Much is made these days of the secularization of society — the loss of influence of Christianity, and religion in general, in society at large. I’ve generally considered this a topic for the coasts and Europe. Here in the buckle of America’s Bible Belt, where a town of 50,000 gladly supports more than 100 churches, and adds more each year, the notion of secularization seems far-fetched. But this week, to my surprise and sadness, I found myself witnessing the secularization of a consecrated chapel — the death of a thin place.
There is a saying from the early Celtic Christians that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. “Thin places” were — and are — places where the veil between this world and the Kingdom of God is particularly thin, where the barriers between this world and the next seem to come down, at least partially.
These thin places can be anywhere. For many, they are in nature. Rugged mountain peaks, expanses of ocean, the vastness of the desert and the abundant life of the jungle — these settings bring many close to the face of God, and have inspired some of the best Christian writing and untold acts of faithful devotion. But, thin places also often are the places we intentionally create — our spaces of worship, meditation and communion, where we gather individually or corporately to reflect on and adore our Creator.
For me, these thin places have been at sea. They were in the cornfield behind my house as a boy. They were on the beaches and jungles of St. Thomas at a different phase of my boyhood. And, they have been in the pews at St. Andrew’s School, where I grew in my faith in high school. And they are at the altar rail at St. Matthew’s, my parish home.
Unlike areas of wild nature, where God’s face appears in His creation, these latter spaces are made thin by the intentions and prayers of those who gather there. In some places you can just feel the prayers and praise lifted up there. You can feel the thinness of the place.
One of these places made thin by the love, intention and prayer of worshipers was St. Anne’s Chapel, a small worship space in a most unlikely setting. The chapel, which could seat no more than 20 tightly-packed people, was in a back corner of a nonprofit thrift shop, founded by two members of the Episcopal Church with a passion for pumping the proceeds of their store into worthy causes in the community.
St. Anne’s was consecrated by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma in 2008, and in the 11 years since it has hosted morning prayer each week, and welcomed countless visitors — myself included — who would duck in there from time to time for peace, for prayer and for a pause from the hectic madness of life. It was a welcoming thin place, where anyone could drop in, and feel a bit closer to God.
But, all things created and managed by humans are temporary. And, after some changes in the board and management of the nonprofit, they decided a space of worship was no longer what they desired in their thrift store. What they desired, instead, was to turn St. Anne’s into a storage closet.
Our priest, Fr. John, notified a small group of us of this sad news at the end of noon Mass on Wednesday. He asked several of us to be present that afternoon to witness the necessary service of secularization, so that we could transform the consecrated chapel, the space of love and light, prayer and praise, into a storage closet. We gathered there several hours later, three of us, Fr. John and a representative of the nonprofit’s board.
The chapel already was stripped of its pews, its prayer books, candles and hymnals. All that remained was the open space, a side table that had been pressed into service as an altar (but wasn’t consecrated) and a large, beautiful cross, incorporating images of all manner of arts used to glorify God, built into the wall of the soon-to-be storage space for unwanted crap.
My wife Tammy and I arrived together, already saddened by the cause of our visit. But, when Fr. John began reading the bishop’s letter secularizing the space, and the brief service of secularization, we all had emotions that ran the full range of the map. Anger. Sadness. Grief. Numbness. Disappointment. Anger. Tammy cried. I prayed silently for grace to overcome the anger I felt. In fact, I’ve put off writing this until now, two days later, to let grace catch up with the anger I felt as the words of the secularization service slowly stripped away the sacred intentions of this small chapel.
The service was brief. It was perfunctory. And, by its very nature, it was profane. We had no option but to strip this place of its thinness, so that a consecrated space would not be misused by those who favor crap closets more than chapels. But still, it felt — it was — profane. It was an insult to St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin, in whose name this space was consecrated. It was an insult to those who built this space. It was an insult to all who worshiped there, and still wished to worship there. It was an affront to God. At least, at the time, that’s how it felt. As the prayers were finished, as the secularization was completed, this small, beautiful place of thinness and light suddenly felt heavy and dark.
Of course, I know, God is not tied to a place. God is everywhere and in everything and everyone. He would not be diminished by the loss of this small place. Nor would our faith. It was faith that made that small chapel so thin. And faith will carry on. It must. For our work, our goal and our purpose is nothing if not to make this world thinner — to break down, one small space at a time, one life and one moment at a time, the barriers between the dark heaviness of this world and the vanquishing love and light of God.
As I said earlier, I’ve had to wait a bit before writing this, to separate my own pride and anger from that love and light of God. I pray forgiveness for any of my ego that remains in this. And, I pray the grief and hurt felt at tearing down this small thin place that was St. Anne’s will be a seed, a seed that will die and spur in us growth of faith and ministry, to work harder and with purer intentions to bring this world ever-so-slightly closer to the Kingdom of God.
May we, O God, we pray, make the spaces and the lives we touch thinner, that our fear, greed and anger weigh less, and your loving face shine through more clearly. Amen.
I pray this, with special intention and asking the intercession of St. Anne, in the words of the preface to her Novena:
O glorious St. Anne, you are filled with compassion for those who invoke you and with love for those who suffer! Heavily burdened with the weight of my troubles, I cast myself at your feet and humbly beg of you to take the present intention which I recommend to you in your special care.
Please recommend it to your daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and place it before the throne of Jesus, so that He may bring it to a happy issue. Continue to intercede for me until my request is granted. But, above all, obtain for me the grace one day to see my God face to face, and with you and Mary and all the saints to praise and bless Him for all eternity. Amen.