There’s something about an empty church sanctuary. In the absence of Sunday morning busyness, you can better feel what it is at its heart. A place meant for safety, and holiness. A place meant to elevate us beyond the stresses and trials of everyday life, to remind us that we are loved, abundantly welcome, and offered transcendent grace at every turn.
When rightly built, home can be a sanctuary of its own.
I come from a long line of sanctuary makers. Both my grandmothers, or Omas, as Mennonites prefer, were boundlessly hospitable women. Their homes were sanctuaries in the best sense of the word. If you walked through their doors, you were safe and accepted, no matter what—awash in an atmosphere of welcome and prayer. Once, as a fretful teen, I stopped by Opa and Oma Bergmann’s house, forgetting it was their traditional afternoon rest time. Oma came to the door, half asleep but beaming, and when I apologized for waking her, insisted, “There’s never a time I don’t want to see you!”
My own mother was and is a sanctuary maker, as well. During my youngest years, we were poor as the proverbial church mice. My earliest Christmas memory is of waking up on a restless night in December and finding my mother bent over her old sewing machine, carefully piecing together stuffed animals from leftover scraps of fabric for gifts. And as poor as we sometimes were, neither my sister nor I remember a time when home did not feel like a place of safety and welcome and love. That particular Christmas was as much a joy as any other—we read the Christmas story, as always, played with the little wooden figures of our Nativity set, as always, and I kept my handmade floral-sprigged reindeer until it fell apart.
Besides building a sanctuary for us, my mother read my sister and I stories of such places. Of the Ingalls family, creating a small haven wherever they went. Of the Swiss Family Robinson, who cheerfully made their own safety and abundance despite being cast away. Of Anne Shirley and Emily Starr, who found their sanctuaries and thrived in them. I took those lessons to heart, and this year, more than any other, I’ve needed them to lean on.
I have daughters of my own now—eight and six years old. And it falls to me to make a sanctuary for them at a time when the world has turned upside down. Home has never been more important. It’s not just the center of our universe anymore—it’s the universe entire, and our sanctuary in every sense of the word. Here we pray and worship. Here we read and learn. Here we play and argue and muddle through. For now, there’s nowhere else. So I try, in as much as I can, to make this a place of safety. Of welcome, even on the hard days. Of messy, constant grace, and awareness that the sacred is always closer than we think. I want to learn during this time, and to teach my children, what St. Patrick knew so well.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
While we inhabit this one finite space, I’m also sharing sanctuary stories, to remind us that we’re not really alone, or unique in our circumstances. We’ve studied Noah, and the lives of cloistered saints. Read the Boxcar Children, and Little House in the Big Woods, and yes (in my case, for the dozenth time) the Swiss Family Robinson. Every day, too, we look for joy, and for ways to make our sanctuary lovelier together. We decorate as the seasons change. Share the work of keeping things clean, and more importantly, the work of maintaining peace among ourselves—of empathy and reconciliation.
And each evening, when the lights are low and everyone is asleep or occupied, I go slowly through our small sanctuary, trying to feel what lies at its heart. Did it serve, during this day past, as a place of safety and holiness? As a haven where we help each other through the stresses and trials of life? Was everyone who dwells here reminded at some point that they are loved, and welcome, and a recipient of transcendent grace?
If not, there’s always tomorrow, for that is the beauty of sanctuaries:
They can be built whenever and wherever you are.
Featured image by freepik.com