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Hallo again to all.

In the excellent British Roman Catholic journal The Tablet, you'll find an article about a web site called Sacred Space, developed by members of the Jesuit order in Ireland. We may be feeling curmudgeonly, living as we do in the northern hemisphere, halfway through January and weary of the bleak midwinter, but the words 'sacred space' — especially when used in or near paragraphs with the words 'web' or 'cyber' or 'online church' — make us squirm.

As far as 'sacred spaces' on the Internet go, the Irish site is one of the best. Its purpose seems to be taking what the Jesuits know about prayer and codifying it in an online procedure. Its popularity suggests that it's achieving that objective, insofar as one can measure these things. But all in all, online sacred-space web sites strike us as a bit artificial, a tad dull, and a less likely to lead to contemplation of the mysterium tremendens et fascinans than to cause us to fidget in our desk chairs, look out the window, and play with paper clips.

'Be fair', we counselled ourselves as we returned again to We made our minds as tabula rasa as they could be and attempted again to be impartial. We tried several times to use the site as we were directed, following the suggestions and pursuing the various links for 'Stuck?' or 'Prayer Guide'. Again, we were unmoved, and found ourselves curiously diffident. It felt a bit like visiting an old church as a tourist rather than as a worshipper. We were looking at it, not through it. Again we tried to analyse just why. Was it 'Sacred Space'? Or was it us? A little of both, we decided.


For us, praying means, for however short a time, leaving the here and now and, in some manner beyond our ability to describe, connecting with God. An arrow prayer, only seconds long, means for us thinking of a person and his needs, flung with as much heart and soul as we can muster, up to God. The daily offices, said either alone or in community, provide for us another trajectory into the divine. And gathering as a community in a physical church on Sunday is the standard bearer of Christian worship.

Of course there are private chapels, corners of rooms, the place beside one's bed where one may kneel. We know that many people find prayer beads or similar objects helpful. Some people like to pray in a car, radio switched off, during a daily commute. Others like meditating in gardens or during routine household chores. Whilst much private prayer is extempore, from the heart, for many of us there is the Book of Common Prayer or one of its many national offshoots. These accompany us during our prayers and our worship. But, ideally, the words become 'inwardly digested' and part of us, so the BCP becomes less something to read and more something to hold.

So prayer has all sort of spaces in which it happens, and all sorts of ways. Perhaps web prayer sites, sacred spaces, virtual labyrinths, animated candles, and so on, will simply become part of the portfolio of ways to pray, portals for those wanting to explore the business of prayer before stepping foot over a church threshold. Well and good. Our worry is that sacred spaces will become, for some, all the space there is. No matter how much we pretend, a web site can never be a church and online prayer can never become corporate worship. Did Dial-A-Prayer ever become a useful medium? Do masses on television really transport their viewers? For us the answer is a hearty no. We've observed people watch a televised mass, but never seen anyone really participate, actively. No one says 'Amen', because the social role of the telly is so utterly secular.

'There is no secular world', reads the bumper sticker on an Episcopal priest's car in Massachusetts. And we're inclined to agree. For us, there is, on the web, no sacred space, but rather places that, whether stated or not, transport us through pictures or words to God. That can happen when reading an article on the BBC news site, whilst listening to a choral MP3, zooming in on an amazing icon, reading a priest's eulogy of his fallen daughter, or even visiting a parish web site. But those connections to the divine, those pathways to God, are everywhere in the world and everywhere on the net. They are part of the life that the net connects us to, not part of the net itself. God cannot be reduced to a URL.

If 'Sacred Space' works for you, then use it, do it, be faithful. We tried and tried again, and, for us, it doesn't. Maybe if we switched off our computer and looked at the blank screen, it might work a little better. Or maybe not. To each her own tabula rasa.

See you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 19 January 2003

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