Sacred Space: A Divine Encounter Between Us

As a Pentecostal, I take encounters with the divine seriously.

For those of you who do not know much about Pentecostalism, there are a couple of things that make us tick:

  • Encounters with God
  • Transformation

And these two are inextricably linked as the proof of a genuine encounter with God lies in transformation. So whether it is a bodily healing or someone sensing God’s love, the transformation may be seen from a physical change to an emotional change in one’s state of being.

I recall one such divine encounter transpiring. It was on a day when I was angry . . . maybe even enraged . . . and fearful. Being overwhelmed with grief from a deep loss, both my identity and my theology had been uprooted. On this day, I was quiet and withdrawn as evidenced in a three-way conversation with a friend, my husband, and me. At some point, which actually turned out to be a pivotal point, the friend asked a question—a question that is now long forgotten—that was directed towards me. While I was responding, it was as if someone had suddenly flipped a switch and a transformation transpired. I admit I did not notice the metamorphosis at first, but at some point, my husband and our friend commented, “Have you noticed how energized you have become?”

In that moment . . . We all knew . . . something had changed.

I knew . . .  some confusion had lifted.

The lostness  . . . the fog . . .  had dissipated.

In its place . . . some clarity had come.

We had encountered God.

I have never forgotten that moment. Every detail of the room . . . the street on which it was located . . . the moment in time when something changed . . .  there was a shift . . . It is all etched deep within the recesses of my brain. It seemed like yesterday, but it was 10 years ago. I moment in time when a shift had occurred. It was one of the turning points in this journey we call life . . .  a point when God came.

Why, you may wonder, do I tell such a story?

Pentecostals often talk about divine interventions, such as when there is a crisis as in a sickness, a disaster, an accident, a lack of funds, or God visiting a service with a prophecy or a word of knowledge. In those moments, Pentecostals know things have changed. God has spoken.

But what about those occasions when God does not dramatically intervene?

What about those occasions when the person remains sick or the disaster crashes into us unabated? Where is this transcendent, omnipotent God then? Let me be clear. On that day, my grief was not magically lifted . . . my theological moorings were not suddenly re-established . . . I still had questions . . . I was still grieving . . . my circumstances had not been supernaturally transformed.

Yet . . . God had been encountered, not in a thundering, dramatic entrance, but via relationality. 

Such a divine encounter through relationality makes the space between people . . . well . . . sacred. When I speak of space, it is not simply the absence of matter as in the physical dimension, but it is an abstract holding place between people that becomes sacred. To further explain what I mean, I turn to the psychological theory of Object Relations.

The term “sacred space” evolves from the concept of holding by object relations theorist, D. W. Winnicott.

What did Winnicott mean by holding? John Newton and Helen Goodman note that the term “holding” for Winnicott references the mother’s physical holding of the infant that is done in such a way that the infant feels safe, “enabling the infant to play and so create its own identity.”[1] In other words, as the mother holds the child, the mother creates a space in which the child is put at ease, enabling the child to explore. There is an openness to an unearthing of something new for both the mother and the infant. As Newton and Goodman state, it is an amalgamation of “internal and external factors” that generates for Winnicott a “transitional space”: It exists both within the persons and between them with an element of playfulness, so they may “discover each other.”[2] Think of an infant finding her foot or her fingers. It is during the child’s self-discovery that the mother not only learns about her child but also about herself, her own humanity.

