Reproduced – adapted – from the August issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.
The procession and celebration of Santa Margarita took place, as planned, on the evening of 19 July. Anglican parishes do customarily celebrate patronal feast days, but I do not know of any that do it in quite this way. Santa Margarita’s day falls within the period of the fiesta of Es Castell (Sant Jaume, or Santiago, or Saint James), and it seems to be appropriate to immerse ourselves in the spirit of fiesta with the citizens of the community in which we are blessed to live. There is also some symbolism in carrying the statue of Santa Margarita from the Roman Catholic church to our own chapel, as the generosity of the Roman Catholic parish flows towards our own community of faith, giving us a place in which to worship, and from which to undertake our ministry.
Following the celebration of Santa Margarita, to whom is dedicated the church which we are blessed to occupy, an interesting question arose. What is the function of the church building in the life of the community that we call the Church?
A few years ago, I was asked to lead a celebration of life at a residential Care Centre in Canada. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but the little that I knew about the lady who died was that she found peace and spiritual comfort outdoors. On the morning of the celebration, I went for an early run, and to my surprise, one of the Northern Spotted Owls that were summer visitors to the forest across from our house flew across the trail and landed on a tree close by. We had seen the owls from time to time, but never in the morning. I was surprised – it is wonderful to be close to these creatures that are becoming so rare – and inspired to use the event to talk about finding God in creation, in the environment around us.
I remember saying, in context, that, “We don’t have to be in church to be close to God.” One of the residents, who I suspect had little inclination to grace the inside of a church with his presence, heard me say this, and announced later to the staff that had found a new friend. He chatted to me whenever I went there. It was good, up to the point where he started to embellish things. “Paul and I are really close friends now,” he once told one of the nursing staff. “We even smoke dope together.” (This was slightly adrift from the truth, since I have never smoked dope! But I digress.)
The church building is not, in and of itself, an exclusive place to find God. There are other places where we can encounter the presence of the divine – many places that have a spiritual connection, where God breaks through our self-imposed boundaries and barriers. The Celtic Christians call these “thin places.” Menorca is well-provided with these. It is an island full of places where there has been some sort of spiritual presence for centuries. The ancient Taulas are witness to this, along with the paleo-Christian churches, the wide variety of Roman Catholic churches, and our own Santa Margarita. All these are sacred spaces.
But just what is a sacred space? This is not a rhetorical question. People find spiritual connections in a wide variety of places. Sometimes it is a church; sometimes a place where one feels the presence of the divine creator in nature; sometimes a place that seems to have a connection with tradition and history. Sometimes it is a place that has a special memory for us.
There seem to be some places where the presence of God just feels stronger than in others, and because we are all different, we may experience this in a variety of ways in different locations. To recognise that we can experience the presence of God in many ways and places is simply to acknowledge the rich diversity of the mosaic of humanity.
We find this dichotomy: that we ought to be able to experience the presence of the divine creator in any part of this world, especially in this island of Menorca, full of beauty and tranquility; yet we also need places that are focal points for communal and collective spiritual gatherings. This is because we are both spiritual beings and social creatures. The experience of the divine creator can touch us in special places, yet we seem intrinsically called to share this with one another.
Churches are places where we choose to gather to focus on worship as a central aspect of our spiritual life in community. However, they are more than that. The life of the community is celebrated with baptisms, marriages and funerals. The sick and infirm are visited. Those who are needy in the community are offered care and nourishment. The church building is important as a pointer, as a signpost, as a direction finder to help us to find and meet the divine presence in our lives. More often than not, God is not difficult to find – except when we point ourselves determinedly in an opposite direction.
A sacred space, for those of Christian persuasion, can never be only a place where we receive. It has to be a place where we give, as well. As I said in a recent sermon, while we are blessed to have a beautiful place in which to worship, we should be very mindful of the bigger building project of a church, or a temple, for God: in our hearts, in our heads and in our actions.