The Particularity of Place
And God surveyed the world and He saw that it was good....
That’s right out of the Bible, so I’m glad I’m not alone on that one. I am happy to be in agreement with our Creator, because there are some places in the world, that are very, very good. There have been some physical spaces I have really loved. I felt comfortable there.
The places were filled with people who felt the same way. It might stretch your definition of “sacred space”. Such places are blessed with the well trod rituals of man, what you might call a neighbourhood haunt. They are steeped in a specific history - a vast collection of tiny details to make up the whole that will never be replicated elsewhere. They are the happy accidents of life that belong to a particular time and place, and they are also quickly vanishing.
One I remember was the Brunswick House in Toronto. The “Brunny” is no more. It was a fixture of the Annex neighbourhood a bit north of the University of Toronto. It was generally filled with students, and some pretty good bands. The Brunswick House featured a really corny house act that was a carry over from war times, a lady named Irene who would sing rousing war-time songs like Roll Out the Barrel, (we’ll have a barrel of fun) accompanied by a live pianist. You would not think such music would go over well with a bunch of students but it was so ridiculously unlikely that it was a barrel of fun indeed. The Brunny sold cheap beer and that was its initial draw. A very tiny and round waitress would surf through the crowd with a tray held aloft high above her head, loaded with glasses of dollar draft. Like a submarine periscope surfacing you could just see the tray part the crowd like Moses crossing the Red Sea, never spilling a drop.
Such popular places make up the flavour of a neighbourhood. You get particular areas that give you a certain kind of experience. In Toronto you have a long list - the Annex, Kensington, Chinatown, High Park, The Beaches, St. Lawrence Market, The Danforth, Bloor West Village, et cetera. Each is like visiting a charming and different small town. The opposite of such local flavour, is the kind of suburban developments foisted upon us in an artificial way that is premised only on making money. Predictably, you get a Starbucks, a Chapters Indigo, and some of the usual stores like American Eagle. They are so homogenous that no matter where they occur, they are exactly the same. They are planned with the cool cog-like thinking that is entirely predictable and cheap for urban planners to replicate. One plan fits all. They are also mind-numbingly boring.
This is how it happens. There will be a mom and pop shop that has come to be beloved in a particular neighbourhood. Inevitably, a Starbucks or similar chain will plant itself across the road and just wait things out. Whether they make an immediate profit does not matter as long as they split the revenue stream and starve the other retail store out. They have deep pockets financed by the head office and their ultimate strategy is a turf war. You can see it happen in small towns. A Walmart will come on the scene, and a year later, what used to be a locally flavoured business district will look virtually the same as any mall setup across North America. I think it is my own version of what Hell looks like.
One might wonder why God made creation. Think about it. A being of spirit creates something tangible. He populates a physical place with animals, flora and fauna, and ultimately human beings. There is also the mystery of the incarnation where God jumps right in and takes part as Jesus, living and breathing among us and just taking it all in. It could be that human beings sometimes get it right when all their hopes and longings gather in one spot.
Everyone has their sacred space, that might arise from the daily rituals you perform there, the waking and rising, the bringing in of provisions, the meeting of friends, and time spent just hanging out. It seems that God celebrates the particularity of place. It’s that mystery at the end of it all, where he has promised a new earth, a physical one where all the broken stuff gets fixed just as God intended. I am 100% certain that the strip malls will be the first thing to go.
What will remain is the beauty of details often overlooked and under-appreciated. It is something to be celebrated, and just like the saying, I am sure God is in the details.
Honest Ed (Mirvish) had a famous sign on the side of his store on Bloor and Bathurst… The sign read, “There’s no place like this place, anyplace!”
I sometimes wonder if Heaven will have the same kind of sign at the entry gate. And God surveyed the world, and He saw that it was good...