‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). These words come near the opening of the long section of the Torah devoted to the building of the Tabernacle which travelled with the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Over the subsequent millennia they have come to mean far more, to express our need for safe spaces in our world, countries, cities and souls.
Since childhood I’ve always been excited when I see a road sign with the words ‘animal sanctuary’. I doubt if the animals fortunate to find respite there offer oblations to the divinity and spend their days in contemplative meditation. Rather, the few square miles are a place of refuge from hunting, predation by humans, and the slow, seemingly unstoppable retraction of their natural habitats of meadow, and woodland, valleys and rivers. Just as the animals need sanctuary from us, we, too, seek sanctuary from the noise, pressure and remorseless demand for ‘more, more’, which characterise so much of modern civilisation. Animal sanctuaries are also soul sanctuaries, where bird song brings healing and the sounds of the small streams are meditations.
Sanctuary cities are not dissimilar in concept. They offer refuge to humans seeking safety from violence and persecution. As the sanctuary city movement in the UK writes: “We believe the ‘sanctuary message’ of welcome and inclusion is needed in all spheres of society and as such we are committed to helping schools, universities, health and maternity services, theatres and arts centres, churches and other faith centres, sports, communities, businesses and homes become ‘places of sanctuary’”. Sanctuary cities are not there, as their opponents have claimed, especially recently in the USA, as safe havens for criminals. Judaism condemns the notion of any refuge from justice for murderers and the perpetrators of evil. They exist to allow communities to come together in harmony, and refugees to rebuild shattered lives.
Places of sanctuary, synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, perhaps we should add libraries, offer calm and quiet in a turbulent world. They allow us to find the self and soul we so easily lose in the ceaseless chase to catch up with our daily commitments. They enable us to listen to our own heart and, within it, to hear the voice, or silence, of God’s presence. How I wish there were no such thing as security concerns and our synagogue could be open day and night to offer hot soup for the body, and music and silence for the spirit!
A heart of sanctuary is a place which exists within us all. The challenge for each of us is not to create it; it’s already present inside us. The challenge is to find our way back to it. When people come to talk to me in times of trouble, when I try to listen to myself in my own hours of trouble, I often find myself asking the question: ‘What brings you solace?’ Maybe it is music, or walking among trees, or meditating on the name of God, or a quiet conversation with a friend, or yoga, or the study of Torah, or rereading a favourite poem. ‘Do it’, I say to people. ‘However much pressure you are under, don’t starve yourself of whatever it is which nourishes your own soul’. (I hope others listen to me better than I listen to myself).
That, to me, is what prayer is for: to bring my consciousness back from a hundred frets and engagements, to let it settle in my heart, to listen. For in the heart is a stairwell down to a well of water. That water is inexhaustible and unfathomable, because it flows from the fountain of being which has its source in God. It never fails; it never dries up. As the Torah says ‘I shall dwell within them’, which mean that God dwells within each and every human being, and within all life.
We need sanctuaries to know the world and its wonder, to know and care for each other as different peoples and faiths, to know ourselves, and to know God.
From such sanctuaries, blessing always flows. It may not change the course of events in the way we would most wish; it cannot prevent us from being vulnerable and mortal. But it always has the power to transform us through loving-kindness, and guide us with wisdom.