But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God…
— Psalm 73:16-17 (ESV)
As I listened to the people around me squabbling with each other that night, I felt a vague sense of unease. They snapped at one another. They were petty. On the surface, things were almost civil, but you could feel the hostility of unhappy people taking their feelings out on others.
I felt completely out of place.
I felt as though the boiling anger in these people’s spirits should be obvious to everyone. Much of what I was seeing seemed to be outward projections of internal rage at self. The tension in the air felt emotionally painful to me.
Once more, I felt like an alien among creatures who made no sense to me. Once more, I needed to find peace somewhere. I needed sanctuary from the world. I needed a person, a place or a loving spirit which made sense — which gave me refuge from the storm of this world’s banal and routine hatred.
Again and again, I’ve tried to make sense of this world — and of the people of this world — and I’m left frustrated and feeling alone. What’s more, I can’t find a sense of peace. And like the ancient psalmist, I found myself needing sanctuary — where there might be refuge and understanding.
In those moments, I found my heart turning to the words and haunting melody of a song from more than 30 years ago, a song which poetically paints a picture of Sanctuary without quite calling it God. (I’ve included the song below. It’s the last track of a beautifully deep, intelligent and poetic album by Daniel Amos called Vox Humana. Daniel Amos is not a person, but a group named after two Old Testament prophets.)
Sanctuary is hard to find, but it can change everything. You can find sanctuary in the Spirit of God. You can find it in a loving and understanding human being. You can even find it in the stillness of a place or in certain words. It differs for different people, but there are certain common themes — and sanctuary is all of these things for me when I find it.
Sanctuary means love.
We rarely experience love. We talk a lot about it, though we very rarely allow ourselves to step out of this world’s spirit of rage long enough to recognize it. But you will never find sanctuary from the things that hurt you in this world unless genuine love is there.
Sanctuary means understanding.
In the words of songwriter Bob Bennett, we experience this life “together all alone.” We’re surrounded by people, but we feel misunderstood because we’re all so focused on ourselves that we make assumptions about one another and don’t do the difficult work of understanding each other. We rarely offer the gift of understanding to one another — but you’ll find understanding wherever you find real sanctuary.
Sanctuary means empathy.
It’s easy to feel sorry for other people, but that typically comes with a tinge of superiority. “Oh, you poor thing,” we might say in sympathy, as we think how lucky we are not to be like what we’re seeing. But when we experience empathy, we realize how much we share with whatever someone else is experiencing — and how we could be in the same position under different circumstances. We identify with that person’s heart. This sort of empathy is found in sanctuary.
Sanctuary means rest.
The world is exhausting physically, but even more so mentally and emotionally. People expect us to constantly pretend to be things we’re not. We’re expected to hide our hurts and project a face which is exhausting to maintain. In sanctuary, we can let down those walls. We can relax and admit our terror and our shortcomings. We can rest in a place of sanctuary as we prepare to go back into the world.
Sanctuary means having your fears taken seriously.
We all have fears, but others are uncomfortable when we let our masks slip and show those fears. We’re told not to be afraid. And the truth is that we’re terrified of many things. We’re scared about our children’s safety and futures. We’re scared about whether we’re good enough and successful enough. We’re scared about whether people will like us. We’re scared about a million things. In sanctuary, there is a place where your fears are taken seriously — a place where you can admit those fears and be treated with dignity even if your greatest fears are never going to be realized.
Sanctuary means peace.
The world around us tends to be coarse and mean. We’re told to “toughen up” and take insults and ugly comments as jokes. So we are constantly on guard for these small attacks and we learn to attack others, because that’s what it means to be socially accepted. But in sanctuary, there is peace, not assaults on your dignity or your character or even your faults.
In the introductory narration to Vox Humana, lyricist Terry Scott Taylor wrote, “I concluded — and retain this belief even now — that the only ultimate disaster that can befall a man is to feel at home here on earth.”
If you can feel completely at home in this world, you have lost something of the essential nature of the loving Spirit from which you came and to which you will return. The more you learn to love and understand and feel empathy and treat others as your own spirit needs to be treated, the more like an alien you will feel.
And the more like an alien you feel, the more you will long for sanctuary — for someone, for someplace, for words — where you can be reminded of who you are at the core of your spirit.
You might find that in a quiet worship building. You might find that in the loving embrace of a romantic love. You might find it in the extended family you build for yourself based on principles of love and understanding. You might find it in art. But wherever you find sanctuary, you will find yourself craving it as it becomes painfully obvious how much this world is not the real home of those who genuinely love.
I am an alien here. I don’t belong.
But at times, I find loving sanctuary — in a rare person, a special place and sacred words — which strengthen my faith that I have a loving home somewhere and that I will find peace and belonging there one day.