The notion of "sacred space" eludes many people today - rooted in a modern day lack of the virtue of religion. Whether out of negligence, laziness, or lack of faith, we do not want to offer God the worship that is his due. This lack often masquerades as spirituality but what it tends to reveal is a deficient appreciation and understanding of the Incarnation; that God makes Himself present in special and unique ways - first and foremost in the Holy Eucharist. God sanctifies a place, "the House of God", through His presence. Guardini reminds us: "In the deepest sense of the word, she is sanctified through the celebration of the Lord’s memorial. By transubstantiation He Himself “descends” and is present in a unique form. With His all-rescuing love and the essence of His salutary death, He stops for a time in the midst of the congregation. In Communion He offers Himself as food and drink. . . "
THE MASS is celebrated in church, in a holy place. Under special conditions it may be celebrated elsewhere: in the open air when some great event has attracted great masses of people; on shipboard; even, at times of stress, in a private home. The celebration of Mass on such occasions can be very impressive: festive and imposing, gravely suggestive of God’s providence and man’s destiny, or intimately protective in the presence of danger. Still, such celebrations are always exceptional. Normally, the Mass belongs in its own particular place, in the sacred room of the church.
The standard objection to this is so trite that it can no longer be taken seriously: God can be served anywhere, “experienced” anywhere. Probably the speaker will bring up the Bible passage about the quiet chamber, or insist that the just man is particularly close to God in nature and that one can be more aware of Him while bending over a flower than in a stuffy church. There is a good deal to be said in reply to this. For one thing, it might be asked, how much of it is genuine objection and how much pious talk: does the speaker really practice intimate conversation with God in that quiet chamber of his? Does he really commune with Him in the woods and before a rose? More important is the latent criticism behind the objections: the Church mistrusts men’s piety and declares nature evil; therefore, with priestly hostility to life, she shuts off an artificial area in which she celebrates a ritual that has nothing in common with genuine men or with the uncorrupted freshness of nature. The criticism is remarkable, particularly since the same Church is blamed for not taking religion “spiritually” or “purely” enough, for allowing her ceremonies to slip back into the natural, for practicing “a Christianity that is fundamentally little more than a veiled paganism.” It seems that the Church is accused of all possible shortcomings, with the result–truth’s mysterious self-justification–that one objection cancels the other.
Actually, the Church takes the world very seriously. She knows that everything is created by God, sustained by His power, and filled with His meaning. But she also knows that the world is full of enchanting power, and that it incessantly attempts to draw men from the Creator to the created: to itself. Hence, in spite of her knowledge that all things belong to God, and of her desire to return them to Him from whom they came, the Church sets aside a place that has been severed from all other connections and purposes in order to belong to Him in a very special way. Here man is meant to become aware of something different both from nature and from human works: of the holy.
By holiness we do not mean that soaring sense of mystery that can make itself felt anywhere under a heaven full of stars, in a forest, or in the presence of some great human tragedy or fulfilment. We use the word in the strict sense of revelation: God alone is holy. Holiness is His essential characteristic. It means that He is pure, terribly and gloriously pure; that He does not merely repel evil, but hates and judges it; that He is the fullness of all good, is Himself the good, and all other good merely a reflection of Him; that He lives in an unapproachable mystery which knows no intimacy, yet is the goal of man’s unconditional and deepest longing. If we wish to learn what God’s holiness is we must consult not the poets, but the prophets.
How then can a place be holy? Not of itself. No created thing is capable by its own nature of furnishing a dwelling-place for God’s holiness. A place becomes holy only when God Himself has sanctified it. This happens and now we touch the heart of our problem through God’s visiting that place and establishing it as His residence.
But God is omnipresent in heaven, on earth, everywhere! Yes, God fills all things, governs all things, sustains all things, and in such a way that He is not in any particular place, but that every place is in Him. That is true. Everything is necessarily and irrevocably in God because it has been created by Him. In his speech before the Areopagus St. Paul says: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Not a grain of the world’s dust could exist were it not sustained by God. Nevertheless, a real divine presence, divine “inhabiting” does exist. The Old Testament is the story of God’s coming and being with men, of His guiding and ruling them and of the fate which His love thereby took upon itself. However, God’s essential, supreme act of concern, of cohabitation with men is Christ. St. John opens his gospel by saying:
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not….
And the Word was made flesh. and dwelt among us.
Where Jesus was, God was. When Jesus entered a temple or house, or walked down a street, God was present in that particular place in a special way. Indeed, in the manner in which He was there, He was not simultaneously outside the temple, in another street, or in someone else’s house. It sounds queer to speak like this, childish and primitive; nevertheless it is pure truth. Truth is always truth; it means that something real and essential becomes so apparent that it is observed and expressed. But truth exists on different levels, each with its own rank, one higher and nobler than another. That God is everywhere, that He rules every part of the world as its Creator, sustaining it with His power and love, is a wonderful truth; but a much higher and holier truth reveals to us that in Christ God came specifically, so that where Christ visited, God was present in a new and particular manner which our mind cannot comprehend because it is unable to reconcile it to the idea of divine omnipresence, but which the vital depths of our spirit accept as the supreme mystery of divine love.
Here are the reasons for the Church’s being the “house of God” and “holy.” First, because the bishop by the power of his office has freed her from the usual bonds with the world of men and nature, from the uses and ends of daily existence, and dedicated her to God. Thus she becomes His own, an expression of His divine reserve, an image of His holiness, a reminder of His power. But this is only preparatory. In the deepest sense of the word, she is sanctified through the celebration of the Lord’s memorial. By transubstantiation He Himself “descends” and is present in a unique form. With His all-rescuing love and the essence of His salutary death, He stops for a time in the midst of the congregation. In Communion He offers Himself as food and drink; then He departs. Again and again it happens the “Passover of the Lord.” Church is the room in which this coming, lingering, and departure occur. If we are anxious to collect ourselves and to overcome inertia we do well to remember that this is the holy place that He is about to enter.
Meditations Before Mass