“Sanctuary”: Middle English, derived from Old French sanctuaire, from Latin sanctuarium, from sanctus, or “holy.”
a. the inmost recess or holiest part of a temple or church
b. a nature reserve
c. a sacred place where a fugitive is immune from harm
This weekend I was in New York City to give a retreat on the theme of Mercy in the writings of Thomas Merton and in the ministry of Pope Francis. The gathering of some 80 or so participants was held at the church of Merton’s baptism, Corpus Christi, just north of Columbia University in the Upper West Side neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
The retreat was organized by the International Thomas Merton Society’s NYC chapter. A dear friend and one of the very generous hosts of the gathering emailed me last Thursday to clear up some last minute details. She ended with a nod to the election. “You will have your work cut out for you this weekend. New Yorkers are all feeling a bit shell-shocked.” I understood the feeling, and wondered to myself whether I had it in me to be of much inspiration.
At 9:30 am Saturday morning, folks began to arrive in the meeting hall below the church. Smiles, handshakes, and hugs were exchanged to a person, and gradually we settled in for a day of deepening thought, questioning, meditation, comfort-giving, and sharing—in a word, for sanctuary.
The day was structured thoughtfully by our hosts, with my three talks—“Bread in the Wilderness,” “Seeds of Contemplation,” “To Breathe and Imagine Again”—set apart by periods of silence, centering prayer led by members of the community, Mass offered by the pastor of Corpus Christi, and a simple, delicious meal. The sense of hospitality from beginning to end was palpable, the listening deep, the conversations searching, lively, and honest. Sanctuary.
I stayed in a small dorm room on the campus of Union Theological Seminary, just across Broadway from Corpus Christi. On Sunday morning, I set out for a long walk along the quiet wooded pathway that runs along the Hudson River, just a few blocks west of Union Theological. The day was just as you might picture New York City in the fall — think Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Walking under the cover of huge sycamores, their stark-white limbs still clinging to fall color, I felt tired, but freshly alive. Thinking back on the retreat—the beautiful people, the shared questions (Just how to be merciful in such times?), the lingering silences—something hard and sad in the core of my belly was beginning to soften.
It had been a painful week. The huge sycamores swaying against the morning sky invited some kind of purification, a mantra, repeating, “listen, see, breathe, give thanks.” Joggers passed by me on left and right, while New Yorkers young and old walked their jubilant dogs, frosted breath bursting from their noses. The rhythms of Life, life reaching down to renew itself, pushing back against fear, uncertainty, an approaching winter, surrounded me. Sanctuary.
Now turning away from the river, I climbed eastward and emerged from the cover of the woods to gaze suddenly on Grant’s Tomb, its massive stone edifice framed by the Civil War General’s famous words, “Let Us Have Peace.” As I crossed the street, there before me, reaching beautifully into the sky, was a place I had known only in books. I could hardly believe it: Riverside Church, the iconic church where Dr. King had voiced his opposition to the Viet Nam War, calling all Americans of conscience to join him. It was April 4, 1967. Exactly one year later, to the day, he would be martyred.
Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kofi Annan—all have spoken from the pulpit at Riverside Church. And now, unbelievably, I was walking up the stairs and into the sanctuary. All kinds of folks were streaming in as the service was about to begin. King described eleven o’clock Sunday morning as “the most segregated hour in America,” an observation that still holds true almost sixty years later. I thought to myself: there is no place I’d rather be on this particular Sunday morning, four days after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.
Who is the pastor, I wondered? What will he say to his church?
Ha! What will she say? The pastor of Riverside Church is the Reverend Amy Butler, I soon discovered, as she processed down the center aisle behind a rainbow litany of saints. It was gloriously clear to anyone with eyes to see that all are welcome in this house of God: gays and lesbians, women and men, African Americans and whites, Asians and Hispanics—and above all, the children of the church, who occupied a prominent space in the front of the sanctuary.
And sanctuary it was. Pastor Amy led the assembly in a powerful meditation on gratitude, community, the overcoming of fear, and radical love. She spoke of the need to “work toward justice and reconciliation on every level of American society.” Drawing from Jesus’ ominous words in the Gospel (Luke 21:5-19), she warned that standing for love and radical inclusion would bring conflict and even persecution from the “Establishment”—the establishment in which Riverside Church, she acknowledged, is itself deeply embedded. It is a time for courage, she said, for the church to reclaim, on behalf of the threatened and marginalized, its prophetic history and mission.
During the retreat I had spoken of the Christian vocation to create “communities of mercy” for one another, and especially, in these times, for our most vulnerable neighbors. I might have also said “communities of sanctuary.” To be and become sanctuary is to make room for those who have been—or who are about to be—structured out of American society by those who wield power, abetted by the “silent majority” who do little or nothing to prevent it.
As I heard Pastor Amy speak, and as I felt myself, though a stranger, feeling welcomed and at home in this remarkable place, it struck me that what our most vulnerable brothers and sisters need from us in these perilous times is not only mercy, but justice and bodily protection; not only nice words about love and “coming together in unity,” but physical, emotional, spiritual, and political sanctuary.
Thus, on a fall weekend in New York City, I tasted the meaning of that beautiful word “sanctuary,” in all three of its interrelated senses, and almost all at once:
a. the holiest part of the church
b. a nature reserve, where human beings rediscover themselves in communion with Earth, the trees and the sunlight, the wind and the waters
c. a sacred place where outcasts are immune from harm
d. all of the above
In the difficult days ahead, let our churches and homes, institutions and cities, be and become places of sanctuary, where every person can breathe freely, and love one another, in the liberating knowledge that they belong.