I had the opportunity recently to tour the new Church of Later-Day Saints Temple in Philadelphia. Once the building is consecrated in a few weeks, only LDS members will be able to enter. Until then, they have the building open for tours.
Over the entry doors of all LDS temples is the phrase "Holiness to the Lord, the House of the Lord."
To Mormons this building represents a holy place. Nothing about it felt holy to me. It felt sterile, like a hotel lobby.
Clearly we all approach "holy" places differently.
We're familiar with what the St. Stephen's sanctuary looks like. Most of us probably take it for granted by now. It wonderful to show it to visitors, because the stained glass windows and structure of the room are usually awe-inspiring to them. On one of my early visits to the church I walked into the sanctuary and the only way to describe it is to say that "my soul leapt." I was in a holy place that day.
But there are people of other faiths and even Christian practices who would walk into the St. Stephen's sanctuary and be appalled at the opulence we display. There would be nothing holy about it for them.
So what makes something holy?
Turns out that isn’t a really simple question to answer. Some of the many definitions I found:
Something may be holy if it is set apart for a particular purpose.
Something may be holy if it is perceived as being associated with divinity or considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion
Something may be holy if it is used for spiritual purposes
Only God is holy
Something may be holy because it belongs to God, or has God's presence
Something may be holy if is deemed worthy of special care, respect, honor, protection or worship as a result of circumstances
Something may be holy if it is set apart and for the glory of God
God isn’t present in all of these definitions. In some of the definitions, God’s presence is the only thing matters. Holiness exists because of God’s presence in a location. Or holiness exists because of a past association with something divine or spiritual.
What does seem to be common to these definitions is a sense of calm and peace. Holy places are places of respect and devotion, special care and protection.
Throughout the Old Testament there are stories of stones and altars and pillars being placed in commemoration, so that the spot will be remembered as holy ground. Frequently it was the site of something positive happening, but not always. They also commemorated deaths and battles, painful things in life.
Because we have to remember that God is present in the brokenness of our world, as well as the joys.
The definition of holy that makes the most sense to me is that something is holy because of God’s presence. God is always present. God is always present everywhere. So everything and every place should always be holy to us.
We know that’s not going to happen. The world intrudes, we forget about God as we go about our daily lives. And we forget that everything is holy because of God’s presence.
But then a sunset catches our eye and we’re reminded of God’s presence. Or we see a roadside memorial and we’re reminded of God’s presence. God is present in the calm and beautiful, and in the pain and sorrow. And when we recognize God’s presence, we see the holiness of what is around us.
- Ann Warner