Today we witnessed an annual event at our Pennsylvania home. The hummingbird returned. Our neighborhood ornithologist confirms that these tiny creatures journey each spring all the way from the Gulf of Mexico seeking summer residence in nectar rich ‘sanctuaries.’ For several years now our terrace – where blossoms abound – has been a favorite estivation retreat for these avian jewels.
It’s noteworthy that our neighbor used the word ‘sanctuary.’ The term today is broadly applied. We have ‘sanctuary cities,’ ‘bird sanctuaries’ and even ‘free speech sanctuaries’– all of which connote safe zones whose inhabitants are protected from external forces. But, it would be unfortunate if we allow the traditional meaning of the word to lose its significance.
Christians who are educated in their faith will recognize the original use of the word. Etymologically ‘sanctuary’ derives from the Latin sanctuarium meaning a place containing or enshrining something sacred. Although I have never seen it referred to as such, the burning bush in the Book of Exodus was a kind of sanctuary. It was a place in which the living God was present. Indeed, so overwhelming was the sacred reality manifested there on Mount Horeb that Moses removed his sandals and hid his face.
For Christians, especially for Catholics, the sanctuary is that sacred area of a church where the altar and, typically, the tabernacle are located. Before the Second Vatican Council, in the early 1960s, the sanctuary was set apart from the rest of the church by an altar rail where communicants would kneel to receive the Eucharist. The altar rail and the sanctuary lamp, that candle kept lit when the Blessed Sacrament is present, enhanced the sense of sacred separation, the sense of sanctuary. Indeed in those days, even when Mass was not being offered, one entered the altar area only when necessary and always with great reverence.
Today, the traditional significance of sanctuary is not so popularly appreciated. Perhaps fewer people are interested or have limited time for such timeless matters. Or, perhaps the cause is the low level of religious literacy over the past 50 years even among the baptized. Certainly, the prevalent anemic belief in the Divine Presence in the Eucharist contributes to this impoverishing indifference. But, its low place in the popular lexicon notwithstanding, the reality of sanctuary, the inner sanctum, has not lost its power to attract and to nurture believers.
How could it?
Consider how the faithful who travel through foreign countries and encounter strange customs still find a home in a local church where the vigil lamp is lit. Consider how they still experience the solace of knowing they are in the presence of the same immutable Truth and Beauty that comforts them in their churches back home. Loneliness, distress, fear, confusion, all are addressed in most parts of the world by the soothingly ambient light of the sanctuary lamp which confirms the presence of the Divine.
Real sanctuary is generally accessible. We have only to recognize it.
Our hummingbird lodgers travel hundreds of miles for their sanctuary. My journey is just down the street.