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Rediscovering sacred spaces in a pandemic

  • 13 August 2020
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.

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