During a class discussion two weeks ago, a student questioned why we should spend millions, or possibly billions, of dollars rebuilding Notre Dame when that money could be spent on refugees or others living on the streets of France. I did not disagree with him about the need to help those who are forced to live outside, I responded that Notre Dame was a sacred space in our world that needed help too. That the altar of a church, like the burning bush with Moses, was and is holy ground.
Living in an all-girls dorm on campus meant there was almost always someone to talk with in the lounge. It could be something simple like checking in about a homework assignment, or deep and meaningful like plans for after graduation. I remember sitting around the couches one weekend night with friends, flipping through a random stack of magazines and planning for weddings. None of us were engaged, but what did that have to do with anything?
Details abounded about colors, flowers, locations, food, first songs, and who would walk who down the aisle. Of course we would all be at each other’s weddings, with quiet winks between those who would be among the bridesmaids. These were the days before Pinterest, so everything depended on the imaginations of those in the room. It was a Christian college, which also meant that every once in a while someone had to say something like “all in God’s timing” or “until then I’m praying for my future husband.” We were adorable and ridiculous at the exact same time, as 20-something college students should be on a Saturday night.
It’s years later and I’ve changed a lot of my life plans since then, including any details about a future wedding. While I was in graduate school, I’d sometimes use wedding planning (again, still not engaged) as a way to fall asleep at night. It was more fun to think about flowers and veils than edits and unfinished textbooks.
Eventually I stopped making plans for a couple reasons. The first is that I’d like my hypothetical fiancée to be involved in the hypothetical wedding with his future hypothetical wife. Seems like a good way to start off a partnership.
The second reason is that really, 99.9% of those wedding details do not matter to me. Yes, I’d like a pretty white dress, for him to be in a suit or tux, for the food to be nice, and for there to be lots of twinkle lights involved. But none of that is critical. For me, the one and only thing, the 0.1% thing, is that the wedding ceremony take place in a church.
The church altar is a sacred space to me. It is not about how fancy it is, how big, or how many seats are gathered around. That space is where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and sermons have taken place. Where words of truth have been proclaims. Where joyful news has been shared. Where tears have been shed. Where someone has said goodbye, and another day a child has been welcomed into the community.
When I spent a summer working for a church, any time I was struggling with work, or just life, I’d slip into the chapel, walk up the side aisle, and sit on those front steps. Leaning back against the podium, I could almost hear the music from Sunday morning. I would feel like a hundred people were around me, even in the dark stillness of a weekday afternoon. Although I’d only stay for a few minutes, that short time was enough.
That feeling is what led me to the prayer chapel in Westminster Cathedral during a trip to London a few years ago. I had done the official tour, walking through the mapped area and reading all of the plaques. Taking pictures alongside other tourists, it was like being at an amusement park rather than in a church. Off to one side was a door into a darkened room. Just a few feet away from the hustle and bustle, and yet it was a world set apart. Lit by dimmed bulbs on the sides of the room, and candles up front, there were no cameras, fanny packs, or snacks in the prayer chapel. There were benches warped by years of people sitting, listening, and whispering their prayers. I pulled a small Bible from my backpack, and read through some psalms; pieces of worship written generations before the stone walls around me were built. I lost track of time in that space, though when I stepped back out it was less than an hour later. Much like those summer time minutes, it was enough.
I want to be married in a church because I want to add our footprints to the dozens, hundreds, or thousands who stood there before us. To all of those who were searching for something bigger than themselves. Who believed that coming together in that space, with those people and before that God was a good and worthy thing. I want to be in a sacred space.