Spirituality

On Sacred Spaces

In these days of gratitude, I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain, Associate Professor of Theology here at Sewanee, for permitting us to share his excellent sermon (edited slightly) on sacred places preached earlier this year. Enjoy!


“Seeing Sewanee as Sacred Space”

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain

Associate Professor of Theology, The School of Theology, University of the South

A sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles at the School of Theology,

University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee on August 31, 2022

Today we commemorate Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, a 7th century Irish missionary who came from the west of Scotland to the east of England to evangelize WASPs—“White Anglo-Saxon Pagans.” As a Celtic monk trained on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, when the English King of Northumbria invited Aiden to bring the Gospel to his people, Aiden founded his own monastery-school on Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island. Unlike Iona, Lindisfarne is a part-time, tidal island, cut off twice a day from the mainland by the North Sea, but damply accessible by land when the tide is out. There is much to say about Aidan himself and the monastic community he created, their success in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the Northumbrians, the remarkable cultural achievement of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and their other great monk-bishop-saint, Cuthbert—but today I’d like to reflect less on Aidan and more on Lindisfarne, as well as Iona, and other similar sacred places.

[…]

The philosopher Mark Wynn suggests that there are three aspects to sacred place or space, what he calls “sensory experience,” “storied identity,” and “microcosmic significance.” Today I am interested in the first aspect, sensory experience. He says:

“sacred spaces are typically constructed or located in such a way as to pose various challenges for the body. They may be set on a mountain or island, for example, or they may be surrounded by various thresholds which must be traversed if the believer is to penetrate to the core of the sacred space, or they may make use of light and dark, and of scale, in such a way as to overwhelm the believer… [Such] spaces are not available for casual observation, because they can only be reached by someone who has committed themselves, in bodily terms, to surmounting the various challenges posed by the site.”

Lindisfarne is such a sacred site, and so is Iona, and so is the so-called “Old Stone Fort” down in Manchester, built 2000 years ago by Native Americans at the confluence of two rivers. If you haven’t yet visited it, you must. But as Mark Wynn’s reference to mountains suggests, Sewanee is also a sacred place in this sense. 

Before I continue, let me make myself perfectly clear: when I describe Sewanee as a sacred place in this sermon, I am not referring to the University of the South, with its particular history, ethos, and traditions. To describe Sewanee in that sense as sacred would mean appealing to Mark Wynn’s second category, of storied identity. Places are sacred through storied identity because of what has happened there, whether good or bad, like Jerusalem or Gettysburg or Wounded Knee or Auschwitz or the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. For some people, the University of the South is indeed sacred in this second sense, as the stained-glass windows in the narthex of All Saints’ Chapel that narrate the University’s complicated extended foundation indicate. And that’s what people normally mean when they call Sewanee the “Holy Mountain” or Virginia Seminary the “Holy Hill”—that is, they regard these places as holy not because of what they are, but because of what has happened or still happens there.

But, with all due respect to such storied identities, plausible or otherwise, that’s not what I am talking about at all. Sewanee is not a sacred place because of the University of the South is here; rather, the University of the South is here because Sewanee is a sacred place. And when I say that Sewanee is a sacred place, I mean Sewanee itself, this particular patch of land on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau at 1,929 feet above sea level. I suggest that we should think of Sewanee as a sacred place comparable to Lindisfarne and Iona, not because of what has happened here over the centuries, whether good or bad, but because of what this place inherently is in terms of sensory experience, and what it can thus enable us to accomplish both individually and together.

To understand this, first remember that “sacred” or “holy” means “set apart.” Second, remember how Wynn describes the sensory experience of sacred space: “sacred spaces may be set on a mountain or island, or they may be surrounded by various thresholds which must be traversed… [Such] spaces are not available for casual observation, because they can only be reached by someone who has committed themselves, in bodily terms, to surmounting the various challenges posed by the site.” In other words, in terms of sensory experience, sacred spaces are often comparatively isolated and hard to get to and thus set apart from the mainstream of ordinary life, the hustle and bustle and hurly-burly of the madding crowd. It precisely because of this inherently sacred, set apart feature of certain places that they are then so often sought out as the sites of monasteries and convents and schools of religious formation. 

Remember that in addition to the University of the South, not one but two Episcopal religious orders once had houses in Sewanee—the Order of the Holy Cross and the Community of St. Mary—and of course the sisters are still here with us. In addition to the University’s junior division, each order founded their own school, now all three merged into one, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee. To a large extent this pious and pedagogical presence is due to a series of historical events in the 19th century involving the displacement of native peoples by European settlers, periodic yellow fever epidemics, a substantial gift of land from a mining company, and the fact that the rail-line connecting Nashville and Chattanooga ran right along the base of the plateau. But it was also due to the intuitive sense of people such as Moses and Elijah and Jesus, and Columba and Aidan and Cuthbert, and many others, that withdrawing to “a place apart” (Matthew 14:13; Mark 6:31) is good for the soul. It is often easier to pray in such places, for example; it is easier to focus on God; it is easier to study as both an intellectual exercise and spiritual practice. It’s a cliché that sites like Iona and Lindisfarne are “thin places” where the threshold between the natural and the supernatural is easily crossed, but perhaps it would be better to call them “deep places” where it is possible to enter more deeply into the life of God and God’s people.

[…]

There is a lot about Sewanee as both a place and as an institution that provokes various forms of frustration and critique, but again focusing on Sewanee in the sense of place, I would say that thinking of Sewanee itself as a sacred space like Lindisfarne or Iona that is set apart by its physical location from the mainstream of ordinary life might be generative for us. If so, then during your time here, embrace the place that Sewanee is and let it teach you what it has to teach you. For example, go for a walk in the woods. Take a partner, wear bug-spray, look out for snakes, and check yourself for ticks afterward—but go for a walk. Also take full advantage of the relative silence, the clear night skies, the rapidly changing weather, the four distinct seasons, the vistas, even the fog. Places without noise, light, and air pollution are increasingly rare and precious in this world of ours.

As for Sewanee the institution, for all of its faults and limitations, think of yourselves as members of a seminary that is descended from the monastic schools of Iona and Lindisfarne—because, in fact, you are. The same impulse that led Columba to Iona and Aidan to Lindisfarne to found their monastic schools also led to this School being here on this Mountain. But remember that the whole purpose of Iona and Lindisfarne was not to withdraw completely from the world and remain on those holy islands, cut off forever from the mainland, but rather for Christians to be formed and transformed by God’s Holy Spirit powerfully at work in those deep places so that they could then go back to the mainland bearing the Good News of Jesus Christ. This sacred place and others like it serve a similar purpose. As Paul said of his ministry to the Corinthians, he “did it all for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23). We believe that those words are likewise true of Columba and Aiden and Cuthbert, and please God may they be true of us as well. Amen.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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