05 July 2012

Prayer and place

Sitting on their front porch and looking at the views above (to the south) and on the right (to the east), I asked our hosts in rural Idaho whether they've gotten accustomed to the daily availability of such wonderful vistas. Their answer was simple and heartening: "No." They start every day with appreciation.

It's not exactly the same topic, but I've been wondering about the relationship between prayer and concrete places, and between prayer and concrete objects.

I've mentioned the Russian concept of "namolennoye mesto"--a place that is prayed-over or "emprayed" if there is such a word ... a place that bears the imprint of generations of prayer. Some cathedrals and shrines seem to have that sense--even (especially?) places such as the subterranean monastery near Buzuluk that were destroyed during the Soviet era.

As for concrete objects, I remember a friend of ours in Elektrostal who thought my Soviet-era icon (left) was not enough for us to have in our home. He gave us two dusty old icons from his church that he thought were sufficiently "emprayed."

Some of us Quakers have been discussing the Pussy Riot case that I mentioned a few weeks ago ("It is impossible that no offenses should arise...."). One person said that she didn't have the same understanding of "sacred spaces" that most Russian Orthodox worshippers would have. And I too have mixed feelings about the very concept of sacred space. If I have a theology that says God is everywhere and requires no special places, but nevertheless feel that some specific places or things somehow seem imbued with spiritual power, am I being inconsistent?

Well, inconsistency is not the end of the world. But there are political dimensions to this dilemma. For one thing, how much weight do we give these sacred-place beliefs, particularly when protesters trade on the shock value of disrupting them or treating them with what comes across as disrespect? Does "sacredness" then take on the force of law? Does "offense" become an objective reality, immune from question? Does a temptation arise to claim offense for political purposes?

A related political dimension is the protection of these places and things. As soon as a sacred place becomes fenced or decorated at great expense, it must be maintained and (presumably) guarded. It wouldn't be surprising that the more grand or expensive or extensive these properties become, the more complex the questions become of drawing on public resources to guard them--even to the extent of enmeshing church and state. (In case you think I'm only referring to Russia, I also seem to remember a Friends meetinghouse in West Branch, Iowa, that's part of a National Park.)

As for theology, I'm not too worried about the inconsistency between "everywhere" and "special places." It seems an observable fact that prayers for healing seem especially efficacious in certain places. Whether it is prayer power alone, or a sort of divine placebo effect--in other words, what is the exact nature of cause and effect in these places?--doesn't worry faithful people and probably shouldn't worry me. After all, we believe in the equality of all people in God's eyes, and still observe that people have different spiritual gifts, different levels of maturity, and moreover have their individual ups and downs.

Not to make light of spiritual places, I'm ending this bit now to go back to the blues festival.

(On the Pussy Riot trial, see "Is Christianity under attack?")

"Repentance in exchange for freedom," a conversation with Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Nancy Thomas on the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theological Conference.

A conversation with Oteil Burbridge of the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

One of my Blues Festival photos won an honorable mention in a blues festival photography contest. I'm taking that same old camera to the waterfront in a few minutes.

Nick David performed twice at the Festival yesterday, once with his band, the Dirty Tricks, and once on the Front Porch Stage during the harmonica blow-off, where I heard him do a wonderful version of this Junior Wells classic:


Anonymous said...

The fact that all air has some humidity, does not mean that some air does not have more humidity. In the midst of a North Carolina summer, I can attest to the truth of this statement. It applies to sacredness also. There are places which are more sacred, although all places are sacred. There are people who are saintly, too, although that of God is within everyone.

Jay T. said...

Thank you, letters. Your comment is very helpful.

I have struggled with the dilemma that Johan outlined. I have an understanding that God needs no special place, but a sense that some places are very sanctified. Your analogy with humidity helps me understand how to hold those two perceptions consistently.