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Exploring Sanctuary

Wednesday, Oct 04, 2017

Episcopal School, NAIS, Sanctuary, Episcopal, Independent School

What is sanctuary? Is it a place? A person? What does being in sanctuary feel like? These are the questions our students will reflect on in All School and Divisional Chapels this year. As we celebrated our October All School Chapel on October 3, we thought we would begin this theme by learning more about our Breck sanctuary. Below are the words from my homily that, I hope, will give insight and inspiration for our Breck community throughout this year.

To begin the chapel, we listened to Leviticus 23: 39-43. In this reading, God instructs the Jewish people to collect the harvest and spend seven days celebrating the food gathered and remembering that the Israelites no longer live in exile. Day one would be entirely of rest, then five days of celebration, then an entire day of rest again. During these days, they are instructed to live in booths. The booths are called sukkahs and the festival of harvest, known as Sukkot, begins tomorrow (October 4, 2017). This is one of many scriptural texts about creating a place of worship, but the significance of the design of the sukkah, is that by being in contact with the elements, you are more easily connected to God. The sukkahs should include a roof of palm trees, branches of willows, and other leafy trees with an opening where you can look up at the vastness of the stars and wonder about your place in creation, remembering the bounty of the life you live.

All kinds of houses of worship are designed with similar intent, as vessels and spaces that create room for our connection to the divine. That may be through lofted ceilings or domes, both designed to direct your attention to higher things above. It could be with pews or open flooring where the prayer form could be standing, sitting, kneeling, or bowing. There may be ornate images of saints, prophets, and Gods, or no images at all. Whatever the design may be, it is meant to create space for connection.

Breck_Campus_2013_3323.jpgOur Chapel of the Holy Spirit was built in 1982 and is our main sanctuary here on campus. It literally is an award winning building. Next week, a man named George Johnson will return to Breck. He was the chair of the building committee who internally led the construction of this room in conjunction with Cuningham group, the architectural firm responsible for the design. Mr. Johnson often says that the two greatest accomplishments of his life are his family and building this space. Not bad for life accomplishments.

This room was designed to have a certain feeling. It is meant to be commanding, striking, to focus our attention, and cause us to take pause because of the grandiosity. Dramatic lofted ceilings, a tiered choir loft, symmetrical pews, simple lines, the depth of the wood all accomplish that. And yet, it was also designed to foster a sense of closeness and connection, with no single seat being farther than 60 feet from the center.

The round shape pivoting off the platform was chosen so that we all felt together in community, whether on the platform where I am standing, in the choir loft, or the very back pew, there was intentionality for us all to feel a part of what is happening here. We are able to look across the room and see one another. This space reminds us to be here, in this moment, to reflect, pray, sing, and be present to each other.

Overall Interior axial view.jpg

The name Chapel and the title of chaplain are also intentional as a part of our life together at Breck. In French, a chapelain is a traveler’s cloak. It is draped over your shoulders while you walk, but if it were to rain or snow, you could use it to protect yourself from the elements you encounter while traveling on a journey. The cloak could be a blanket, a pillow, a rain jacket, a coat all in one. It is protective, multi-purposed and versatile. Similarly, this space is meant to be a sanctuary on your spiritual journey, no matter the religious path you walk. Your Chaplains do not have the title of minister or rector, although Father Bellaimey (Papa B) is an ordained priest. Instead, the title of Chaplain reflects our duties and our role as guides as you travel through this place, providing protection and sanctuary from the elements you encounter on your journey.

Altar.jpgThe beams in the center windows behind me are designed to be the sun, letting light inspire our worship together. In fact, the building is facing this way so that the sun rises in one set of windows and sets in the other. We call this raised area the platform, not a stage because this isn’t a theatre. Our offerings in here are not performances, but rather gifts, all of which God sees equally. It is a worship space, and we don’t want a gate or railing separating what happens up here from these seats. When we bring out the altar, the large table from which we serve communion, we want it front and center, close to the congregation with nothing blocking the access to the gifts offered from the table. We want a sense of oneness in the room, so while this area is slightly raised, it isn’t separate. The philosophy of the Chapel design, reflects our philosophy of Chapel, as our services are a time apart, a time for rest and celebration, but are within and integral to our broader Breck story.  

So, what does sanctuary feel like for you? Is it the sense of flow and energy you feel while playing on the soccer field, or the laughter you share with friends? Is it in quiet moments where you have nowhere else to be except exactly where you are or cheering with the crowd at a Breck football game? Like our Chapel, I hope your sanctuary includes a sense of closeness. I hope it encourages rest and celebration. I hope it has connection with loved ones, with your classmates, your colleagues, perhaps even with strangers, and with God.

We will talk more about where we all find sanctuary in our lives, but time together in our Chapel of the Holy Spirit is, like Sukkot, a time of rest and celebration. Maybe not of a harvest exactly, but certainly of our bounty.

Last year I was working in my office just outside of this room when I heard someone say, “The Chapel.” I looked out to see an alumnus standing in the doorway, gazing at the room. I greeted her at which point she explained further. “The Chapel. I took the Chapel for granted. I walked by it everyday for years and never noticed how incredible it is. Now that I am away, I miss it and I wish I had known how important to me it really was and will continue to be in my life.”

When we gather in Chapel, we are given the gift of time. Time to celebrate our Chapel and one another, to take rest for a while, together. Next time you are in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, I invite you to look around. What about the space have you never noticed until now? What have you really never taken the time to see? What about the space can inspire you more deeply, inviting rest and connection? These are all the things we hope you find in our sanctuary.  Amen.