I loved to watch Peter Stephens pray. Peter was Dean of King’s College, Aberdeen, when I started post-graduate studies there. He had recently moved to Aberdeen from King’s College, Cambridge. Peter was a Methodist, deeply shaped by the rich tradition of English Wesleyan formation. He would enter the college chapel quietly and just as quietly he would slip to his knees, his back as straight as a sergeant major’s, his hands clasped before him, his head bowed, the modest black teaching gown slipping from his shoulders, almost always in a simple gray wool suit. There, his eyes closed, he would pray, as unself-consciously, it seemed to me, as a solitary monastic in his private cell. When the organ began its voluntary, he rose to his feet, stepped into his row, and sat in his chair.
A rabbi friend in Austin, Texas, told me the story of his experiences traveling in Mongolia a few years ago. On the first night of his stay with a Mongolian family, he asked where he might go to say his prayers. His host directed him to a quiet corner of their hut. Curiosity of a very special sort seemed to come over the man.
“Do you have special clothes you put on in order to speak to your God?”
“Yes,” said my friend, as he removed his prayer shawl from his bag and put it on.
“In what posture do you speak to your God?” the man asked. My friend explained that he bowed on his knees and swayed gently back and forth when saying his prayers.
The man seemed impressed.
“Are there special words you use in speaking to your God?” Again my friend said yes, there are prayers prescribed, and silence, and one word, the name of God, which is never spoken.
My friend told me that the man sat and watched him pray. He seemed to feel that my friend’s approach to God was appropriate. It was different from his own, but it showed a proper respect, a setting-apart of this kind of speech from all others.
The word “holy” means just that, “set apart from common usage.” Some buildings can be holy, so can some patches of earth. Some eating and drinking utensils can be holy, and we all know that the word “Bible” just means “book,” that’s why we call it the “holy” Bible.
One of the most profound theological ideas inherited from the early fathers of the church is that because God entered into creation in Jesus, all creation is now “holy.” Athanasius the Great, the champion of early Christian orthodoxy, used an analogy of a King who enters a city within his realm which had been held by an enemy. The enemy had ravaged the city, plundered its treasure and misused its people. When the King entered into the city, however, the enemy knew his days were numbered. And, just as important, when the King entered the city, the city immediately became fully and immediately the King’s city.
Athanasius tells us that this is an analogy for the incarnation. Not only was creation crafted by God, not only is creation sustained by God, it belongs so fully to God that it shares God’s holiness. Creation is now claimed utterly and completely by God, every stick and stone, every creature, every person. The holy God declares creation holy.
This means that while there are buildings and plots of land and utensils and clothing set aside for special usage in the worship of God, every little bit of this world also is set aside for the worship of God. I find comfort in this fact in these days.
I don’t have a single stitch of clergy garb in my closet on Saint Simons, but I was conscious that when I sat down to lead worship and pray and preach in these past many weeks, my shirts from Perlis served the “holy” purpose just fine. And wherever you’ve been praying and worshiping God, whether in a den, living room or on a porch, that place has been every bit as holy as any sanctuary in the world. God makes things holy, including our beautiful church building at the corner of State Street and Saint Charles Avenue. But wherever we meet God now, is more than adequate. It is holy ground.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church