Carnett: 'Just pray' is a good credo; still I yearn for holy places

Sacred spaces.

Do they exist on planet Earth?

Are there spaces — natural or man-made — that bring us closer to the divine than, say, a supermarket checkout counter or a bus station washroom? Do spiritual vortexes exist where the holy can intersect with the ordinary and be deeply quaffed?

I don't know the answers to those questions and, frankly, I'm not losing sleep over them.

But I must say that as my life advances along its largely mundane and occasionally perilous track, this evangelical believer is frequently stirred by the sacred. We evangelicals may be quick to raise our hands in worship in our modern meeting houses, but we're sometimes hesitant to kneel at a centuries-old altar for confession and reconciliation.

Jesus often went to remote locations to pray. My favorite prayer spots over the years have included isolated Central and Northern California beaches; soaring California redwood groves; and glacier-strewn Alaskan inlets and bays.

But one rarely has access to such inspirational natural sanctuaries.

I belong to a branch of Christianity that professes the belief that place and circumstance are irrelevant when you pray. The important thing is that you pray.

According to beliefs I subscribe to, one can offer prayers on a beach, while standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or riding Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain. God is available to all from all fathomable locations at all times. Wherever you have the urge to pray is the perfect moment to seek God.

I don't need sacred space or rituals. And yet…

My church meets in what might be described as a spacious building that resembles a concert hall — or gymnasium. It seats thousands. I've also attended highly effective churches that met in movie theaters, converted industrial buildings and school cafeterias.

No incense. No altars. No stained glass. No problem!

But are those boxy, vanilla houses of worship slightly — or even remotely — holy? Not by any criteria I can determine. Are they an anathema? Not that, either. Speaking as a 21st century evangelical, I maintain that it's the person we worship that's important, not the setting.

The New Testament admonishes us to "pray without ceasing," which leads me to believe that we're to lift our prayers to God at all times — and in all places. I'm guessing it's OK to pray — and worship — in a closet, a laundromat, a barbershop or Fenway Park (to some, Fenway is a cathedral). Anywhere. God will reach out to us wherever we are.

Still, there are moments when I kneel in my bedchamber and feel a deep desire for the sacred. I pine for a special place where I can draw near to God and feel his presence. I crave a tingly, gooseflesh experience.

I've knelt at chapels, churches and cathedrals throughout Europe and have, many times, sprouted gooseflesh. That's saying something for an obdurate old evangelical.

Of course, if you travel to Europe intending to have meaningful encounters with Europeans, a church is perhaps the last place you'd look. Europeans have ancient and spectacular houses of worship — which they almost never frequent. It's quite distressing.

Americans who enter a European cathedral will find themselves rubbing elbows with other Christian pilgrims from around the world and a huge collection of nattering naysayers armed with guidebooks and cameras.

Eurail, tour bus and cruise ship tourists can be aggravating. Come on folks, this place may not be holy to you, but it is to me!

I frequently pick out a seat or pew in the nave from which to kneel and pray. I never have to battle a European for a spot. Other times I'll kneel at the altar or pray in one of the cathedral's side chapels.

Invariably, I walk away from the antediluvian stone edifice feeling that my creator has touched me. It's a feeling like no other. I rarely have the same emotional response while walking to the parking lot from an ersatz gymnasium.

Yes, sacred space — where believers have knelt for centuries — is important to this old pilgrim.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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