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Reflections on Interfaith Sacred Space

Kay Lindahl

Kay Lindahl's Portrait

Is genuine interfaith space possible? What might a space designed to accommodate the needs of all faiths look like? The first interfaith sacred space competition took place in response to these questions.

This was a competition of ideas, imagination, and vision. As one of ten jurors, I was challenged to discover my own view of interfaith sacred space. My reflections come from my heart and soul, and my immersion in the interfaith movement for the past twelve years—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

The first question I asked myself was: “What are the qualities of sacred space?”

The two qualities that occurred to me are that it’s organic and that it’s unlimited. It’s organic in that you never know what’s going to happen, and yet something happens. It develops a life of its own. It’s unlimited in that it can happen in any place and at any time. The paradox is that, on the one hand, it can take hours and hours of planning to create the environment and process to ensure a safe space and, on the other hand, the vitality happens spontaneously.

The next question I asked myself was: “How does sacred space occur in daily life?”

My response to this question was to first investigate secular spaces that feel sacred. What are the spaces and times when I have felt the presence of the sacred in secular settings? Four experiences came to mind immediately.

The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Walking up to that wall evokes a presence.

The gate surrounding Saint Paul’s Chapel opposite the World Trade Center in New York City in 2002. People from around the world contributed hats, posters, mementos, photos of loved ones, and words of encouragement that were attached to the gate. Somehow there was a connection that occurred.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Walking through the museum leads to a sense of the sacred. Everyone is very respectful, thoughtful, reverent.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. Walking into the concert hall is breathtaking. One can sense the creativity that went into the design. The space seats over two thousand and yet feels intimate.

Each of these spaces is public and secular and yet something happens when one is there, experiencing the moment.

The next question was: “Where have you experienced interfaith sacred space?” Again, some experiences came immediately to mind.

At the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago in 1993, eight thousand people from all over the world and as many faith traditions as one can imagine converged for the second Parliament of the World’s Religions, one hundred years after the first was held. Encounters occurred on elevators, stairways, hallways, escalators, meeting rooms, and in the dramatic lobby with its high ceiling. Those encounters transformed people.

Another building with a high ceiling also seemed to me to be an interfaith sacred space. It was the glass—enclosed rotunda of the Edmonton City Hall in Canada. In 1998, during the North American Interfaith Network Annual Meeting, members of over ten faith traditions offered prayers for the whole community.

In interfaith gatherings in South Africa, Brazil, and the United States, hundreds of people from dozens of faith traditions walked together through public streets, honoring the events and their communities. At these processions, a feeling of the sacred was created.

Outdoor blessings under the sky. Many interfaith events begin with an outdoor blessing, usually led by the indigenous people of the area. These events evoke a special feeling of awe for the earth and all living beings. They often set the tone for the rest of the gathering.

Just after 9/11, our grass-roots interfaith group in Los Angeles contacted the city to offer to facilitate a vigil in honor of those who died. It was held in an outdoor amphitheater of a community park. Over seven hundred people came and heard prayers from over twelve faith traditions. We closed with lighting candles and singing. The park became a sacred space.

Each year on January first, our interfaith group sponsors a Peace Day event. It is held in a local church. For two hours or so we invite people from diverse faith traditions to share their spiritual practices with us. We sit in concentric circles with a candle in the center. At this year’s closing ceremony, we invited everyone to stand in one large circle to share a final blessing. Magically, the chairs were moved and we were all standing together, nearly one hundred of us, in this amazing circle of diversity. As we looked around at each other, we all knew that something special had happened. We were in sacred space.

What does all of this say about the ingredients for interfaith sacred space? I think that there are four elements. First is worship space, such as in an interfaith chapel. This space has to be very flexible as the needs of different traditions vary. Some of the considerations are: seating that can be moved; no fixed orientation or altar; an option to be open to the outdoors; availability of carpets; use of candles, lights, fire, and water; and high ceilings.

Second is the provision of a gathering space. It is important to encounter others, indoors or outdoors, in small groups and large groups.

Third is the importance of the circle as a way to gather. It is an egalitarian way to meet: no one is at the head. It reclaims an ancient way of being together.

Fourth is a connection to adjoining public parks or streets suitable for processions, in order to combine the sacred space with the surrounding space.

The competition offered an opportunity for interaction between architects and interfaith participants. Our differing perspectives resulted in a dynamic, interesting, and challenging process. Each entrant also had a specific perspective on interfaith sacred space. Over the course of a weekend, we were able to agree on four winning designs and seven honorable mentions.

This is just the beginning of a conversation about what makes interfaith sacred space. We are starting to learn what works; what supports, nurtures and cultivates this kind of space. We also know that sacred space sometimes just happens when people of goodwill gather. Awareness is the key to the unfolding of this amazing journey.

May 2004

Rev. Kay Lindahl is the founder of The Listening Center and is recognized as an inspiring teacher and spiritual guide to people of many religious backgrounds. An ordained Interfaith Minister, she conducts workshops and retreats around the world on the sacred art of listening for religious, spiritual, community, and business groups. Kay is also the founder of The Alliance for Spiritual Community. She serves on the board of directors for the Religious Diversity Faire and the North American Interfaith Network and is a North American trustee on the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative. Kay is the author of The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice and Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening: A Guide to Enrich Your Relationships and Kindle Your Spiritual Life.

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