Making Sacred Space Where There is None

There’s this moment during a misty rain in New York City where if you look up to the skyline, the familiarity of the buildings you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the sunshine is lost to the low-hanging clouds. If you squint, you can see one of the taller towers just peering through the fog but only a darker outline; the details are lost to the haze. Other times, the clouds move with haste through the buildings revealing the architectural wonder of sculpted steel and glass very briefly before they’re covered and blurred again in the wet cloth looming over everything. In a nutshell, that’s been the last week or two here. The rain just won’t let up.

Down below, dodging puddles and avoiding a collision of umbrellas with fellow pedestrians is sort of like playing some weird video game, and I guess what I find so perplexing about New York in the rain is just how different it suddenly becomes. Of course, it’s not different. You’re waltzing the same streets. The buildings, despite their game of hide and seek in the mist, have not uprooted themselves (at least one hopes they haven’t). It’s just that the rain has brought out the unexpected, accentuated the heights and colored-in the depths. When a pothole becomes a puddle, it takes on a whole new meaning – both for people and for cars.

And it’s within those parallel worlds – where things in and of themselves are the same yet somehow altered by outside forces – that I’ve found myself residing lately.

13063024_663701240696_2805720780472638559_oLast week’s trip to the United Nations for a meeting on religious persecution in the Middle East left me desperate to come up for air. If it wasn’t the Dominican nuns describing in hurried Spanish their concern for the people they serve in Syria, then it was the harrowing and heroic story (told by her parents) of aid worker Kayla Mueller whose kidnapping and death in Turkey would not, could not be forgotten. Or it was a fifteen year-old Yazidi girl named Samia who tearfully described in Kurdish what had happened to her at thirteen, to her friends at eight and nine, to thousands of women and children at the hands of terrorists. Systemic, institutionalized sexual assault and abuse. There’s no other words for it.

And having heard these words, having been present as these stories poured out into the captivated room, there was this sense that having the floor of the Economic and Social Chamber at the United Nations could empower the once powerless. To bring your story here was to bring your story before an international audience, one that would, or at least should, stand in solidarity with the weak and the oppressed. The building’s shear presence, after all, is a symbol of hope and security. To speak among these walls is to add to the hope, to shore up a lasting chance for peace, making the brief five or ten minutes each person is allotted the floor seem always too short and yet somehow simultaneously overwhelming…

…overwhelming because story after story bounces off the walls while thousands more innocents are slaughtered to the drum of perceived inaction. …overwhelming because I couldn’t shake the notion that this chamber was an echo chamber empty of the voices of dissent who so needed to hear what the nuns or the Muellers or Samia might have to say. I walked away drained, depressed. I was powerless to affect this situation, or felt I was even if the work I’m currently doing does make a small dent in someones’ lives somewhere.

To hear of the pain and suffering and to know of the callousness of our world – a world grown especially callous as evidenced by the fiasco that calls itself the 2016 Presidential Election – can leave you a little drained. I didn’t have to endure what they did, so why should hearing it be so hard on my privileged psyche? I get why we would rather post silly memes and indulge ourselves in infotainment than actually endure true stories of what’s happening to people in this world. Isolationism is some kind of avoidance disorder promising us a life free of the suffering of others, and thereby making it a lie. And I get it, because there are times where I, too, would like to curl up in a ball and pretend I’d never heard those stories, the ones that needed to be told.

12957677_660087003656_4288971310938836022_oAs I was leaving the United Nations, despairing, I walked around the building and found a small chapel. The stained glass beside it was peculiar if not frightening. It wasn’t a chapel for more than a dozen to comfortably enter. And it was really more of a meditation room of sorts. Reading a plaque on the door, I learned that Dag Hammarskjöld, a former and well-known General Secretary, had personally planned and supervised every detail of the room to serve as a quiet retreat, an offering of stillness, to people of all faiths. In the center of the room, he had placed a six-and-a-half ton, rectangular slab of iron ore and the following words are written nearby:

But the stone in the middle of the room has more to tell us. We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms. The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavour must be based. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it? […] There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.

Of all the despairing, I understood why Dag Hammarskjöld felt such a room was necessary in a place like this. He, too, must have felt a sense of hopelessness. But rather than advocate for isolationism or surround himself and others with entertainment or other means of avoiding reality, he invested in stillness. He invested in holy space, in the “God whom [humankind] worships under many names and in many forms.”

As the clouds lift and warmer air returns this week to New York City, it’s important to me that I also invest myself in a spirit of Something Greater, that I take this concern and despair I know not what to do with before the Firm and Permanent, the Everlasting. And that I believe – and this part is important – that these painful stories are not told in vain, neither theirs nor mine. After all, we are and always will be some measure of who we believe we are. We believe our lives into being, or we disbelieve them into death. Not the material death we’ll all face one day, or that thousands upon thousands are facing daily with no say in the matter but a death rendered dead solely by our disbelief, by our abandonment of hope in ourselves and others. That’s a death we constantly find ourselves staring down and facing whether we want to or not, but it is not a death we should give in to ever! That’s when it becomes most important to hear again the call to life, even if that call is heard in a quiet room that’s really just a room unless whatever we’ve brought to the altar makes it something different. Because that something different is what matters. The sum of our lives is, as best I can tell, a matter of how well we hold close the tension of those opposites, the hope to belief and the despair to lack it. In that tension, we may allow the places where we find ourselves to be simply what they are, or we may make them into something more, something different, something better despite the circumstances surrounding them and by our shear presence and our living into the belief that we are called to more in this place that’s our holy home and a holy home to millions more, as well.

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