Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Holy space

Out for my walk this morning I was listening to a 'Thought for the Day' from earlier this week on my iPod, and the speaker, a Buddhist, was speaking about it being an anniversary in the Buddhist tradition of Gautama's 'enlightenment' sat beneath a fig tree. I then listened to a recording of Radio 4's 'Sunday' programme, and one of the reports was of a book which lists the 500 holiest sites in (I think) Britain. Towards the end of my walk I popped into the local newsagents and had a brief chat with Mahmood, the newsagent, who I'd not seen for a while. He told me that he'd just returned from a visit to Mecca (I presume it was his 'Haj'), and was quite obviously moved by the experience of visiting that place which is of such significance to Islam.

This left me reflecting on the importance of place in the spiritual life, and the linked idea of pilgrimage. My own tradition of British Methodism has a strong nostalgic sense of place around Epworth Rectory (John & Charles Wesley's birthplace), the New Room in Bristol (The first Methodist preaching house), and Wesley's Chapel in London, where John Wesley died, and there are many from around the world who journey to these places on a regular basis.

25 years ago I was a student at Cliff College, a Methodist Bible college situated in the Peak District of Derbyshire, and every year since then I have returned there for their annual 'Festival' weekend around the Spring Bank holiday. A friend of mine, who was a student at the same time as me, places his conversion to Christ at that event back in the early 1980s, and could point out the tree under which he was standing on the terrace when it happened. The place is important to him - something significant happened to him there (like Buddha) under that tree.

Last evening we held our annual meeting at Wesley Hall, and we talked - among many other things - about the space we use for worship and mission. In silence, sorrow and celebration; in sermons and in song, people have, over the years, found God in that place. God is, of course, in all things and in all places, but there are times when that presence is focused and enhanced in certain locations - when God's Spirit is evoked by the prayers of God's people over the years concentrated in that one spot. And perhaps the art, the outcome, the end of Spirituality is to recognise the presence of the Divine wherever we are, for 'surely the Lord is in this place.' And is perhaps part of the role of the Church is to help provide and maintain 'space' for people to encounter God for themselves, in their own way, in their own time.