I HAD A LOVELY CONVERSATION with a visitor to our quiet, largely empty church this morning. It was a conversation that confirmed all that I believe to be true about our human need for “space” – religious space for some, but for most just plain space. “God, I’m glad you’re OPEN, Father. I just needed some space.” I’ve heard that sentence not once but thousands of times over the years. “I just needed some space”.
St Michael’s offers plenty of space. Uncluttered, tidy, minimalist – one might say. A beautiful, striking work of art, old and new. “Wow! Look at all this space”.
I felt like that when I visited the magisterial (and at that time still incomplete) Liverpool Cathedral as a small boy. One of the most visceral experiences of God I’ve ever had, by then in my early thirties, involved the late and very great Carlo Curley playing a “touring organ” opposite Ian Tracey on the Cathedral’s own magnificent and spellbinding instrument. Incomparably great music, brought to birth with the inimitable style and panache of two world class organists, filled huge, huge, architecturally glorious space. One of the largest organ pipes in the world delivers a basso profondo voice that – literally – shakes, vibrates, some hitherto unimagined new sense, some new generosity, some new space, into the deepest regions of one’s soul. Like the primal breath, the spacious life of God blown into mud-pat Adam-dust.
The weighty, long awaited Hillsborough Report was delivered yesterday, with aching solemnity and immense dignity in that same Liverpool Cathedral’s soaring, prayer-inspiring, healing space. “I just needed some space.” Great weight needs great space.
“So glad you’re OPEN, Father” … and my newfound friend this morning went on to leave me dumbstruck by what he told me he saw in St Michael’s carefully and deliberately carved and designed space.
“This isn’t empty, is it? This space is here because you need space to hold people’s stories. Hundreds and hundreds of stories. Saints’ and sinners’ stories. You need space for angels to fly in. Sometimes I think that the angels are the space itself, what d’ya reckon?”
Alleluia! – that’s what I reckon!
Just needing space. If we’re to hold and cherish, and live with and rejoice in, and suffer with and learn from the millions upon millions of human stories all around us we need space. Space so that the mere sounds, the echoes, of gunships and bombings and exclusion zones – political and ecclesiastical – and maimings and blamings don’t blow us all in heart and soul and mind and body to smithereens. Space to reckon with being alive.
And religious buildings are just metaphors really for the large space that each of us must find in OPEN hearts for every other living, breathing, eating, giving, loving, moving, seeing, starving, hearing, laughing, weeping, crying and dying creature upon earth. We all need space; to dump the sclerotic clutter that chokes the life and nourishment out of all of us unless we take a stand.
So I pray that our philosophical and religious and faithing propositions and traditions will strive to facilitate space instead of wasting good breath on the maintenance and fabrication of yet more walls. Fewer hard and fast and dangerous certainties, much less “fund-raising” (which tries and fails to take the place of generosity and spaciousness of heart) – and much more rejoicing in the space that is ALREADY OPEN and available to all of us if only we’ll stop terrorising ourselves and each other and walk through the door. Hymns, prayers, sermons and speeches, blogs, encyclicals, journals, scriptures and pronouncements alike must all take second place to space. “God, I’m glad you’re OPEN, Father. I just needed some space”.
As so often, my friend Mimi brings us an apposite word:
I’m learning how to breathe. And as I write this, I realize that I am learning that this is how one goes about making a life.
Learning how to breathe. All of us. In wide, expansive, free and glorious space. Let me make space for Syria in my heart tonight, together with the wonderful, terminally ill lady at whose bedside I spent some time this afternoon. Let me make space in my heart for the sisters and brothers who walk this lovely earth with me. Let me acknowledge that we share the same breath. We share the same space. We plead the same prayer. For space. To learn how to continue breathing. To learn how to Love. To learn our way Home. Here, now, today. All of us. Here’s the space that matters. This space. Now.
Too many wars have been waged in the name of the Space that may or may not be afforded us beyond the grave. And this “salvation” as it’s so often called is too often anything but. It’s far too frequently stagnation, suffocation, starvation, deprivation. We need space here. Now. Liverpool Cathedral. Any cathedral. St Michael’s. Any church, any house of prayer. Big-skied mountain top. Any expanded and still further expanding heart. Each of us must take our part. Learning how to breathe, and singing, or praying, or just plain saying to the Source of it all - “God, I’m glad you’re OPEN”.