By Dan Gilliam
It is a typical Saturday night, and the contemporary worship services at LifeBridge Christian Church have just concluded. The last of the chatting crowd lingers in the foyer before going home or out to eat. A small but committed crew of staff and volunteers quietly convert the industrial-looking fellowship hall into a monastic-feeling meeting place. Tables, chairs, and walls are moved to create the open space needed to host the “quiet service” as it has come to be known.
This is “Sanctum: A Contemplative Gathering,” where worshipers of all ages are invited to listen to the voice of God through Scripture, Spirit, and silence.
As candles are lit and the melodic drone of Gregorian chant begins to waft through the room, even the set-up time for Sanctum presents an occasion for meditation and spiritual fellowship. A young couple and their two preteen boys roll out a large canvas labyrinth, a pre-Christian tool adopted by the medieval church for walking meditation and prayer. Spiritual pilgrimage is one of many metaphors of the labyrinth, and Sanctum is just one of a thousand Christian gatherings in America that make use of this symbol of the journey to God.
Some other volunteers quietly shuffle around the cavernous room, whispering greetings, exchanging hugs, and giving directions to newcomers who have shown up to help prepare this place for a low-lit sacred encounter. Interactive worship stations are carefully arranged where people will soon paint and write, read and reflect, walk and pray, or share in the Lord’s Supper as part of their God-listening experience. Others will simply find their quiet chair or pillow and settle in for an extended period of prayer in the presence of God and fellow Christ-followers.
A Place of Prayer
Dozens of regular worshipers return each week to share in the silence of Sanctum. But there are also new people every week. You can spot them pausing at the door to read a card that explains the philosophy and practice of worship. It reads:
Please make yourself at home in this meditative and reflective gathering. Worship begins as you enter the room and embrace a sense of exterior silence and inner stillness. Together we accept the gift of God’s presence and welcome him into our gathering. Those new to shared silence may find it disturbing at first and roving thoughts may prove to be bothersome. Our practice is not to worry about such distractions but, in faith, to repeatedly return to the still center of our being where God makes his home.
Some of us find it helpful to choose a sacred word such as “Jesus,” “God,” or “love” to use as a compass to redirect us when tempted to attach to passing thoughts, feelings, or images. In quiet, we listen and give our consent for God to do his work in our lives.
Our primary purpose is to love him with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. In this sacred hour we have no desire to break the silence but long to be aware of the power, the unity, the grace, and the truth in our gathering. Welcome to Sanctum.
This worship gathering is outside the comfort zone and interest level of many church members, but has been embraced by the ministerial staff and eldership of LifeBridge for the balance it brings to our congregation. In a time when life has gotten faster and louder, there is a place where any given Saturday night one can show up, slow down, take a deep breath, and sit with God. Along with the psalmist, we declare, “My soul waits in silence for God only” (Psalm 62:1, New American Standard Bible).
Creating space for the seeds of contemplative prayer to take root and grow, even if only in the lives of a few, has been an important part of the church’s mission since the early church fathers first established a community of holy reflection in the desert. Today’s church also hungers for more of this quiet form of worship that bears its best and lasting spiritual fruit in daily living. Slowly but surely, by the handfuls and the dozens, members of our Coloradan community and church are discovering the value of this designated place and time of serenity to share with God and like-minded others. Sanctum, while perceived as many things by those yet to experience it firsthand, is first and foremost simply a place of prayer.
By 7:00 pm, the fellowship hall transformation is complete, and people begin to trickle into the inviting, darkened hall to take their seat. Some go to a table to grab a book that will serve as their literary inspiration for the evening. Others immediately sit down at the art table and begin to wash their watercolor prayers onto paper. A few first-time visitors look uncertain, but regulars appear comfortable.
At 7:15, the facilitator stands somewhere in the room and reads the litany that also serves as a liturgy for Sanctum: “We welcome the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit into our gathering. (Selah.) Our intention is to open ourselves more fully to loving God and to be more aware of his constant presence in our lives. (Selah.) Our goal is to listen to the voice of God in Scripture, Spirit, and silence. (Selah.) Let us enter into this hour of silent prayer in pure faith and precious hope that God will do his work in our midst. Blessings on your journey to God.”
A few brief instructions and a passage of Scripture are read to “set [our] hearts on things above” (Colossian 3:1). We are informed that while an “Amen” will be said in one hour, we should feel free to leave early or linger longer as desired. Over the next 50 minutes or so, there is an interesting unscripted flow to the room as people travel sparingly from station to station or simply relocate to another seat. Some friends and family sit close to one another holding hands as they worship. Others are grateful for the opportunity to be in fellowship while having ample personal space.
Unlike some formal gatherings, at Sanctum people move around the room at will while observing the values of hushed reflection. Silence is the standard for Sanctum, as is a shared admiration for God, the community of Christ-believers, and the God-listening experience.
Ten minutes or so into the service, the labyrinth begins to see activity. One by one, shoeless pray-ers reverently enter the maze-like circle that has one path in and out. Borrowed from medieval culture during the crusades when pilgrimages to Jerusalem became impractical, the labyrinth became a valuable part of church tradition by providing a means of recommitting to spiritual journey without having to travel. Modern labyrinth walkers take a burden, concern, gift, or person into the center to release to God. Pausing for prayer along the way and in the middle, we lift our hearts, souls, and minds to God to receive grace, clarity, direction, or healing and then return to the world renewed.
While the experience of those who choose to pray or meditate in this ancient fashion is often quite subtle, it is not unusual for one to receive a sense of clarity about the question he or she brought into the labyrinth. This is simply an opportunity to express our love for God and commune with him.
On the book table is a community journal that lies open for anyone who wishes to write whatever prayers, thoughts, or feelings are on their hearts. Each week a handful of people document the grace of God flowing through their lives, giving hints through their poetry and prose how God is touching and speaking to them.
Because the attendance and offering numbers for Sanctum are always small compared to those of the auditorium services, these anonymous journal entries are one of the few concrete signposts that God is at work in our humble midst. Let us continue to seek him in the sanctuary of our hearts in this world and in the one to come.
Dan Gilliam began Sanctum as minister of meditation and prayer at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado. He now lives in Virginia where he pursues a ministry of music, writing, and retreat leading. Contact him at email@example.com.
Documenting Grace (sidebar)
Anonymous entries from the community journal at Sanctum:
“Weary from the weight of doing it alone—freedom and light in your strength.”
“It seems like even when it comes to slowing down and resting I am in a hurry . . . I want to be settled . . . I want to breathe . . . I want to be comfortable in my own skin . . . I want to be. Where can I find this rest I seek? I need a shepherd who will lead me to quiet waters.”
“On this journey with all its bumps and turns You, Lord, are with me. I have left behind my burdens. You, O Lord, are with me. In your divine love I shall move forward into a world of love and acceptance. Thank you, God, for all the joy, wonder, and abundance that surrounds me. The love that coats me with all your blessings.”
“I seek your face, O God; make my mind full of you. Remove me from the desolate valley of self and fill me with a new awareness of Spirit. Let me walk in the Light as you are in the Light. All I am is from you. I desire to know this.”