As self-discovery continues, maturity emerges. As referenced in my previous blog (When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . . ), a child moves from complete dependence towards independence. For Object Relations theory, such a movement transpires in this space between the caregiver and the child. Peter VanKatwyk observes that Winnicott’s concept of holding the infant was seen to make the child ready to eventually be equipped to independently ride through life’s storms. Accordingly, Winnicott applied holding to the therapy session, which Vankatwyk understands Winnicott to be preparing the client to journey alone.[3] That is, in the space in the relationship between the counselor and the counselee, there is movement from absolute dependence towards independence—growth unfolds. Mary Fraser similarly notices that in Winnicott’s transferring of this concept to therapy, he views “transitional space” as “an environment in which people felt so safe and so nurtured that they could open themselves emotionally and psychologically to work through their conflicts and gain insight into life predicaments.”[4] Herzel Yogev also reports that the concept of holding has been expanded so that in therapy both the counselor and the client move toward a mutual holding.[5] That is, a reciprocal discovery of each other and of life. Pamela Cooper White demonstrates this mutuality in her understanding of the concept of space in her application to the pastor/client relationship:

The pastoral relationship involves intersubjectivity, a sharing of understandings and meanings that arises in the “potential space” of exploration between us.’ There is a shared wisdom that grows and is held between helper and helpee in the pastoral relationship, and this shared wisdom exists in both conscious and unconscious dimensions of “I,” “Thou,” and “We.”[6]

This space of experiencing and honoring the other, then, is a space of respect and value, not disregard and violation between a caregiver and a carereceiver, be it pastor to congregant or Christ-follower to Christ-follower.

This space embraces and esteems the otherness of a person and affirms the other’s worth. Thus, the space between people becomes a holding place: As the carereceiver transparently shares one’s self, the caregiver joins in the holding of the other by demonstrating that the other matters through listening and being present, providing a space to wrestle with life’s conundrums. Fraser remarks that the space becomes sacred when it is a place of “meaning-making” in which the person finds value in both herself and in her world.[7] VanKatwyk summarizes it well, “[T]he sacred appears in acts of caring in a harsh world, and caring constructs the sacred places where people live the meanings of their lives.”[8]

As a Christ-follower, who is also Pentecostal, I understand the image of sacred space as a space for a possible in-breaking of God.

I begin with a brief description of perichoresis, an image of the Trinity provided by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century. This metaphor embraces both the unity and the diversity of the trinitarian theological construct. As Paul Fiddes writes, it was used to describe God’s nature (ousia) as being a “communion” of three persons (emphasis Fiddes).[9] Cooper-White says that perichoresis connotes persons who exist equally and are mutually interpermeating.[10] John Zizioulas explains, “Each person carries a full, undivided nature while co-inhering in the other person.”[11] For example, in using Miroslav Volf’s thought, one can say that the “Son” is not only himself, but rather the “Son” also carries within himself the other divine persons, “Father and Spirit,” and only in this indwelling of the other two persons existing in the “Son” is the “Son” really the “Son” (the reader can then extrapolate for the other two persons).[12] Volf clarifies, “[E]ach divine person is the other persons, though is such in its own way.”[13] In other words, the Father has a distinct nature while also fully indwelling the Son and Spirit and vice versa. The divine persons, then, exist in relations. This brings to mind another metaphor that Fiddes discusses, which is perichoreuo; it emerged in the Medieval Period to portray a “divine dance.”[14] Fiddes remarks, “In this dance the partners not only encircle each other and weave in and out between each other as in human dancing; in the divine dance, so intimate is the communion that they move in and through each other so that the pattern is all-inclusive.”[15] In essence, the Three-in-One are described by Fiddes as existing as relations in movement.[16] Through the use of these metaphors of the Trinity, theologians have concluded that humanity mirrors the divine by being in relationship with God and other humans. It is by being in community that human beings reflect the imago Dei.

This description becomes vital for my understanding of the sacred space and the in-breaking of God.

As a caregiver and a carereceiver formulate a healing relationship, there are multiple dynamics at work. First, between the caregiver and the carereceiver there will be movement towards mutuality and respect. The caregiver will seek to create a safe environment within which the carereceiver may express both positive and negative emotions without fear of rejection. In this, the caregiver attempts to create a sacred space in which the carereceiver may find worth and meaning. Within this space is a sense of solidarity, which proclaims that together the caregiver and carereceiver will walk through a carereceiver’s joy and sorrow. In the place of pious platitudes there is empathy. In the place of a denial of the pain, there is compassion, which suffers with the carereceiver.

