God’s place, sacred space

St Ignatius' Church, Richmond, Victoria, Australia
St Ignatius’ Church, Richmond, Victoria, Australia

Why do you go to church?  Have you ever really stopped to think about it and the purpose of the building you are visiting?

We might say that we go because we want to worship and love the Lord in community, and especially to receive Him in the Holy Eucharist.  We want our hearts and spirits to be nourished, revitalized, and strengthened in Him by listening to His word.  We also want to be in communion with our fellow believers in Christ and help one another grow in holiness on our earthly journey.

There may be several reasons and responses to this question, and the ones above are all good and true.  But sometimes what we say and what we experience or feel when we go to church may need re-examining.  In other words, we need to take the time to truly reflect on and question our motivations, thoughts, feelings, and spirits, to truly appreciate the sacred space that is the church and what is taking place inside it.

Are we excited when we go there and cannot wait to receive the Lord in the Holy Eucharist during Mass?  Do we truly believe that Jesus is bursting with love to give Himself to us under the guise of the bread and wine which is distributed to us during Holy Communion?  Are we really listening to the readings from the Bible and allowing it to sink into our minds and souls?

Church – as in the small ‘c’ definition – is the place where we gather together to celebrate and participate in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist.  It is where we physically go to meet our Lord and receive His Body and Blood.  It is when and where:

…the faithful gather “to listen to the word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the Passion, Resurrection, and glory of the Lord Jesus, and giving thanks to God who has begotten them again, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead unto a living hope” (CCC 1167)

For me being at my church is like a second home and is a very special and sacred place for so many reasons.  I grew up within the bluestone walls of my church and received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and first Holy Communion during my childhood.  For many years I have been honoured to serve the Mass by singing in choirs and as a cantor.  I love attending Mass, and my hope is that the music ministry which supports our celebration of the Eucharist will help everyone feel closer to God.  In addition to the spoken word, I want people to feel how the power of music is another way that the Lord carries His messages into their hearts, souls, and lives.  Those who serve in the church – be they musicians, sacristans, flower arrangers, cleaners, priests,  religious, etc – are channels through which God’s power flows out to all we encounter.

My church is a big and beautiful place within my inner city suburb of humble, working-class origins.  It was gradually built with the pennies of the simple people who lived there over 150 years ago.  Because of its architecture and imposing appearance it is a popular choice for weddings and baptisms, and over many decades people have walked through its doors for these reasons alone.  But in way I feel sorry for such church buildings too.  That may sound strange, but I sometimes feel that the true purpose of visits to our churches can be lost amidst other distractions and intentions.  Jesus can be forgotten when we don’t focus on Him there.  All churches, including the big and beautiful ones, exist to be strong symbols of God’s presence and for our attention to be drawn to Him alone.

For me church is also a sanctuary.  I love it when the church is filled with prayers, happy faces, and music, but I am also at peace when sitting in the empty cavernous space of a church, with candles flickering in the distance.  The absence of the modern sounds of life makes it easy to detach from all of my concerns and I feel more connected to God.

Churches must be treated with respect because they are, first and foremost, holy places.  In His name they are built for worship, prayer, praise, reflection, quiet, solemnity, celebration, joy, song, remembrance, hope, smiles, and tears.  But most crucially they exist for people to gather and honour our Creator and His Son in receiving the Holy Eucharist.  Churches are not performance or concert venues, backdrops for photo opportunities, grand wedding showcases, or architectural wonders to laud the works of humans.  Spires are built pointing upwards for a reason.

God is present there.  He wants us to go to church to receive Him, love Him, and respect Him in His house.  The church is God’s dwelling and meeting place with us, where we encounter the miracle of His Son’s sacrifice in the Eucharist.  Everything we do there – individual or group prayer, silent reflection, singing, confession, attending funerals or weddings, and so on, needs to be done respectfully with Him in mind because He is hidden in the Eucharist.

This includes being mindful of our demeanour.  Are we behaving appropriately in our churches and during Mass?  Do we look happy to be there?  Are we noisy, chattering, or just socializing?  Are we there for the right reasons?  Are we aware that Christ is with us and do we acknowledge Him in the tabernacle?  Do we bow before Him at the altar?  Is He the centre of our attention during Mass or are we distracted by other things and other thoughts?  Do we take our babies and children to Mass so that they can follow our example?  Do we accompany our elderly citizens to Mass, if they are physically able, to strengthen their faith in the Lord?  Is there anyone who we can help to get to church?

As Pope Francis has said, church is not a show.  We must focus on God alone and not on anything that may take our hearts or minds away from Him in the Eucharist.

One day when I was small and sitting in the pews at my church, I asked my mother what the little red light was in the distance near the main altar.  She said that the light was on because Jesus was there, and as long as that sanctuary lamp was on, it meant that He was present.  I remember falling silent and feeling afraid, firstly because I was spooked that He was watching me, and secondly because I was hoping and praying that the red light would never go out so that He would not vanish.  Such are a child’s thoughts, but I have never forgotten my mother’s response and now, so many years later, I have not seen that light disappear.  Even when I am singing beside the sanctuary, near that same altar, whenever I see that light I am reminded that He is always there.

God wants us to go to our churches because He loves us and wants to see us together in praise and communion before Him.  When a family member or friend wants to be close to you, to get to know you, share special times with you, have a meal, or just sit with you, a sign of deeper connection is for them to invite you into their home.  It is meant to be a place of warmth, comfort, sharing, peace, and friendship.  Homes hold special objects and can give you an insight into someone’s personality and unique touch.  You can understand who a person is by the way they keep their home and how you feel there.  It is the same with God.

We are God’s family and His house – the church – is not meant to be cold or distant, but is created especially for you and I to visit Him and get to know Him there.  He wants you to come in, even with your spiritual messiness, even if your soul is stained, to get the help and nourishment you need.  He wants to sit with you and comfort you with His words.  He shares Himself with you in His special meal, and if you accept Him your spirit will never be hungry for anything else.

If you have seldom darkened the doors of your Catholic church, have stopped going for some reason, or feel unworthy to be there, please think again.  Try again.  Cross the threshold.  Go to God’s house.  He is waiting for you, even if you cannot see Him.  He will welcome you with love.


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