The Need for Sanctuary
“Opelousas, Louisiana … While the victims of the arsonist who burned down their houses of worship offered forgiveness, investigators rushed to assemble the scant clues, worried the assailant would strike again …”
This showed up on the NY Times front page of Friday, April 12th, a modest article on the left hand side; an understated article but it was on their front page. As some days went by, I realized I had seen nothing of this story on the news outlets I’m used to checking out: PBS, CNN, or MSNBC. It seemed then that this extreme act of destruction in the South was destined to evaporate into the vast clouds of forgotten news stories, like the horror in New Zealand, the tragedies of opiod deaths, or the grimy stories about our president’s crimes … Our news cycle is speedy, tragedies come at us in dizzying succession, and we end up losing track of many of the serious and tragic losses.
And then the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris went up in flames on Monday April 15 and the story stood front and center - in the NY Times and the major broadcast media — as a dire narrative of loss to a city, a country, and the world spilled out before our eyes, keeping us focused on the crumbling spire of the church amid angry orange flames. The mystery surrounding the cause of this tragedy gave people pause, I’m sure, given all the acts of terrorist violence we’ve become used to. And so people sat with their heavy grief and wondered, “how could this happen?” ( how could something so vast and so ancient be vulnerable?). It’s a terrible sign of our times that we assume there must be a villain to blame, that we would feel better if we had a face to lay the blame on.
The 3 hundred year old churches in Louisiana were burned to the ground by a living breathing man whose name is Holden Matthews, son of a local deputy sheriff, who clearly had hate in his heart. Some facts were revealed in time, but the story continues to be fuzzy and unexamined. Sadly I don’t find this surprising. There are probably reasons for this which news junkies like myself wouldn’t understand. As the Notre Dame news cycle unfolded, we learned that it most likely was a surreal accident without a perpetrator; so instead of railing at a nefarious villain, the people rallied around the cries for help in restoring the majestic old cathedral. Out of the ashes, a rebirth… I am pretty sure that the pain in the hearts of those affected by the destruction of these places of worship is equal, though the two scenarios are indeed very different; deep loss causes pain, no matter what the lost sanctuary’s story offers us.
These two events occurred close together and they nudged me to reflect deeply on the place of churches in our human lives. Churches and temples and mosques are sanctuaries for people around the globe - places where they can go to find communion with themselves and with the larger guiding spirit in their lives. They are places of community where people take refuge from everything from danger and despair to just plain disillusionment and boredom … places where they can rediscover their own true nature. In this 21st century we navigate a world fraught with discord and division and a mindless drive to make money, achieve power and success, and thus we must have places of quiet where we can see and feel the authentic quality of our lives. There are churches in cities, villages, remote islands, fields, and the desert; there are temples in the jungles and forests and mountain tops — all places of peace and respite.
I wasn’t raised a religious person, but when I look back on my many decades of travel I realize I always sought out churches or temples wherever I found myself, whether it was Italy, or France, Spain, Burma, Thailand, Mexico, Japan, or Vietnam… The whole idea of sanctuary tugged at at my heart then and it still does. When I enter the temple I am able to reconnect with myself, and most importantly I find communion with the people of that place, smelling the burning candles and incense, looking up to dusty religious paintings, glorious stained glass, and feeling my feet happily resting on the cool soothing earth. I feel less lonely. And I’m able to remember that I have an honored place in this mortal life.
All of us humans deserve sanctuary no matter what our color, language, traditions, or spiritual practice. These places of refuge are necessary so we can support and strengthen our compassionate hearts and minds to forge ahead and make a difference in the world.
I think we should pause and send out blessings and well-wishing to those who have lost sanctuary in this historical moment: the people of Louisiana, the citizens of France, and the population of Sri Lanka who just a few days ago suffered an horrific assault on their country, one most likely driven by a inexplicable hatred of their religion. We should remember that religion doesn’t live only inside the temples and mosques, but it is in play on the streets of cities and villages and roadsides everywhere. Look around you when you walk the streets, stop in the park, find a sweet quiet place in a cafe, and see if you can’t notice others attempting to center themselves in the midst of chaos, looking for their own sanctuary, pausing in that moment to be reminded of their essential life purpose.