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Rediscovering sacred spaces in a pandemic



The last swim of the season is usually rather uneventful, unintentional. The water isn’t quite too cold for a swim, and the afternoon sun still holds its warmth. When it touches your skin, you can pretend that the night won’t be cold, even as the air curls its fingers around your waist and refuses to let go. It was in late March that I ran to the ocean for a final swim, rushing through the Royal National Park to stay ahead of the rangers and make it to the isolated Congwong beach for a final, desperate, dive into the water. I swam as far out as I dared, clinging onto the sacred and wildness I’d discovered by the sea, until the notices were nailed onto fenceposts and police cleared the area.

Woman in ocean (Douglas Bagg/Unsplash)

Before early morning swims and Sundays spent by the sea, there was church. It would fill my day from sunrise to sunset; leading a small team for a morning service, with lunch and often a nap before the evening service and launching into the week ahead. As I started slowly cutting off the parts of me that would kneel at the end of the stage-cum-altar and pray, I would spend Sundays at the beach, passing time until the evening service ended, meeting with friends afterwards to sit on the church steps, each trying to convince the other that believing (or not) was the right thing to do. When I finally left, the sea filled my sabbath day, the sacred ritual of rest becoming a weekly migration to the Ladies’ Baths at Coogee to read and reflect amongst scores of diverse and inspiring women lounging throughout the secluded grounds.

Throughout the summer I risked smoke, storms and sickness to escape into the embrace of the sea, until, one day after that final swim, places of worship were effectively closed, along with beaches, pools, and national parks across NSW. Skeleton teams adapted to livestreamed prayers and sermons recorded in empty rooms. The faithful found themselves using their laptops to celebrate the end of Lent and the start of Ramadan, others missing services for the first time in decades. I stayed home on Sundays, pacing my neighbourhood until I found a path that led to the harbour.

It’s unsurprising that in a crisis we run to spaces of safety and connection. For Pastor Karen Pack, assisting community members discover sacred spaces in their own homes has been her continuing mandate. ‘My own community has been meeting mostly online for the whole year,’ she said, ‘Christianity is all about relationship, so consummating those relationships in what’s appropriate to the circumstance to stay safe and healthy… most of the places where Jesus taught was out in the middle of nature… in the midst of life with people.’

An ‘alfresco’ experience of connection transcends faith communities, with a huge rise in Australians spending more time outdoors during the pandemic. We have walked long distances, immersed ourselves in the natural world, met with friends outside to check in, and connected back to community in ways that can only be considered sacred.

When the rituals and ceremonies of faith require the meeting of people and the presence of a priest, however, staying apart is far more difficult. Bishop Richard Umbers of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has been leading his parish in sacred traditions, or sacraments, including the Eucharist, taking of wine and bread, believed to be the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ through the miracle of transubstantiation, virtually.


'We take risks to rediscover what is sacred and hold fast to it. We catch up over drinks to share the week’s burdens, wear masks in a house of worship, read holy texts over Zoom, or take bread and wine with freshly washed hands.'


‘The Being, the flesh, is really important. That’s where the sacraments come in because it makes Jesus present to us in a very physical way, it’s a spiritual grace brought about through physical signs that you can see and touch,’ he said, ‘the Pope can't perform the miracle of transubstantiation over TV… That’s what makes this so painful, being separated from the sacraments.’

‘There's a long tradition in the Church … of people who have been deprived of the sacraments for years,’ said Bishop Umbers, ‘when you look at Japan and the hidden Christians, that was three centuries without the sacraments!’ He goes on, ‘the thing is, we are bound by the sacraments, but God is not. The Holy Spirit is never lacking.’

I continue to swim, even as the water temperature makes my skin turn pink and purple in the cold, shirking public transport for a nearly twenty-kilometre bicycle loop. Bishop Umbers and his colleagues continue to encourage parishioners to meet together and take part in the sacraments, mitigating risk where they can.