Theologian Ray Anderson asserts that the Christ-follower who serves in the capacity of paraclesis, “a role of comforting, exhorting, and encouraging,” continues Christ’s ministry “through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”[17] Anderson explains:

The continuing paracletic ministry of the Spirit takes place through a human encounter by which the Word produces change and growth through the motive power of the Spirit. It is important to note that the motive power is not located in who performs the paracletic ministry nor in the one who receives it, but the new motive power for growth and change is actually mediated into the relation through the Spirit by the human person.[18]

This points toward the second dynamic at work, which is the presence and the movement of the Spirit.

Recognizing that the Spirit is given to believers (e.g., Eph 1:13-14), the Spirit resides within the caregiver and carereceiver who are Christ-followers, working in each of them to transform them. Furthermore, with the images of perichoresis and perichoreuo and Anderson’s belief that the Spirit is already ministering, I believe that the Spirit is moving within the space between the caregiver and carereceiver, including them in the divine dance. Cooper-White supports this when she writes, “The intersubjective space created between two persons in the pastoral relationship is sacred space. We enter with awe, with fear and trembling.”[19] It is a powerful encounter of the Spirit, then, for not only is the Spirit within each person but also moving between the persons or within their relationship. Cooper White reiterates that “we do not do this merely by our own powers of reason or intuition, but with the help of the pulsing, energizing breath of God dwelling in both partners in the therapeutic dance, and dwelling in the intersubjective space between us.”[20]

Thus, with the Spirit’s presence, the sacred space is transformed to a Sacred space (capital “S”). The Holy is present.

In mirroring the relations of the triune Godhead, Sacred space is a space of mutuality and equality that becomes infused with the presence of the divine. There is a willingness to acknowledge the mystery and to admit to not knowing. Both the caregiver and the carereceiver recognize their weakness and finitude. As the caregiver moves toward the carereceiver with respect, honor, and consideration, an atmosphere is created that reflects the community of the divine. In this, as the caregiver and the carereceiver listen to the Spirit who is moving and dancing in their midst, they partake in the dance—an in-breaking of God occurs—the Holy Divine One is present.

Transformation is made possible.

The Space is sacred.

 

Special thanks to pixabay.com for the picture.

 

[1] John Newton and Helen Goodman, “Only to Connect: Systems Psychodynamics and Communicative Space,” Action Research 7, no. 3 (2009): 300, DOI: 10.1177/1476750309336719 (accessed December 13, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter VanKatwyk, “Pastoral Counseling as a Spiritual Practice: An Exercise in a Theology of Spirituality,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 56, no. 2 (June 1, 2002): 118, http://www.luthersem.edu/library/auth_resource.aspx?resource_link=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001370096&site=ehost-live&scope=site (accessed December 9, 2012).

[4] Mary L. Fraser, “Space: The Final Frontier: The Use of Psychological, Emotional, and Sacred Space in Biblical Texts 
and Contemporary Psychotherapy,” Pastoral Psychology 48, no. 3 (2000): 212, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=2794092&site=ehost-live (accessed December 13, 2012).

[5] Herzel Yogev, “Holding in Relational Theory and Group Analysis,” Group Analysis 41 (2008): 381-382, DOI: 10.1177/0533316408098442 (accessed December 13, 2012).

[6] Pamela Cooper-White, Shared Wisdom: Use of the Self in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Kindle edition, preface.

[7] Fraser, 214.

[8] VanKatwyk, 111.

[9] Paul Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 71.

[10] Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices: Pastoral Psychotherapy in Relational and Theological Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), Kindle edition, 76.

[11] John Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness, ed. Paul McPartlan (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 106, f. 14.

[12] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fiddes, 72.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 195.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Cooper-White, Shared Wisdom, Kindle edition, Chapter 5.

[20] Cooper-White, Many Voices, Kindle edition, 94.

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