Is it the inside of a huge cathedral with vaulted ceilings, brilliant stained glass windows, and an altar at which to kneel and pray?
Or is it a small church with little wooden pews that have hymnals in the backs of the seats and a baptismal pool at the front of the room?
Maybe you are hearing the voice of Charles Laughton shouting “Sanctuary, sanctuary” as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
None of these answers are wrong. The thing about the word “sanctuary” is that it has a different meaning for every person. When I went to look up the actual definition, there are 2 major categories that are then broken down into several sub-categories.
According to the Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary the definition for sanctuary is this:
1: a consecrated place: as a: the ancient Hebrew temple at Jerusalem or its holy of holies b (1): the most sacred part of a religious building (as the part of a Christian church in which the altar is placed) (2): the room in which general worship services are held (3): a place (as a church or a temple) for worship
2 a (1): a place of refuge and protection (2): a refuge for wildlife where predators are controlled and hunting is illegal b: the immunity from law attached to a sanctuary
So basically, sanctuary is a place of worship or a place of safety.
The two are not mutually exclusive.
The first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of the word “sanctuary” is the huge weeping willow tree that stands in my grandparent’s yard. It is old, it is huge, it is beautiful. I actually always think of the word “glorious” when I see it. The limbs grow all the way out and droop down to the ground.
(Unfortunately, this is not my grandparent’s tree. It was damaged in a storm and its branches were trimmed back to save it. This gorgeous specimen was photographed by Peter J. Baer. You can see more of his amazing work at Peter J. Baer Flickr Thanks Pete!)
When I was a little girl I fondly remember crawling underneath those limbs to get to the trunk of the tree. Especially in the summer when it was always so hot down here in the South, but underneath that shade it was always cool. I would take a book with me and just read. Seeing as how I’ve always been a fantasy girl (Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, CS Lewis) I would also just sit there and day-dream about fantastic battles and adventures. Underneath the tree was so magical, it seemed like anything was possible; dragons, a talking lion, even me being a great heroine and saving the world.
I would also crawl underneath the tree when I was sad. If I would get into trouble and my Dad would yell at me, I could go cry in my sanctuary and no one would see. When my beloved Papa died (I was 7), after the funeral I went to my tree. I drank chocolate milk like he would always drink with me, and I knew my life would never be the same.
I could stay under that tree for hours. It didn’t matter how dark it got or what noises there were. That was my place, and nothing could ever harm me there. It was safe, it was a haven, it was a sanctuary.
I look back now and realize that above all else, what I felt when I went to that tree was peace. As a kid I didn’t know this, I didn’t have a word for that feeling inside me. But now that I am grown, I understand how everything just settled down when I went to that place. My fears were calmed and my tears were dried and I was soothed by my sanctuary. Peace.
So is it any surprise that a sanctuary is also a place of worship?
In order to truly worship, a person must set aside themselves and focus on their god. Many pagan religions have cleansing ceremonies before performing rituals (indeed a type of worship) – these cleansings tend to be very soothing and “emptying” – a meditation to clear one’s head and heart, to achieve centering or peace before worship.
In Christianity we often pray or sing to find this peace before we worship God. We enter the church with the cares of the outside world and begin our services with song, prayers and sometimes recitations. These have the effect of focusing us on God and away from ourselves. As we do this we find that same “centering”, that stillness within our souls, peace.
And in almost all religions, when we are hurting, we can go to the place where we worship, that place we call a sanctuary and we can weep and offer up prayers to our deity. We can have our fears calmed, our tears dried, and be soothed. We can find peace in our sanctuary.
So maybe the dictionary got it backwards. The definition should read;
#1 a place of refuge and protection
#2 a consecrated place
Because I believe one stems from the other.