We take risks to rediscover what is sacred and hold fast to it. We catch up over drinks to share the week’s burdens, wear masks in a house of worship, read holy texts over Zoom, or take bread and wine with freshly washed hands. What we lose when buildings and beaches close forces us to rediscover the heart of what is sacred and how we connect to the divine. Whatever form it takes, our experience of the sacred has been made more personal and more urgently desired. Perhaps, we are better for it.



Eliza SpencerEliza Spencer is a freelance journalist living in Sydney, chasing local stories. Combining previous study in both photography and journalism, she seeks to help make space for unheard voices in Australian society.

Main image: (Douglas Bagg/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Eliza Spencer, faith, reflection, religion, sacred, COVID-19



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Existing comments

For many people, after decades of the physical nourishment of the bread and wine in a church building, the separation brought about by the pandemic was very confronting. It was as if God was difficult to find anywhere else. For me, the Word manifests strongly in words. However, like Eliza, I find also that nature is a powerful way we receive the Presence. From St JH Newman: "We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary....Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave." Our faith is about relationship(s).

Pam | 13 August 2020  

To sit with deep words With Sun-gift of immersion This table —- the place!

John Cranmer | 13 August 2020  

"There was a shepherd that did live, And held his thoughts as high As there the mounts whereon his flocks Did hourly feed him by." the question is "What should we think of the shepherd's life if his flocks always wandered to higher pastures than his thoughts?" Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity and I may say innocence, with nature herself. H.D Thoreau.

ao | 14 August 2020  

With the ocean as sacred space in a time of sacramental deprivation, this is as good as it gets for ES’s religious coverage. The PC issues swirling around about the nature of the Australian future Church are all too divisive, challenging and depressing: let’s go for a pantheistic swim. At least that’s enjoyable!

PeterD | 14 August 2020  

Well written -really relevant ! Thank you !

Cynthia | 14 August 2020  

The serenity and quiet places of nature are to be sought after where one can reflect and meditate on things of great importance - unfettered by the clutter and cramping of modern life. I hear God and become less tainted in these places and times.

Andrew Davies | 16 August 2020  

Your beach experience seems to me very similar to the sort of experience Wordsworth had in nature. It is interesting how this sort of natural experience seemed to have led you away from what I understood as being the churchianity of your youth. I think there is still much churchianity around, by which I understand as a dry, formal religiosity which tries to reach up somewhere but doesn't quite succeed. Real religion needs the numinous. It sacralises nature and is often beyond our normal powers of comprehension.

Edward Fido | 17 August 2020  

A sense of the numinous in humans is based upon the recognition of our creaturehood and dependence on the source of this contingency - a disposition at odds with the hubris of a contemporary scientism (Dawkins et al) that dismisses mystery as belonging to a dark age of superstition and posits the empirical as the measure of all reality. Religion's unforgiveable offence to this mentality is the affirmation mystery, with Christianity the greatest offender of all by maintaining that the mystery of the Trinitarian God has been sacramentally revealed in the incarnation of Christ, an event that has radical implications for what we believe and how we live. Though respectful and appreciative of the natural world, and supportive of the role of science in human inquiry and endeavour, it is no nature religion within the ultimate ken or convenience of science.

John RD | 19 August 2020  

I still look up to the stars and wonder, John RD. To me that always kick starts the religious impulse again. Eliza is, I feel, a bit like that. Most people are. I see the late Christopher Hitchens and John Dawkins as being a type of moral nanny, who tells you that, apart from having to eat bland, tasteless stodge, you must, on no account, believe those naughty people who peddle that dreadful fallacy that there is a God. For heavens sake, if people believed in that we could have a halfway decent society! Long ago, there was, with all its faults, a flourishing Christian society in the West. Ronald Hutton, the British historian, who is not a Catholic, said in a recent article that he vastly preferred the happy days of the old Catholic Merrie England, with its colour, life and festivals to what came after the Reformation. I heartily concur. The antiseptically clean lecture room world of Hitchens and Dawkins with its cloyingly elevated discourse appals me.

Edward Fido | 24 August 2020