Holy place

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

Ever since Jacob recognized a place as ‘the gate to heaven’ and set up his stone pillow to mark the spot, place and prayer have often gone together. It is true that one can be nearer to God ‘in a garden’ and it is also true that God is present everywhere, but a more abiding and pervading truth is that certain places are holy and are experienced as places where ‘prayer has been valid’.

I once had dealings with a person who was greatly distressed that the church where she prayed daily had become a ‘locked church’ and that the parish priest had refused her very special pleading and would not even allow her the use of a key. Her sense of bereavement and the ensuing anger and frustration was very disturbing. Her relationship with God had been disturbed and dis- eased by this dislocation. It was a vivid reminder of the importance of’a place of prayer’.

Most of us need a ‘prayer place’. The individuals who have an itinerant ‘unrooted’ relationship with God are few and far between. Most of us – without realizing it – make a ‘sacred space.’ It may be that one uses the same room, or even the same chair in the same room. That place of encounter with its familiar atmosphere and soundscape, even its smell and light, have become associated with coming into the presence of God. For although God is present everywhere, we do not always present ourselves to God, and this is a prerequisite for prayer. The arriving and settling in a place and posture for prayer, with the accompanying change of mental and emotional attitude, is a great aid in presenting ourselves to God. Routine and familiarity are not dead hands but helping hands in all this.

Most traditions in Christian spirituality have a strong sense of the Holy Place and the creation of a ‘meeting place’ with God. In the Orthodox tradition, the touching of the floor in the making of the sign of the cross before prayer and worship is one

demonstration of this. In the Ignatian Exercises the retreatant is instructed ‘to stand before the place of prayer and regard for the space of an Our Father’. In this way Ignatius ‘replicates’ the divine perspective in prayer – the Heavenly Father who ‘sees us in our secret place.’ Jesus was a person who returned to well-loved spots; the Garden of Gethsemane was one, Bethany another.

As a parish priest I am often struck in my visiting by the ‘shrines’ that individuals and families create in their homes. The obvious one is often the altar of children and grandchildren worship; sometimes there is a shrine for the honouring of ancestors, with photographs and souvenirs, often marked by floral decorations. Often I am delighted to see similar care taken to honour Jesus and his Mother.

If you have a place of prayer, then value it and cherish it. If you don’t, then give some prayerful thought as to where it might be. All you need is a space for one person to be comfortable and undisturbed. Mark it with the things that help you – your Bible, a cross or icon. Make it special, and keep it tidy. Rejoice in the grace that brings you to it and enter into his courts with praise!