L. Roger Owens: How can we honor sacred time apart from our sacred spaces?

Unsplash / Jessica Fadel

As the pandemic keeps us from visiting our sanctuaries, a professor of Christian spirituality considers a notion from Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”

A few weeks ago, I tried to skip church.

The two older kids had been up late several nights in a row because of the high school musical and cast parties, the youngest because she thinks she should stay up late when they do. And that weekend, we would “spring forward,” losing another hour of sleep.

“I’m invoking the once-a-decade skip church policy,” I said. “You three don’t have to go in the morning.”

I decided I would skip as well. I’d heard rumors of people sleeping in on Sunday mornings and lounging in their pajamas while sipping coffee and reading The New York Times. What the heck, I thought. I’ll give it a try.

My wife left early for the church where she works. (It’s too far to be our whole family’s church home.)

I slept in a little longer. I enjoyed a couple of hours of quiet. By 9:30 a.m., I’d finished my oatmeal and was listening to NPR when I thought, If I hurry, I can shower and make it to worship by 10. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was pulling into the church parking lot.

How could you fail at skipping church? I thought as I entered.

As it turned out, that was the last Sunday I could have gone to church; it was the Sunday before “social distancing” became a household phrase and cancellation announcements swept through Facebook.

Now I couldn’t go to church if I wanted to. And I do want to. I want to stare out of the clear windows in the sanctuary and watch the crows harass a hawk as the pastor delivers his sermon.

I want to talk with my friend Larry after worship about missing NCAA basketball. I want to tell the kids that, no, they can’t have another doughnut during the social hour.

But now, none of us can be in our sacred spaces.

During a moment of grieving this loss, I remembered a line from the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spiritual classic “The Sabbath”: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”

The Sabbath, he suggests, is a cathedral in time.

Heschel reminds readers in a culture obsessed with the acquisition of things and the control of spaces that attending to the holy in time can order our lives toward the divine.

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be,” Heschel writes, “not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

When we are bereft of our sacred spaces, we are perhaps especially able to receive an unbidden gift: the chance to rediscover the holiness of time.

While people are barred from gathering, might this be an opportunity for faith leaders to reintroduce congregants to the holy rhythms of time that can open us more deeply to God?

While leaders are conducting worship online, connecting virtually for pastoral care and holding staff meetings over Zoom, might we also be sharing resources for people to practice marking time in holy ways right where they are?

If we do this, we might be surprised to find that when we finally gather again, our faithfulness to meeting God in time has opened a new depth of awareness to God’s presence among us, a new sensitivity to what is holy.

The Christian tradition offers many opportunities to practice meeting God in holy time: observing feast days, attending to liturgical seasons, practicing fixed-hour prayer, saying grace before meals -- all ways of meeting and opening to the divine that are determined more by when we are than by where we are.

And, of course, there’s the Sabbath, which Christians observe not on the seventh day, the day God rested from creation, but on the day after the seventh, what early Christians thought of as the “eighth day,” the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first day of God’s new creation.

As so that’s what our family did a few days ago, on the fourth Sunday of Lent. We marked holy time together.

I shook the oldest teenager awake at 10:30 a.m. “Family worship in 30 minutes,” I said.

The psalm appointed for the day was Psalm 23, which reminds Christians of being in our sanctuaries, where we encounter the still waters of baptism, the plentiful table and overflowing cup of the Eucharist, and the soul restoration of gathering in community.

My son, still in his flannel pajamas and reading dramatically in his new baritone voice, delivered the last line, which many of us have memorized: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

“Forever.” That last word is about time, about inhabiting the house of God’s presence wherever we are, whenever we are.

“Spiritual life begins to decay,” Heschel writes, “when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.”

I sensed that grandeur as we, without leaving our family room or changing out of our pajamas, stepped into a cathedral in time and met the God who meets us in holy hours as well as holy places.