‘Teach Us to Pray’ webinar
The scent of candles fills the room as retreat participants look around at icons on the walls, reminding them of the holiness of God. At the Rev. Elizabeth Canham's home, where spiritual workshops take place, visitors encounter God in a room designed for experiencing the sacred.
As the director of Hospites Mundi, an ecumenical ministry that teaches people greater awareness of "the sacredness of the earth," Canham leads workshops and spiritual retreats, as well as pilgrimages around the globe.
Canham said she believes that sacred space is more present than most people realize, noting that she relates to ideas of Native American or Celtic religious traditions, which recognize the sacredness of Earth.
"I believe all space on Planet Earth is sacred space," she said.
In addition to recognizing the sacred nature of the world, Canham said she thinks it is beneficial for people to set aside a place for prayer in their homes. "Creating a sacred space in the home for prayer is a wonderful centering kind of thing," she said. In her home, Canham has a room – sometimes used during retreats – which she refers to as "the chapel," designed to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer.
A sacred space can be anywhere, Canham said, mentioning a friend who uses a closet in her house as a prayer space. When Canham, who is currently the pastor at Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher, N.C., lived in New York in a small apartment, she used a corner of one room to create a simple prayer area with a chair and a shelf filled with objects that, to her represented holiness.
Canham said having a designated space facilitates a more focused prayer by minimizing external distractions. "I'm not looking at dishes that need to be washed or a room that's dusty," she explained.
The Rev. Jane Vennard, author of seven books on prayer and spirituality and senior adjunct faculty at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said many people identify sacred spaces in creation. She fondly mentioned a wooded area in the mountains that has personal significance for her. "There's a place in the Colorado Rockies ... We've always called it ‘the cathedral’ when we're there because it feels so sacred."
Vennard said she thinks having a sacred space makes God seem more tangible. "I think it surrounds us and embraces us in a way that we like to think the spirit of God is surrounding us and embracing us."
Using the senses more in prayer, Vennard said, is another way for people to connect with God more fully.
"I think that in prayer we're called to bring all of who we are to God," she said. "Our senses are the way I think God reaches us in many ways, through sound in music, by using our bodies in dance; the smell, sights and sounds of creation bring God much closer to us. The senses help us experience God as very close."
Vennard said movement is one way that she incorporates her senses into the prayer experience. "I find walking is a major prayer practice for me and movement, especially in community...getting my whole body involved."
Vennard said dancing, using gestures, focusing on breath or exploring different postures during prayer can be beneficial. "I believe that the way we hold our bodies in prayer can make a difference."
Incorporating visual objects or icons can also change prayer, she said. "Gazing at creation in a variety of ways is helpful."
Whether it's with sacred spaces or using the five senses, Canham said she believes creating a routine can make the prayer experience more meaningful.
"I think it's helpful to us to have some kind of routine in our practice," she said. "Going to a specific place, lighting a candle or whatever else we do to make it special, really helps, I think, to deepen our prayer."
Using tangible objects can also enhance prayer, Canham said.
"I teach people to pick up something and to allow that to be a part of the sacred space," she said. "When you are most distracted, one of the things that can help you come back to a more centered place is to pick up an object. It kind of slows you down."
For people who don't typically use their senses in prayer, Vennard recommended starting with a prayer walk in "some place beautiful, looking for signs of God's grace."
"That could come through hearing a child laugh, seeing a bird, the feel of the feet on the ground," she said. "A prayer walk, I think, involves all the senses in a wonderful way."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
Contemplative by Design, Creating Quiet Spaces for Retreats, Workshops, Churches, and Personal Settings: Gerrie L. Grimsley and Jane J. Young, The Upper Room (bookstore.upperroom.org). Learn from the authors' experience and inspiration to create a simple prayerful space in your church or home that encourages new ways of communing with God, to know the meaning of Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God."
You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives, Paul E. Stroble, The Upper Room. The readings and exercises help readers identify where God's presence has "widened" (or made sacred) a place in their own lives.
Sacred spaces in Advent and Lent
These seasons of preparation before Christmas and Easter provide the opportunity both to begin or resume setting apart time for intentional focused prayer (begin with as little as 10 or 15 minutes at a time of day that regularly works for you) and in a space you've set apart. Use the space in your home where you have an Advent wreath or candle or can listen to quiet music or contemplate an image or symbol of Christ's coming or Christ's death that brings you into God's presence.
In your sacred space, simply pray, communing in whatever ways draw you into an awareness of God's presence, whatever ways let you offer yourself to God and open you to receiving God's blessing.
If you wish, use one of the resources to help you focus during this time. Among them are the daily online reflections at alivenow.upperroom.org from The Upper Room. The United Methodist Publishing House and Upper Room create numerous devotional books for both Christmas and Lent that include a Scripture reading, brief message and prayer for each day.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November-December, 2013.