Thursday, February 23, 2006
space (the final frontier?!)
I've just got another film of photos developed which included a couple from the Marae at Te Papa. I was there a few weeks ago with a Ffriend from Edinburgh, the first time I've explored that part of the museum - as with the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh it is one of those places you can go back to time and again and still find something new (altho' invariably my visits in Edinburgh ended up at the steam trains whilst various little people pressed the buttons on the models to make the wheels go round...).
What struck me tho' about the Marae apart from the amazing carvings/sculpture, and the beauty of the light coming through the enormous stained glass window - despite the greyness outside - was the instant sense of being in a worshipful space - it felt tapu/sacred and it felt wrong keeping my shoes on or talking aloud - kind of mixture of cultural reactions. It was like visiting a cathedral back in Britain (something we did a lot of when I was a child as for several years my parents made ceramic pendants and plaques for Cathedral gift shops). I could have quite happily sat there for ages, just being present in that space - definitely somewhere to remember for future grey days! It surprised me to find that sense of tranquility and inner stillness there. It has been a while since I've found that in a building that wasn't Quaker.
I remember getting very annoyed at York Minster whenI found that it felt more like a medieval tourist theme park than a place of worship (sorry Kate if I've got the wrong era!). St Giles in Edinburgh is much the same - both tho' have their saving grace of a side chapel which somehow retains a more 'appropriate' feel.
Quakers don't place much attachment (if any) to buildings as places of worship in the sense that why should any one place be more sacred than any other (probably a bit like the implied double standard of oath taking - why should ones behaviour be any different on consecrated ground than elsewhere?). To me it doesn't matter where I worship - be it inside or out, I'm more worried about being physically comfortable than anything else. Yet I find that there are places, be they Meeting Houses, churches, cathedrals, stone circles, a clearing in a wood, by a still pool on a river or a windswept cliff top where I get a sense of there being something more to them than meets the eye, sometimes to the extent of feeling a tingling running through my fingers. These are places that seem to draw out the need in me to give thanks, a silent prayer or contemplation. Not all 'religious' buildings have that effect on me by a long way, I can remember not being able to get out of the new Coventry Cathedral fast enough (new as in not the one bombed in the blitz) as it gave me the creeps - I couldn't explain why then and still can't now but remembering still sends shudders down my spine.
In recent ministry at Meeting someone referred to the stillness they had found in a meditation tent which was in town for 24hrs as being of a 'higher plane' whereas the silence in Meeting for Worship 'went into the depths'. It was an interesting concept and I understand exactly what was meant by the difference between the forms of silence but I wonder what it is about these places that feel like they are gateways between the spiritual and temporal worlds - where does the quality of the silence often found there lie on that spectrum? I guess I'll just have to go back to the Marae and see if I can work it out...
But do we all experience it in the same way? Do others get a sense of depths or heights when they come into our space? Many times as a warden of Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House I'd be showing people round (both Quakers and non-Quakers) and they'd get to the Meeting Room on the top floor and comment on the 'wonderful peaceful atmosphere' in the room - yet so often the street outside would be noisey and could be clearly heard through the open windows. A Friend at Svartbäcken in Sweden was telling me how when showing someone round the buildings there when they got to the Meeting Room the person just stopped dead in their tracks and asked amazed 'what happens in here? Is it a chapel?' - they didn't know anything about Quakers and were just looking at the building as a venue for a conference yet they were instantly hit by the atmosphere in the room as being worshipful. How is that atmosphere achieved though? We don't exactly sit there and plan it at Premises Committee - we have enough to worry about with deciding on chairs and decor, not to mention leaky ceilings etc! We don't have someone come and consecrate our buildings first, we just turn up. Do we have that effect when we worship over the years on space that isn't collectively ours, like community centre rooms or even people's homes? What impact does this have on other users of the space?
So many questions, so few answers....