I am not sure Quakers are always prepared to talk about the sacred. But I do think Quakers are taught fairly well to be prepared to engage the sacred. Let me explain and elaborate the difference. I suspect in the process of explaining and elaborating, some of you who grew up in other traditions or, perhaps, no tradition at all will find some resonance in my own experience.
First of all, I define the sacred as the Presence of God or the Holy One. Sacred simply means the place or space of the Divinity. In the history of religions the sacred might be a place, like a cathedral, a grove in the forest or some other shrine. The sacred can be the object of pilgrimages. Sometimes the sacred has been the place of healing, as well as revelation. The sacred is opposite of the profane---which literally means “outside the temple.”
I personally like the language of “Presence.” The sacred is the place or space where you encounter the Presence. Often I think the Catholic Church and other traditions have done a better job than my own Quaker tradition in helping folks know where these “sacred places” are to be found. In fact, it is pretty normal for Catholics to consecrate their churches. Henceforth, the church is known as St. Mary’s or St. John’s or something. Perhaps kids come to know that stepping into the building is to enter sacred territory.
And of course, there seems to be levels of sacredness. At least in my novice’s understanding of Catholic tradition, not every place inside the church is equal. Surely the altar has a degree of sacredness that is superior to some place in the basement. The altar is the scene of the eucharist---the holy communion or Lord’s Supper. It is at the altar where the priest takes the bread and the cup, blesses them and gives them to the congregations as the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.
The altar is the focusing point. It is the place where the sacred is most concentrated, if you will. As I think about the Quaker building, there is nothing like the altar. Traditionally, Quaker architecture has no obvious center or sacred spot. I am tempted to think that my tradition is simply that much poorer for the lack of sacred specificity. On the surface, we don’t have saints and we don’t have sacred places or spaces. And on the surface, this is true.
The more I think about it, however, the more I realize my own Quaker tradition and the Catholic tradition are like points on a circle. If we image the circle, my tradition and the more liturgical ones, like the Catholic or Episcopal are far away from each other on this circle. But if we were to turn the other way, lo and behold, there they are almost next to the Quakers! We are so far apart, we are almost next to each other! Let me explain.
I can put it simply by saying that Quakers have a tendency to spiritualize the more outward symbols of the sacred. Instead of the altar in the middle of the cathedral to which the faithful come to encounter the Holy One, the Quaker imagines the inward altar. Instead of the altar in the middle of the sanctuary (sanctus = holy), I can talk about the inner sanctum (the inner sanctuary). It is at this inner sanctuary that the encounter with the sacred takes place.
This means that the Quaker is not likely to sense the holiness of the building. I know of no Quaker meetinghouse called “St. Something.” Rather the Quaker process is to enter the building and begin the preparation of going to the altar of the heart. There God promises to become present and to be experienced as the Presence. There I will be “fed.” There I will be nourished and nurtured with the living Presence---the food of my soul. In the end I doubt this experience is much different from the Catholic who goes inside “St. Something” in order to approach the altar and be “fed” with the living Presence of the Holy God.
I can write these words and express what sounds like doctrine. Doctrine proclaims, “this is how it is.” I can accept it, reject it, etc. But doctrine is not experience. Doctrine talks about God, but is not a living experience of the Holy One. Doctrine might be interesting; experience is enlivening---life giving.
In order to become available to the living Presence, I can prepare myself. I can make the effort to go into a place of sacred space. I can make the effort to go inside and find that inner altar of my heart. I can prepare myself by being expectant and ready. I can expect the living Presence to come to me and to “feed” me with nourishment for my spiritual self.
In the end it does not seem to matter much whether I am Quaker, Catholic or any other tradition. What matters is spiritual preparation. What matters is to have a sense for the Presence and the sense to pursue it. Ultimately, it is not just a good idea. It is a life-giving experience.