CathBlog - What makes a place holy

BY EVAN ELLIS

For the next six weeks we will all be hearing a lot about Caritas Australia’s Project Compassion appeal. This year the theme is “If you want peace, work for justice.” The words echo Isaiah’s prophecy that "Justice will bring about Peace" and was reformulated by Pope Paul VI during his World Day of Peace message in 1972.

His message was prescient in a year that saw Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, a terrorist attack in Munich and the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

It is a theme that resonates as much on a personal level as it does a geopolitical one. In Australia peace is marketed, with spa treatments, holidays abroad and newly built, landscaped housing estates all promising us our slice of the elusive pie. In such a society it’s important not to lose sight of the justice dimension to peace.

One of the sharpest observers of this dynamic is Abbot Christopher Jamison, who was featured in the BBC’s 2005 program The Monastery. The series, a predecessor to the locally produced The Abbey, invited five ordinary Brits to live at Worth Abbey for six – transformative, as it turns out – weeks.

In a companion piece to the series Abbot Christopher looked to the deep wisdom in the Benedictine Rule for finding peace, or what he calls sanctuary. The Latin root of the word is sanctus, which means ‘holy’ and infers that a place of refuge must also be a holy place.  

Abbot Christopher directs our attention to the opening prologue. ‘Let us ask the Lord: “Who will dwell in your tent O Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” After this question, brothers, let us listen to what the Lord says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent.

“One who walks without blemish,” he says, “and is just in all his dealings, who speaks the truth from his heart and has not practised deceit with his tongue.”' (RB, Prologue: 23-6)

From this the Abbot concludes, “The basic staring point for entering sacred sanctuary is the quality of your day-to-day dealings with other people. You cannot mistreat people one moment and then find sanctuary the next. Finding the sacred space begins with the recognition of the sacred in your daily living.”

It’s not that spa treatments, holidays and tree-lined housing estates are intrinsically bad; it’s just that they’re often marketed as offering more than what they are. However any sanctuary that is not also a holy place, marked by just dealings between people, can only ever offer a fleeting, rootless peace. It is this peace, the peace the world can give, which Christ categorically rejects and betters in John 14: 27.

What does this have to do with Project Compassion?  Our small mortifications, our donations to Caritas, are in fact practical building blocks for peace. Here the personal and the geopolitical meet, because our personal sacrifice, which helps us to find peace, also enables the Church’s international aid and development agency to work for justice around the world.

Its development projects witness to the God-given dignity of all people, creating pockets of genuine sanctuary in a world marred by violence, poverty and discrimination.

It is no accident then that the symbol of the Benedictine order is the Latin word for peace ‘PAX’, surrounded by a crown of thorns. Abbot Christopher points to this and notes, “There is no peace without sacrifice and there is no peace without justice.”

Evan Ellis has just resigned as Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta to take on full-time postgraduate study in International Relations.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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