Take Off Your Shoes

A reflection on the sacredness of an “interior space” has to start (for me)


with a confrontational image of the sacred, something commanding awe and wonder.  Guess which I might choose?

However, I also have to admit that although this is one of those places I have encountered the huge and numinous, I kept my hiking boots firmly on. We are already into the language and symbol and metaphor. With Lud for me the enormity is an understandable link back in time to ponder what “sacred” might mean: is it just about respect, or something rather more complex?

What’s with the shoes?  The taking-off of real or metaphorical shoes is meant to signify vulnerability, maybe.  Certainly the practice is really ancient, and certainly is met with in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible (see this site for a compendium from a Christian counselling perspective, although some of its emphases I am not at liberty to explore here). I don’t have a good photo of my own for a Christian parallel, although this might suffice:

This link should take you to Monreale and this too, and perhaps best of all (but not the easiest to navigate) this –  to the luminous (and somehow ambiguous) face of Christ above the High Altar. It suggests to me a steady gaze at the penitent, the needy: it suggests compassion. The text Christ the Pantocrator holds is “I am the Light of the World” in Latin and Greek. Compassion illuminates.

And that brings me to the Tweet (21st April) from Dennis Tirch cited by Jon Reid:

A good relationship is a sacred space that can safely contain how we think and feel, along with our potentially painful histories + the whole of who we are.

Sacredness is an interesting concept there. We could take this as a metaphor, a bit as Steven Mithen uses Western Church architecture to explore mental structure. We might take a more sacramental view, and without wanting to baptise the temples of another set of beliefs, I want to explore this.

For me, the sacred is not so much forbidden but ungraspable,  attained only by grace.  As Bonaventure puts it:

Ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of understanding…

It is that thing that the earlier hymn-writer puts so beautifully and tentatively:

Expertus potest credere…
The one who has experience of it can believe…

In Tirsch’s soundbite, the sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence. It is a place where one is liberated but contained. As Merton describes in his poem about deep religious experience  Freedom as Experience,

Our lives revolve about You as the planets swing upon the sun…
Imprisoned in the fortunes of Your adamant
We can no longer move, for we are free.

Is this the same as the relationship Tirsch is discussing? Maybe not, but it has some similarities: this friendship allows (to use Christian theological language) the outpouring of grace – of charity, forgiveness, acceptance – that is not a million miles from prayer. It also carries with it the sense of awesomeness, the sense that the unwary word, the nit-picking analysis could “break the spell.” Hemmerle in Rahner’s Encyclopedia of Theology rolls out a wonderful concept:

How is our understanding of being to to justice to the coming and summons of the holy? Not by counting the holy among the topics which it has comprehended, but by submitting itself to the holy.

A sense of the sacred is a sense of the intangible, the awesome: an “I can do this” disrespect takes away something vital. We need emptying,  kenosis, as Paul would call it, not harpagmon, a something to be grasped. When relating to another person we need more than simply respect: we need to set aside a tick-list mentality. It is as true of relationships as of liturgy.

Accounts in the first books of the Bible talk about various sanctuary places, the Burning Bush being one, the hilltop where Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son being another, there are others, too: Mamre, Shechem, threshing floors, High Places. In the therapeutic context that Tirsch proposes, perhaps Jacob’s encounters are the best: Bethel where the ladder of ascending and descending angels helps Jacob understand the renewal of the convenat, and Peniel, the wrestling place where Jacob cannot hope to leave unscathed but in which he seeks (in vain) to know the Name of God. We are called to deal, as Belden Lane writes (Backpacking with the Saints, ch 4), with our own disillusionment, accepting the courage to be imperfect. The sacred ground of the relationship is a special place because the other person teaches us

…that one’s worth isn’t rooted in one’s ability to excel. I can be what little I am, without incrimination. What I accomplish isn’t what allows me to be loved.

The heart of compassion.

Allegory Time. I think it is worth acknowledging that this set of concepts is much more easily represented in metaphor (as with Bonaventure) but that this leaves us to deal with the ambiguity this may bring. We are able to talk of space and landscape (see this post) only while we recognise this is an insufficient language.  A sacred space sounds like an apse, maybe a stone circle, but really it is a set of complex social interactions: from handshakes to hugs, from eye contact to taking to heart what is being left unspoken. We also, like Jacob, may not come away with a relationship sorted: we seek to know the name of the other person when really, as Tirsch points out, we might simply get to hold and contain them in their bleakest thoughts.

The sacred space of relationship requires three understandings, it seems to me:

  • That this relationship is a matter of attentive regard for the other person in a compassionate, non-judgmental way;
  • That we need to be aware of the joy – and sometimes disquiet – of going out beyond our normal boundaries;
  • That this requires respect: both (or all? Are these relationships always dyads?) participants have to regard this relationship as  potentially restorative and dynamic. and yet trespassable and fragile.

Hence the shoes: we have to tread lightly.


As I was inexpertly scribbling the above, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site posted this piece on Thich Nhat Hahn and Love. It says it rather better.

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