Today I was an assistant in my son's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. In the course of the opening time of singing, we happened to sing the song "Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary/pure and holy/tried and true/with thanksgiving/I want to be a living/sanctuary for you." My friend Jeff, who was also assisting today, happened to ask the children what a sanctuary was. In less than a second, my brain checked out from this vocabulary review as the image and words sprang to my mind: sanctuary = holy place; ok... next? But there was my son with his hand up, and he responded "A sanctuary is a place where you go to be safe."
It was one of those ripping the needle off the record album moments for me. Sanctuary. A place of safety. Hmmm. Holiness. Safety. Hmmm.
In the God-vocabulary recesses of my mind, the word holiness/sanctuary and the song itself (which I learned many years ago) conjured up images of being clean, scrubbed, no junk, "picture perfect," flawless, immaculate. These certainly are not evil associations, but I realized that these also suggest to me the idea of effort, striving, and -- especially -- great potential for loss. When my son mentioned this concept of sanctuary as a place of safety, entirely different images come to mind: love, comfort, peace, acceptance, freedom, relaxation, fullness, joy. These associations suggest to me that this is a gift, not something I have to struggle to maintain or earn. And there might even be a scrap or two of junk lying about.
Somehow the idea of safety brought my mind to my friend Joe. He has been, in ways simultaneously great and small, a catalyst in my life this year both just as himself and as our parish choir director. But there is an interesting twist for me with this concept of safety as I think about this friend. Now, I think of my husband as one who gives my life its solid foundation. He is a steady-Eddy, and the face of loyalty and security themselves. I am blessed to have a husband with whom I don't have any concerns of volatility or that leaves-you-guessing sort of sense. He is the face of Christ giving me certainty, constancy, hope. But when I think of Joe I think of a dynamic that is understandably very different. Actually, the image that came to mind right away was of the taxi ride to the top of the Mount of Transfiguration. If you have ever taken that trip, you cannot forget it. The roads are far too narrow for tour buses to climb, so they all park at the bottom of Mt. Tabor, and tiny little taxis pack in the pilgrims while grinning cabbies take hairpin turns at what seem like horrendous speeds, and deposit the pilgrims at the top of the mountain, where I'm sure many stumble out with racing hearts and prayers of thanks on their lips. They are safe. The drivers know it all along, but the passengers aren't always so sure. Joe is like this face of Christ, grinning at me reassuringly while I soar with exhilaration (but not without questioning whether I'm actually about to die).
Singing in and of itself is not really something that I feel takes a great deal of courage, but singing either with a choir or cantoring with an organ requires a certain kind of unity, a tiny kind of death to oneself. I have always been used to singing any which way I feel like in church; inventing harmonies, switching octaves, etc. But the kind of singing I do now calls for the sort of courage that is not about standing in front of others and being heard (yawn), but the courage to contribute what is mine in coordination with someone else, and not as a freestylist. Maybe you can grasp how this is requires an act of courage for me. The other people involved become important to me, and I to them. I, who have had such a habit of living in a solitary way, even among people. It just brings me a sense of wonder again and again. And I've found many implications for my broader life, well beyond music, but born within this meaning: politics, interior life, relationships. Singing doesn't generally make me question if I'm so close to the edge that I'm about to plummet to my death, but these other things sure do!
So, I look at Joe, and I see Christ telling me I am safe. I am in a sanctuary, a safe place. It is a gift to me, this love, comfort, peace, acceptance, freedom, relaxation, fullness, joy. It is given to me not as an end in itself, but so that I face the challenges of life with courage and thereby make it possible for others to find a sanctuary as well.
And I wonder... maybe this is what holiness is actually all about after all.