In every Catholic Church there is a special room, hidden somewhere out of sight, where the tools of the Mass are kept. There is a rack where the priests vestments are hung, and cabinets which are used to store the various tools of the Mass: the paten and chalice, ciborium and censor.
In some churches, the Sacristy is equipped with a special sink which drains into the earth instead of into the sewers. This sink is used to clean the vessels used during the rite of Communion, it being important that no part of the body or blood of their savior, having been washed away, should come into contact with human waste. This is a part of the sacrament that no one sees, but is every bit as important as all the pomp and circumstance of the Mass.
If the true drama of the church takes place at the altar, before the eyes of the attendant faithful, we may think of the Sacristy as the backstage, a space both sacred and utilitarian, dedicated to the mundane needs of the priest and the fulfillment of his office.
While I grew up in the Church, I could never believe in the miracle it all hinged upon.
The rituals however, the mechanics of it all, these things were always fascinating to me.
I suppose some of the other christian churches must have Sacristies of their own, but I have observed that the further removed a denomination is from its Roman roots, the less likely it is to believe that an object can be imbued with holiness. In these churches where the pulpit has replaced the holy altar, the robes are simply robes, and the weird little glass dixie-cups that they serve grape juice in are just weird little glass dixie-cups.
If a church like that has a Sacristy at all, surely would be in name only.
Of course, I could easily be wrong on that point. I happily admit that my knowledge of that end of the Christian spectrum is somewhat lacking, and I am sure that someone among my friends or readers will correct me if I have muddled the details.
Still, it seems to me that if you believe that the tools of ritual are blessed, you must need a sanctified space in which to store them and to prepare them for use.
If you do not believe, or if the nature of your belief is such that you have no place for tools or ritual, the need for such a space is equally absent.
But what happens at the other end of that spectrum? What if your belief is that everything has a living and sacred spirit, that every rock and tree, that the air we breath and the soil beneath our feet, is all of it inspirited, all humming with power and presence?
If all the word’s a stage, where do we hide all the props and costumes when they’re not in use?
As usual, we’ve got it backward.
“Nature is My Church” is a popular saying among pagans.
There are lots of variations of this sentiment, but it is almost always coupled an image of some pure wilderness setting, the idea being that the majesty of the forest canopy or the wind carved arches of desert stone are the pagan equivalent of a cathedrals walls.
And while I freely admit that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences, come from moments spent in a wilderness setting, I don’t think that this is what that phrase means, or what it should mean.
We have worked so hard, as a species, to compartmentalize our world and our lives. “Nature,” we think of as a place apart from home and from work. It is another place we might choose to go, instead of the mall or the gym. Maybe we make daily visits to the jogging trail at the nearby city park, or we could save up our money for that once in a lifetime chance to gather the family head ‘cross country, basking in the majesty of some National Park.
But ‘going’ to church is what the Christians do.
Nature isn’t a place, and it is not a thing.
Nature is a force, and like gravity (or Facebook), it’s pretty much everywhere.
The trackless miles of old-growth forests are no more or less a part of nature than a few blades of grass, peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk.
We don’t go to nature. Nature finds its way to us, always, crashing through whatever feeble barriers we might like to erect against it. If nature is our church, then that’s the whole of it.
The world is OUR temple.
But does it feel that way?
If you are anything like me, what you feel, most of the time, is a great weight pressing you down, threatening to suffocate you beneath the endless minutia of the every day.
Oh, we can break through it from time to time.
We can steal a few moments of meditation. We can light the fires on the special days, breathing in the smoke, and feeling our lungs clear like we were bursting up from a deep dive. We can calm our minds with a walk in the sunshine, or the rain, or beneath the light of the moon.
But these are fragmentary moments, and when they pass, we’ll still have to deal with pressure that comes along with the day to day grind of existence. And most people call this “life”.
But I’ve found another word for it.
I call it Sacristy.
All the world is a Sacred Space, all of it, but we have made of it a storeroom.
We have, all around us, the tools of worship, but we seldom take them up.
Instead, we tuck them away in their special cubbies, lest they become misplaced.
Our spiritual selves we leave hanging on a rack, waiting for those ever so special occasions when we’ll slip them on and take ‘em for a twirl.
A couple thousand years ago a new religion, born of an unlikely marriage between a messianic cult and the religious methodology of ancient Rome, began to sweep across the land. With its arrival the gods were banished from our day to day tasks, and the spirits of field and forest were ignored and eventually forgotten.
Because religion became a separate entity unto itself, and everything beyond the cathedral walls, profane.
And here we are, those of us who are working to resurrect the old ways, still burdened by this terrible idea: church is a place we go, religion is a thing we do, and most of our lives are spent backstage, just waiting for the next scene.
I work, and I pay my bills, and the list of things that need to be done just keeps piling up, and not the least bit of progress on the little temple that I’ve sworn to build behind my house.
Because where would I find the time, or the energy, or the money for materials, when everything else needs doing first?
It has become emblematic for me, my little temple project, of a much bigger problem.
A little more every day, I grow tired of living in the Sacristy.
This is the tenth post in this series, following the thoughts, planning, and (I hope), the eventual construction of a small temple space on my property. If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.