What makes a space sacred? This is the question I was left with last night as I rode the subway downtown after spending the afternoon and evening with members of the New York chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society, having been invited by the group to speak. I was struck by the feeling that I had spent time in a space that was sacred and have since reflected on just why that is the case. Yesterday, I experience sacred space in several ways.
The first way was the history of a physical location. Corpus Christi Church on the Upper West Side of New York at Columbia University is perhaps best known for its most famous convert: Thomas Merton. It was in November of 1938 that Thomas Merton was baptized in the font in Corpus Christi and then received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Merton writes about that experience rather prominently in his best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain.
Fr. Raymond Rafferty, the current pastor of Corpus Christi, explains that many people visit Corpus Christi like pilgrims to see the place the Merton was baptized. Several people a year, he says, come to this church from all over the metro New York area for RCIA, seeking baptism and full communion in the Church like Merton did, where Merton did.
Another way the space was sacred was the subject matter discussed. Every theme relating to Thomas Merton and the Franciscan tradition carried with it a sense of God’s immanent presence and the work of the Spirit in the world. The conversations that followed my presentation, both the question portion and the one-on-one discussions during the post-lecture reception, reflected for me the Gospel injunction of Christ that reminds us “when two or three are gathered, I am there.”
I met and spoke with a variety of people who came from around New York City, New Jersey and even Washington, DC, for the event. There were teachers, artists, members of The Catholic Worker communities in New York, religious men and women from a variety of communities, professional men and women and pleasantly surprising number of young people. This impromptu community, brought together by a shared admiration of Merton or St. Francis, truly made the physical and temporal space we shared together sacred.
The final way in which I found this space to be sacred came as a most delightful surprise. In the very sanctuary where I spoke just a few hours earlier, I witnessed the rehearsal of the Juilliard Baroque Orchestra. Corpus Christi church is the annual host of a music series titled “Music Before 1800,” which features the Juilliard ensemble today (30 January 2011).
The music was absolutely sublime. After sharing a wonderful dinner at a nearby restaurant with several of those who organized the lecture, I returned to the church to gather my belongings before making my way back to the friary downtown. It was then that I was able to take in gorgeous music, spending just a little time admiring the prodigious performance that lived up to Juilliard’s renowned reputation. I was told by one of the musicians present, a young bassist who has admiration for Merton himself, that the instruments used by all the members of the ensemble are authentic, each dating back to the 16th Century. That certainly contributed to the richness of the sound produced.
I now prepare for my train ride back to Albany. I am grateful for all who took time yesterday afternoon to come and listen to my lecture, offer wonderful insight through questions and discussion, and share the experience of space that is indeed sacred. It is the people that makes a space sacred and I hope to reconnect with many of those people again someday. Nobody brings people together quite like Thomas Merton and Francis of Assisi.