Dear Pope Francis,
I’m finally starting to get really excited about going home to the East Coast for a while. Aside from the more obvious reasons for being so excited, like seeing my family and friends, going to the beaches (I know Ontario has beaches, but fresh water beaches just don’t do it for me), and quiet. Underneath those things, there’s another, deeper reason. Put simply, my roots are on the East Coast, and there is something very powerful about being in that space which nourishes me in a way that other spaces simply don’t. It is where most of my life story happened. Those spaces at home tell the story of my life in a physical way, that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
I have been significantly more attuned to the power of space since I returned from Europe. As I walked around Berlin I was acutely aware of the fact that it is a city that is recovering. Missing buildings, walls with bullet holes, and memorials designed to trip you up* tell a sad story in a way that struck me more profoundly than any other rendition of the story I’ve heard. They made the stories come alive in a way that no verbal or written description could do.
Walking in the Auschwitz concentration camps was eerie because they looked just like the pictures I have seen my whole life. For as much as they were the site of untold suffering and death, I still had a sense, standing on the edge of the field where the bodies were burned in Auschwitz II – Birkeneau, that I was walking on hallowed ground; for as much as those people had a final resting place, I was standing in it, and that gave me cold shivers.
We, as a Church have a tradition of recognizing sacred spaces, and using them to tell stories. Pilgrimages to holy sites are really important for some people’s spiritual practice. More locally, Churches are designated as sacred spaces, and their architecture and décor help to make that designation. Icons, artwork, and the Crucifix help to draw the congregation into a reality that is beyond them. It doesn’t matter what church I am standing in, I can sense that this is a space that is set aside for a very specific purpose. The very space itself is inviting me into God’s presence.
All of these spaces invite me into something larger than myself. A church invites me to experience God, travelling in Europe invited me to participate in history in a physical way, and going home invites me to revisit my personal roots, tangled up in the roots of the community. It is precisely this invitation to participate that makes space so powerful for me. I can read books, look at pictures or talk to people who have experienced the place, but they don’t invite me in, or engulf me in that reality. But being there does. Standing at the Wansee Villa in Berlin**, which was arguably the most difficult and unexpected part of the trip for me, engulfed me in the apparent normalcy of what was going on for these Nazi officers (they saw that as a business meeting, not condemning millions of people to death), in a way that no book or lecture or picture could ever do.
Recognizing the power of space encourages me to harness it and help me to recharge and heal. I have been thinking about all the places that are important to me, and I look forward to being able to go back to them, and allow them to invite me back into my own story.
Resisting the urge to pack my bags,
*The Stumbling Stone memorials are located throughout Berlin in memory of the various victims of the Holocaust. They are laid into the street or sidewalk at the home or work place of the person being remembered (usually a Jew who had been deported or escaped the country), and the stones are engraved with the person’s name, date of deportation, fate and date of death (if known).
**The Minoux Villa is the location of the Wansee Conference hosted on January 20, 1942. It was during this conference that various Nazi leaders made plans for the Final Solution as the answer to the “Jewish Question”. The house was converted into a museum in 1992, the 50th anniversary of the conference.