In his 2010 book entitled A Rumour of God, noted Canadian journalist and author Robert Sibley offers up a fascinating history of the ebb and flow of the importance of place in our lives. Our renewed interest in place has been triggered by the pandemic. Like you, I am hunkered down in a particular place not able to escape through space to another place. Jesus Christ had no place and wandered around Galilee and Judah living a nomadic existence. He prayed to God in wide open spaces like gardens, hilltops and desert wilderness. His disciples even had to borrow a tomb for his body. He was effectively placeless. It was only in the third century that place and religion were firmly linked when the Church established itself in Rome. The balance between space and place held up until people started going on pilgrimages to far off places like Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Jerusalem and Canterbury. They came home describing these places which fed peoples’ desire to escape the local claims of place for the increased freedoms of space.
Sibley explains that in the middle ages, the Archbishop of Paris attempted to suppress doctrines that in his view claimed to limit God’s power e.g., the Aristotelian idea that there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe and thus a limit to divine power. The Archbishop’s condemnations ultimately proved harmful for Christianity as it opened up the possibility of infinite space – thus diminishing the importance of place. People today remain attached to their places for sure but science has opened up the possibility of escaping the oppressive aspects of those places, whether in body or mind. As moderns we are living under the apotheosis of space, at least until the pandemic hit. Geographers say that the greater mobility of modern society dilutes our sense of place. Modernity requires us to subordinate place to the imperatives of the time-and-space world view. Many people are unable to maintain ties to any particular place because they experience more places over a lifetime than their forefathers ever imagined. Witness those people who live on the cruise ship the World that wanders the globe aimlessly in normal times.
Sibley goes on to the intriguing ideas that Tony Hiss expresses in his 1991 book The Experience of Place. Hiss proposes that we experience the world in two ways: “ordinary perception” and “simultaneous perception”. Usually we go about our lives in the ordinary perception mode. We perceive the outside world only to the degree necessary for our daily survival as we are absorbed for the most part with the chatter in our heads. Simultaneous perception on the other hand broadens and diffuses our beam of attention across all the senses so we can take in whatever there is there to be received. Some places seem to trigger our experiencing of them more intensely. When this happens we choose to stay in our heads or to let go and release ourselves to the full experience of a particular place. This mystical experience has certainly happened to me while on the Camino, on a golf course, at a retreat centre, hiking on a mountain trail with Marie or in a church building. How about you? Have you ever had the experience of being in a place that is so beautiful, enchanting or magical that you just let go? If you are a believer, do you become more aware of God’s presence in moments like these? Sibley proposes that this is a good thing and that to restore our sense that the world is indeed an enchanted place, we need to become more sacramental in our daily lives.
The Covid pandemic has made me appreciate more than ever before, the importance of the place that I am in. My lived experience of place has changed. If you have a comfortable and safe abode at present, the lock down is not so bad. On the other hand, for the homeless, seniors in retirement homes, multi-generational families in single room houses, indigenous in isolated communities and those in crowded prisons or hospitals, the place itself may be the problem i.e., increasing your risk of being infected. We lament the current loss of free movement and access to family and friends. But this means that the place we are in has increased importance and can be our salvation. Will this sense of renewed importance of place stay with us post pandemic? I am not so sure.
Hey everyone, thanks for travelling with us during this the year of the pandemic. Wishing you a Happy, Blessed and Healthy New Year in 2021! Dave (and Marie)