Inability to gather in large groups offers chance to reconsider how we interact with, and value, shared spaces

This is a time of reconfiguration. So many aspects of our lives have changed in some way — every reader can call to mind a long enough list. And we are rightly focused on making the necessary adjustments work as well as they can for as long as we need them to. We hope and plan for better days, if not exactly for a return to normal. For when we return to our routines, we may find ourselves experiencing them anew.

Timothy K. Parker

Social distancing in particular, and our consequent inability to gather in large groups, raises the possibility of reconsidering how we interact with, and how we value, the shared spaces of the built environment. Think about a place you especially miss, a place you long to return to. Why do you miss it? Is it because of the activities it enables, the experiences it nourishes, the memories it holds? Some combination of these? In what way is the presence of other people part of the mix? And how are these activities, experiences or memories distinct? What makes them different from others? What makes them special?

Scholars of religion and religious architecture have long sought to understand the ways we set certain places apart as being sacred. Conceptions of sacred space vary across religions and across groups within religions. They can be formalized and heightened by specified ways of designing, building — and then interacting with — the space of a church, mosque, temple, shrine or other sacred site. Or they can be less tied to any specific building, more portable and personal as they adapt to the changing circumstance of the worshipper. And they can be emphatically shared and public as well as rooted in individual, even hermetic, devotional practices.

But conceptions of sacred space are part of a larger experience of sacredness that marks events, texts, actions, and things as much as places or spaces. (See Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath” for a wonderful meditation on the Jewish emphasis on sacred time.) And if the true variety of sacredness is embraced, it is clear that it is not even limited to religious traditions, communities or practices. It can show up whenever people try to make sense of human experience through monuments, memorials or works of art.

Signifying the sacred

Somehow, amid this rich variety of sacred space and experience, each instance remains an example of distinction, separation of the special from the unremarkable. Somehow, calling something sacred is insisting that it is valued and serious — even in the absence of quite knowing why.

Think about a place you especially miss, a place you long to return to. Why do you miss it?

A promising approach to making sense of all of this is found in what may turn out to be the most important scholarly book on the sacred in recent decades, Ann Taves’ “Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things” (Princeton, 2009). Far from ignoring real differences across religious traditions, Taves advocates focusing less on religion itself (and the endless debates over defining it) and more on how, when, and why something (a practice, a gesture, a building) is deemed sacred. In other words, if we don’t assume we can agree on what religion is in the face of its wide variety, we can at least consider sacredness as a subset of the many ways humans mark or experience something as special — set apart, different from something else in ways that matter.

In this time of staying home and staying safe, with virtual ritual dispersed by teleconferencing technologies, I find myself thinking about the senses of the sacred that are currently being displaced. And I wonder whether we can not merely tolerate this displacement but learn from it. Congregations gather for a service and see no altars, bimahs or prayer halls — but glimpses into the homes of their fellow worshippers. Small gestures of furniture arrangement acknowledge the sacredness of the gathering in personal and idiosyncratic ways, and thereby also the sacredness of those spaces during that time. Something as mundane as a neighborhood dog walk now takes on a newly intentional structure as we cross the street to maintain distance, almost bowing to our neighbors in the spaces we create. We inquire after one another’s well-being in this impromptu but serious street choreography.

Long after the vaccine arrives, may we carry an enduring sense that what we value in the public places we share is rooted in the spaces we make for each other.

Timothy K. Parker is an associate professor of architecture and art at Norwich University.

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