsummer Boulevard (purposefully aligned with the sunrise at summer solstice), Avebury and Silbury Boulevard’s. This theme was right up my boulevard as I’ve often felt some affinity and peacefulness in certain places; a field at the end of my mum and dad’s road, a passing space on the A82 next to Loch Ness. Just places with no sacred connection in particular – religious or secular. Just places that felt special.

The theme of sacred spaces resonated with me. The previous summer of 2012 had been a particularly tough one. In the time it took team GB to win 65 Olympic medals, I dealt with the realisation that a marriage was over (a huge relief actually, but quite painful in the scale of betrayal and deceit that was involved), a burglary, my lovely Grandad dying, an horrendous case of shingles, a family fall-out that shredded the little pieces that were left of my poor heart, while discovering I was the target of a malicious email campaign at work. This all had me seeking solace and peace anywhere I could find it. The field at the end of our road was a particular favourite but so were churches. I’d drive past them, hoping for a sight of the little ‘Church is Open’ signs by the lychgates. I once found myself unwittingly taking part in Sunday evensong (think Four Weddings and Funeral and that scene at the end of the first wedding with a greasy haired bloke, a guitar and a floral bedecked woman pining ‘I can’t smile without you’…) just trying to find some kind of peace. I sat politely in a pew at the back and graciously declined the offer to take part. Kind hands were placed on my puffy tear-stained face and tissues offered. And all I could do was worry that I’d got snot on her Cath Kidston knitting bag…

I love a church. And a graveyard. But mostly churches. From the grandest cathedrals to the tiniest chapels. Some of the churches I walk into send a bit of a pulse into all my nerve endings that pings into my subconscious brain. Something invisible yet perceptible starts to swirl around me like smoke from an incense burner that warms and chills at the same time. Breathing slows as you inhale the damp, cool, dark atmosphere and then your eyes become accustomed to the light. A sense of calm descends. You hear pews creaking and the odd ‘plink’ of rain dripping through the roof onto the memorial flagstones. This happened to me in St Andrews. Tucked away off the Preston Road to Weymouth, through a lychgate and down the path hoping to find the doors unlocked – Oh! The joy at finding the doors unlocked as I felt that satisfying clunk of the iron door latch! These things give me joy.

Like that space you enter in front of a painting that connects you to its history, there is something similar happening in churches but on a slightly bigger scale. Because in a church you step into the canvas. The religious footprint of most parish churches, cathedrals and abbeys can be traced back through the ages, back through paganism and before, when our ancestors would assign places in the landscape for burial, ceremony and the worship of their elders, their wisest and their Gods. That footprint has seen it all; birth, love, death. Pain, sin and redemption. Intense emotions that mark and catch the milestones in our lives, like chiffon caught on a thorn. I can’t help wondering if these ephemerality’s somehow get soaked up into the solid, earthy fabric of the stone and timber of those places. That’s what I believe that feeling is, that creeping warmth and sense of peace I feel. It’s those emotions felt and expressed in that space over thousands of years, all that human-ness soaked into the walls of spaces that once had been assigned as sacred, and are sacred still.

But I think there is something more. St Andrews had some steps cut into the wall (there’s a picture of these below) that once enabled the lighting of the Rood loft candles. Rood screens and lofts were (mostly) wooden carved screens placed between the important people in the chancel of a church (that bit at the end with the altar and choir) and the laity in the nave (where you and I sit for weddings and such). To find one intact now sends me into a bit of a pickle. As they held carved images of the crucifixion, the Virgin and saints they were considered icons and removed by Henry VIII’s reformation squad of iconoclasts. Some were saved and incidentally, the church of St James’ in Avebury has part of its original Rood Screen. It had been squirreled away in the walls as news came of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I’s intent to destroy them all. And this is the bit the really gets me! That screen, now back in its place with some neo-gothic-y Victorian additions, is in parts over 600 years old. Imagine that. Over 600 years. It’s wondrous to me to think that not only has it survived for so long from destruction but of all the prayers and confessions that have taken place around it. All that hope, that love, loss and devotion soaked up into the 600-year-old grain of the wood.

So, what do you think? Can a place just be sacred in itself? Or do we, as sentient beings, ascribe sanctity or sacredness to a place? I’ve asked the question in the forum section so please sign up become a member of the She See’s Angel’s in the Architecture’s community and dive in with your thoughts! All thoughts welcome and just remember to keep them constructive and kind.

Nice links for further reading -

And a really interesting book worth a look at if this has piqued your interest -

Micheal Stausberg (2011) Religion and Tourism; Crossroads, destinations and encounters. Oxon, Routledge.

Steps leading up to where the Rood loft would have been, above the Rood screen in St Andrews, Preston.

Stonehenge, courtesy of English Heritage

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I have just read the first 3 October postings, all really interesting, unusual and thought provoking analysis - thanks - I look look forward to being pointed in other directions I had not previously considered. Geoff

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