The Billies was an acoustic duo from the Asheville area who became infamous on my small, Presbyterian college campus for the liberalism (political and social) of their lyrics. They performed in the chapel as an opening act for David Wilcox, another acoustic artist, when I was a senior. I missed the show but heard about it the next week.
“Can you believe they sang that in the chapel?!” seemed to be the common sentiment about a song called “Bread,” a less-than-clever attempt to write a wittily profound song about the union, sexual and emotional, of two opposites: a granola man and a “mall muffin” he meets at the cinema. They end up going home together, having sex and making bread. The song uses the making of bread as a metaphorical basis for the sex that came before. One doesn’t have to think long about what those metaphors might have been.
The whole campus was shocked that they would sing it in the chapel. It wasn’t a holy place — for only God is holy — but it was where the student body gathered twice a week for devotions, Christian concerts and drams, and all sorts of religious education. “It just left a bad feeling in my soul,” one girl told me.
I was perplexed. Growing up in a church that didn’t even have its own building (we rented), the notion of sacred space was even more foreign to me than the average Protestant. “It’s just a building,” I wanted to say. After all, didn’t we attend services weekly in a union hall?
Much of Christendom would have had the same reaction as the students of my college, if not stronger. The church might not be holy, Protestants would contend, but what goes on there is worship of God, the one thing in the universe that is holy. In practical terms, then, the building is sacred in some slightly indefinable sense.
Yet for Catholics, the church is holy in a very definable, specific sense: it is the house of Jesus in the Eucharist. It’s yet another aspect of the uniqueness of Catholicism that traces directly back to the teaching of the Real Presence in the Eucharistic host. If one believes that the communion wafer becomes, on consecration, the “body blood soul and divinity” of Jesus, as the Catholic church teaches, then one is obliged to treat the building holding said host in a manner befitting its most holy inhabitant. And that’s just what Catholics do. In other words, they believe the church is sacred because they believe that God is literally, physically — not merely symbolically, metaphorically, or spiritually — in the church.
This has many practical consequences, the most immediately obvious coming at the end of Mass. In the church of my youth, after services, congregants would mingle and chat (sometimes for unbelievably long stretches) in the hall where services had just been held. I suspect it’s largely the same in most Protestant churches. First-time visitors to a Catholic church, though, notice that as soon as the Mass concludes, everyone leaves. There is almost no mingling, no socializing. Many interpret this as a lack of a sense of community in the church, but that is certainly not the reasoning behind most Catholic’s quick exit.
Yet in a traditional Catholic culture, such as Poland, it’s not just churches that represent sacred spaces. Sit on any bus going on any journey of 20 kilometers or more and you’ll notice all the head-scarfed babcias crossing themselves every time the bus passes a church, a cemetery, a small shrine, a commemorative cross, or any other space that through tradition or church teaching — direct or indirect — has come to be considered holy. For these pious women, the whole world, in a sense, is sacred.