Sacred Spaces

Matte Downey, Aug 17, 2018, 10:08 PM
Matte Downey

Many of us associate sacred space with a religious site or a church, but in reality, it can be any place in which we encounter the Spirit of Jesus, any place that is set apart by and for the presence of God. A bush in the back side of the wilderness became a sacred space when it caught fire; its unusual flame attracted Moses to a missional encounter with YHWH. The muddy water of the Jordan River became a sacred place of healing when a military commander dipped his diseased body in the river. A community well in the despised region of Samaria became a sacred space when a woman with a tainted reputation responded to Jesus' request for water. Perhaps the most unexpected sacred space in the Christian tradition is the wooden instrument of torture known as the cross, for on it Christ defeated sin and death through an act of divine love.

During the Vineyard National Gathering in Montreal last month, I led a small group in exploring some of the sacred spaces in the city. Montreal is home to many beautiful historic churches, places where people have prayed and worshiped and received the body and blood of Christ for well over a century, so (quite rightly) the tour included three historic churches all within a short walk of each other.

The first stop was Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, a large French Catholic church downtown (picture below). The church was completed in 1894 and is patterned after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The front of the church is topped by thirteen statues, the patron saints of thirteen parishes in Montreal (each donated a statue). Inside, one finds paintings which depict events in Montreal's history, elaborate stained glass features, and ornate architectural details. This church is special to me because the priest, Father Alain, has a heart for ecumenism. Last year, Mary Queen of the World hosted an inter-church evening of prayer and Father Alain was the most enthusiastic person in the room. He made a special point to greet all the pastors who were present and welcome them.

Our next stop was St. Patrick's Basilica, known for its roots in the Irish Canadian community (picture below). It was completed in 1847, built in the Gothic revival style. The church features Irish shamrocks and French fleur de lys in its heavily ornamented interior. Of note are the 82-foot columns carved out of white oak and covered in marble. St. Patrick's chimes, which rang while we were there, consist of ten bells, one of which was cast in 1774. This space is sacred to me because it represents a joining of worlds (Irish and French) and it is a favourite place to pray for one of my friends.

Next, we walked over to the World Trade Centre in the Old Port of Montreal where we found a large indoor decorative pool, a glassed-in shopping area, and a piece of the Berlin wall (picture below). The city of Berlin gifted the graffitied barricade to Montreal in 1992 where it stands as a witness to the suffering caused by a divided city. This section of wall has been purposely installed in a place of international trade, tourism, and transit, where the fortifications of Montreal once stood. In the concrete and steel, we can see freedom, creative expression, division, unification, power abused, and power in service of others. It is a sobering reminder to love our neighbours well.

A block away, across from one of the most elite hotels in Montreal, we entered what used to be the head office of the Royal Bank of Canada, built in 1928. Most of the original features have been preserved: the brass revolving doors, the arches, the painted ceilings, the chandeliers, the heavily ornamented elevator doors, the marble stairs. The first floor is now a coffee shop and shared workspace called Crew Collective (picture below). Pieces which testify to its original purpose (bank tables and green bank lamps) are scattered throughout. To me, this space has a special appeal because of its beautiful, grand, open design. One of the participants on the tour remarked that it was inspiring to see how a space originally intended for one purpose could be reimagined in order to have a new life in the community.

We then walked up the street to Christ Church Cathedral, an Anglican church right in the heart of the commercial district of Montreal, completed in 1867 (picture below). In the 1980s, an underground retail centre was constructed beneath the cathedral, and during the construction, the church was placed on stilts. This retail/office development has helped keep the downtown church viable. The church building is open from 8 am to 6 pm every day and people from all social and religious backgrounds can be found inside and on the grounds. Christ Church serves as a centre for prayer, a host for community concerts, and a place for tourists, shoppers, students, professionals, and street people to linger.

I have discovered many sacred spaces in Montreal over the years, mostly because I take the time to stop and look, stop and listen, stop and notice. A sacred space may be a green blade of grass, a towering church spire, or a stranger you pass on the street. They all call us to pause and encounter the living God.