We’re in the midst of Holy Week (for us Christians), which for some means spending more than the usual amount of time in church. Starting with this past Sunday, most Christian denominations conduct a total of five church services unique to this week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Our Methodist church here in Colorado devotes an hour to each of these services (short by Catholic standards); some during the day, others at night. No matter how you slice it, Holy Week means a lot of time in the sanctuary.
The church sanctuary wasn’t always a welcoming place. Growing up in Los Angeles, my family and I belonged to a formal Methodist church, with a sanctuary I can only describe as intimidating (at least from a kid’s point of view). You entered the building from the back, where the doorway greeters beckoned you to a narrow narthex. So far, so good. But the imposing sanctuary lay just beyond, through a wall of soundproof windows and closed doors, with stern-faced ushers protecting its every entrance. The pews were hardwood and upright with thin cushions, thirty deep on either side of the main aisle, marching in perfect unison towards the steps of an even-more-intimidating white marble altar. The booming organ drowned out any conversation (which was always at a whisper anyway), and the soaring structure of the ceiling made a kid wonder when it would all come a tumblin’ down like Jericho’s walls.
The congregation of worshipers was a lot of “old folks”; the kind of people who thought kids belonged in “Sunday School” instead of the sanctuary (that is, neither seen nor heard). Hence as teenagers, my friends and I sat up in the balcony (at the back of the space, kind of like the last seat on the bus). You couldn’t always hear the pastor, but at least we didn’t feel the eyes of the disapproving adults down below watching our every move. From our vantage point they were just a bunch of suits and dresses, topped by a whole lot of gray hair.
“Sanctuary” took on new meanings as I grew older. The San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the “Safari Park”) opened its gates in the 1970’s and put a completely new spin on the concept of a zoo. Animals lived in wide open spaces instead of enclosures; broad, beautiful environments designed to mimic their natural habitats. Instead of pressing noses against cages or glass, visitors saw the animals from a distance, confined to the seats of a quiet tram circling the park. If I ever come back as a member of an endangered species (like the northern white rhino I mentioned last week), put me in the San Diego Safari Park. That’s what I call an animal sanctuary.
Also in the ’70’s, Hollywood produced “Logan’s Run”. The movie depicted a utopian society of the future, offering a wealth of pleasures and resources and good living… at least until you turn thirty. At thirty you reported to the “Carousel”, where you were assured a place in “Sanctuary” – the supposedly better hereafter. Logan and his friends decide to find Sanctuary before they turn thirty, and that’s where the curtain of the ugly truth is drawn back. I can still hear Logan fighting the controlling supercomputer as he moans “THERE IS NO SANCTUARY!” Logan’s world was seductive for sure, but it was the mystery of sanctuary that had me watching to the end.
Recently, sanctuary has taken on more puzzling associations. In the 1980’s, American thrash metal produced the band Sanctuary (but nothing in my research explains the name). Sanctuary Clothing is a line described as “…capturing the Los Angeles lifestyle… vintage styling with a handcrafted focus on detail…” Again, nothing about the name. The SyFy Channel’s Sanctuary ran for four seasons and explored gene therapy and cloning, and the “strange and sometimes terrifying beings” that emerged within the human population. Finally, today’s sanctuary cities appear to be anything but, as the political feud between the Fed and the state overshadows any sense of actual security.
My definition of sanctuary will always be that primary space for worship in a church; or to put it in broader terms, “a place of refuge or safety”. Whether that’s somewhere inside, worshiping in the pews as I’ll do tonight; or somewhere outside; say, walking on a quiet path in the forest, it’s more about a feeling than a location. Sanctuary is all about personal space.