Sacred Time, Sacred Space

Volume 49, Issue 2, Michael J. Crosbie

The core of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath is that the divine can never be found in space, but only in time. Heschel articulates this view of the sacred, based in the Torah and Jewish teaching, as outside of the control of human beings. Published in 1951, The Sabbath is full of revelatory gems, rendered with poetic lilt. Heschel writes: “Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. It belongs exclusively to God.” He notes that our preference to locate God in the physical world, rather than in history, is, in a sense, to not acknowledge the sacred’s overwhelming power, beyond dimension: “There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.”

For us, the creators of what we call “sacred space,” Heschel’s view can be a bit deflating. How can we as architects, artists, and designers make places in which we and others might find transcendence, where we implore some deity to be in communion with us? After all, as temporal beings space is all we really have. Heschel notes that each of us occupies a portion of space exclusively—it is not shared with any other being. But we cannot occupy time, we cannot posses it; we can only share it with other beings. “Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings,” writes Heschel, “through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space.”

Heschel’s view invites us to reconsider the importance of our work as creators of sacred space, and its ultimate aim. Might we conflate the two: space (over which we have a certain control) and time (over which we have no control, and are at its mercy)? When we create a place for people to meet, to be in communion with each other, we fashion space in which people can share time together, in each other’s presence. Through this sharing, we potentially open a portal to the sacred. It is a door through which the spirit might be received even if we are alone, but present in the moment, without distraction, in time. If we see our work as creators of sacred space in this way, our architecture and art assumes a different role, not as a divine object in itself. We might think of it as a vehicle that enables people of faith to move through shared time, together, and not necessarily just through space.

While composing this present issue it was not my intent to make the space/time question an underlying theme, but it happens that many of the articles herein consider these dimensions and the roles they play in creating the sacred. And I came upon Heschel’s book (thanks to my colleague Karla Britton) only after the articles were in place. Independent of each other, these seemingly random events have delivered us to a “place,” inside this issue, where we might consider the importance of time and space to the sacred.

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