Rediscovering sacred spaces during a pandemic

Eureka Street, August 2020

The last swim of the season is usually rather uneventful, unintentional. The water isn’t quite too cold for a swim, and the afternoon sun still holds its warmth. When it touches your skin, you can pretend that the night won’t be cold, even as the air curls its fingers around your waist and refuses to let go. It was in late March that I ran to the ocean for a final swim, rushing through the Royal National Park to stay ahead of the rangers and make it to the isolated Congwong beach for a final, desperate, dive into the water. I swam as far out as I dared, clinging onto the sacred and wildness I’d discovered by the sea, until the notices were nailed onto fenceposts and police cleared the area.

Before early morning swims and Sundays spent by the sea, there was church. It would fill my day from sunrise to sunset; leading a small team for a morning service, with lunch and often a nap before the evening service and launching into the week ahead. As I started slowly cutting off the parts of me that would kneel at the end of the stage-cum-altar and pray, I would spend Sundays at the beach, passing time until the evening service ended, meeting with friends afterwards to sit on the church steps, each trying to convince the other that believing (or not) was the right thing to do. When I finally left, the sea filled my sabbath day, the sacred ritual of rest becoming a weekly migration to the Ladies’ Baths at Coogee to read and reflect amongst scores of diverse and inspiring women lounging throughout the secluded grounds.

Throughout the summer I risked smoke, storms and sickness to escape into the embrace of the sea, until, one day after that final swim, places of worship were effectively closed, along with beaches, pools, and national parks across NSW. Skeleton teams adapted to livestreamed prayers and sermons recorded in empty rooms. The faithful found themselves using their laptops to celebrate the end of Lent and the start of Ramadan, others missing services for the first time in decades. I stayed home on Sundays, pacing my neighbourhood until I found a path that led to the harbour.

It’s unsurprising that in a crisis we run to spaces of safety and connection. For Pastor Karen Pack, assisting community members discover sacred spaces in their own homes has been her continuing mandate. ‘My own community has been meeting mostly online for the whole year,’ she said, ‘Christianity is all about relationship, so consummating those relationships in what’s appropriate to the circumstance to stay safe and healthy… most of the places where Jesus taught was out in the middle of nature… in the midst of life with people.’

An ‘alfresco’ experience of connection transcends faith communities, with a huge rise in Australians spending more time outdoors during the pandemic. We have walked long distances, immersed ourselves in the natural world, met with friends outside to check in, and connected back to community in ways that can only be considered sacred.

When the rituals and ceremonies of faith require the meeting of people and the presence of a priest, however, staying apart is far more difficult. Bishop Richard Umbers of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has been leading his parish in sacred traditions, or sacraments, including the Eucharist, taking of wine and bread, believed to be the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ through the miracle of transubstantiation, virtually.

‘We take risks to rediscover what is sacred and hold fast to it. We catch up over drinks to share the week’s burdens, wear masks in a house of worship, read holy texts over Zoom, or take bread and wine with freshly washed hands.’

‘The Being, the flesh, is really important. That’s where the sacraments come in because it makes Jesus present to us in a very physical way, it’s a spiritual grace brought about through physical signs that you can see and touch,’ he said, ‘the Pope can’t perform the miracle of transubstantiation over TV… That’s what makes this so painful, being separated from the sacraments.’

‘There’s a long tradition in the Church … of people who have been deprived of the sacraments for years,’ said Bishop Umbers, ‘when you look at Japan and the hidden Christians, that was three centuries without the sacraments!’ He goes on, ‘the thing is, we are bound by the sacraments, but God is not. The Holy Spirit is never lacking.’

I continue to swim, even as the water temperature makes my skin turn pink and purple in the cold, shirking public transport for a nearly twenty-kilometre bicycle loop. Bishop Umbers and his colleagues continue to encourage parishioners to meet together and take part in the sacraments, mitigating risk where they can.

We take risks to rediscover what is sacred and hold fast to it. We catch up over drinks to share the week’s burdens, wear masks in a house of worship, read holy texts over Zoom, or take bread and wine with freshly washed hands. What we lose when buildings and beaches close forces us to rediscover the heart of what is sacred and how we connect to the divine. Whatever form it takes, our experience of the sacred has been made more personal and more urgently desired. Perhaps, we are better for it.

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