There’s a chapel in the north transept of Vienna’s Stephansdom just off the nave or center aisle. It is not a corner which receives many visitors or tourists, and that is why I liked it so much when I lived there in the early nineties. It houses no grand altar; there is no ornate, baroque fixture. The smooth, rounded, grey walls extend clear to the buttresses. Every time I entered the dim room and sat at one of the few pew benches, I had to take a minute for my eyes to adjust. The only ornamentation or focal point was Jesus himself hanging on an unadorned cross barely above eye level. His feet were hung at chest height, so it was not difficult to reach out and touch them. The entire chapel was stone grey. This was a chapel designed solely for prayer and meditation. It was my holy place.
Except when it wasn’t. I was young and, at times, arrogant and thoughtless. If, on the rare occasion, I had brought someone with me, we would be shushed by the rare worshipper for whispering. This was not a chapel you came to as a tourist. You were not encouraged to come and take a look around. People came to pray. In the city center, the cathedral’s north and south towers rose in all their Gothic glory overwhelming those emerging from the depths of the Stephansplatz U-Bahn station. The blue, green, black, yellow and white mosaic-tiled roof caught the eye of even the most casual pedestrian. In that busy city, off shopping streets full of history but modern sensibilities, I wonder how many prayers were formulated over the centuries in that tiny chapel room. How many in the few years in which I made my way into its walls as I sat, struggling to discern the trajectory of my life in such a transitional phase?
I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not particularly recognize holy places. The world was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. We did not need special places in order to pray or worship God. God was both omnipresent and omniscient. I could talk to him anywhere. Except when I couldn’t. To paraphrase Pixar’s The Incredibles, if all places are equally holy, then maybe no place is. Certainly, I still believe God is everywhere. There is no place I go where he has not reached before I arrive. And yet, it is important to acknowledge my need for the the sacred space. Maybe it is better to say I more readily recognize some spaces as holy.
There’s a great American sycamore on one of the walking trails I like to frequent. It is my favorite sycamore, maybe my favorite tree. I usually say I am going to “visit my friend.” Its branches extend high and bisect far horizontally across the trail, nearly reaching out over the creek. There is nothing other than its size that might make someone stop, but I always do. The smooth, rounded white bark settles me. This tree has obviously been there a long time. I lay my hand flat against its skin. I usually stop for a moment of meditation or a breath prayer. It is a holy place.