Sanctuary II

This posting, and those that follow under the heading “Sanctuary,” was written over the course of two weeks, beginning shortly after the panic attack.

In keeping with my overall geekiness, I am going to move away from the moodier parts of this posting group and insert a bit of practical and amateur etymology, because it is way more fun than should be allowed by law and it is keeping me from the most painful parts.

So, the first use of sanctuary as a noun, according to the OED, occurred in 1340, referring to the most common meaning of the term: “A building or place set apart for the worship of God or of one or more divinities: applied, e.g., to a Christian church, the Jewish temple and the Mosaic tabernacle, a heathen temple or site of local worship, and the like; also fig. to the church or body of believers.” I suppose that when people use the term, they probably use it to mean this or it’s most recent colloquial meaning, which is suggestive of something like “a safe place.”

As it happens, none of the OED meanings actually points specifically to “safe place”; unsurprisingly, most of the meanings are religious, such as the first one above. Other definitions include “an especially holy place within a temple or church” or within the Jewish temple, specifically, the location of the “Holy of Holies.” Sanctuary can refer to “the part of the church around the altar” or to a box containing Holy relics. The term can also refer to earth; often it is applied to describe consecrated ground, but a protected land can also be a sanctuary, with no religious connotation associated, such as a bird or flora sanctuary (often the protected land hold endangered species of one variation or another). This final usage is the one most similar to the “safe place” colloquialism, it seems.

Chances are the last two uses stemmed from the final significant definition of sanctuary, which comes straight out of medieval law (a favorite stomping ground for yours truly):
A church or other sacred place in which, by the law of the mediæval church, a fugitive from justice, or a debtor, was entitled to immunity from arrest. Hence, in wider sense, applied to any place in which by law or established custom a similar immunity is secured to fugitives.
Probably the most memorable popular culture application of this definition (at least for me) appears in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, when Maria von Trapp and family, buy now fugitives from the Nazi government, are given sanctuary at the church where Maria had previously been a novitiate. Of course, in this instance, the government did not abide by medieval law governing sanctuary for fugitives, but the film rather assumes that the viewer will recognize* what a violation of custom the intrusion is (I can’t find a clip of it, but the scene to which I am referring occurs after the rendition of “Edelweiss,” which I now have running through my head. Drat.).

As is true of “redemption,” sanctuary has both religious and secular meanings, though the intent intersects, as all of the uses seem to identify a space that is special for one reason or another, be it in the protection of religious artifacts or in the protection of animals and/or plants. The medieval law, of course, signifies protection for the fugitive (this being a time and place wherein the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” did not exist), and in Christendom, I think this is particularly important, as Christians are called to witness and love, not to judge.

You know, I was about to write that acts which deliberately push others out of the church are then a violation of that call, but I’m not sure that is entirely apt, because the church (building) is not the most important of features, the community and communal spirit are. The violation of the call would be to leave someone feeling outside the love of God by choosing to abandon someone because their life or beliefs don’t mirror our own or we generally make life difficult for people we are supposed to be in communion with, then we have most certainly violated that call. In so doing, we violate both the religious and secular notions of sanctuary.

For many of us, and I know this is true for me, home is the primary secular sanctuary. There are, of course, scores of other possibilities; for me, those other spaces are the areas in which I run (well, some of them–some are not exactly hospitable or sanctuary in their nature), Arches National Park (itself literally a sanctuary by the above definitions), KunstHausWein**, and other places and spaces that provide me with solace and protection. Now, most of my sanctuaries are also solitary (this should surprise no one, given the blog address and my email address are solitarykitsch), but that is not because I necessarily reject community. I also find great solace at certain rock concerts–they become sanctuaries where I can freely express and move, breaking the static mold that I too often find myself needing to hold onto in order to preserve the appearance of sanity. When my sanctuaries are violated, I find myself in immense trouble, such as was true during the panic attack, which was triggered by a perceived violation of my primary sanctuary.

The aftermath of that (perceived) violation was, of course, the panic attack and its attendant aftershocks, which lasted more than a week, as well as an obsessive bout of cleaning that found me scrubbing baseboards and bribing TG to do the same (that right there is a big ole sign that I’ve been severely triggered. Baseboards???). By the time the cleaning was complete, I felt marginally safe again. The cleaning was ritualistic, and while it was a wholly secular scouring of the house, the ritual description remains apt, as the cleaning was very much intended to rid the house of (perceived***) demons, as it were.

I was fortunate in that there was something to be done, because in some cases the violation of the sanctuary renders the space hostile permanently, and this is true of one of my other sanctuaries. I realized as I worked through the idea of sanctuary that I had attempted to rid that space of its demons by cleansing it too (I think I might have even described the attempt as such at least once), but the space is no longer a sanctuary (as in “safe space”) for me, even though, strictly speaking, it is a “sanctuary,” since it is a church.

Part III of ? to follow.


*Granted, Nazis have become shorthand for “really bad guy” in film, so one needs to do very little to prove the inherent badness in the course of the plot–the viewers will generally fill in the blanks on behalf of the filmmakers. This tendency, incidentally, is why the original version of Brooks’ The Producers works so damn well–it defies our expectations by turning the Nazis into buffoons, which was, after all, Brooks’ stated intent. I’m particularly fond of the “beer and pretzel” girls in this clip. Really, if you’ve never seen the film or never seen this version, check it out:

**Explanations may not be required here, but I never pass up a chance to talk about Hundertwasser, who really and truly rocked my world. When I went to Vienna in 2000, I was seeking solace after a breast lumpectomy (which had turned out fine, but had caused much anxiety for months) and a failed attempt to finish my Master’s thesis. I was stuck on the theory and Adorno had stolen too much of my brain. While I was in Vienna, I visted the KunstHaus and saw Hundertwasser’s work for the first time, as well as the quotation at the right of this blog, which translates to “The straight line is Godless” (the remainder of the quote renders straight lines also immoral”), meaning that God doesn’t work in straight lines and that art and architecture need to be reflective of creation, which tends toward the wavy and gentle, rather than the straight and rigid. He also believed that evil could not exist in nature, only in man, but that communities could work against this evil not by “correcting nature,” but by protecting the natural world (sanctuary!). As I stood in KunstHaus, looking over his work, I was finally inspired; I couldn’t tell you now what finally triggered, but I saw vividly what the thesis needed to work itself out as I stood in that room, surrounded by his art. I went back to KunstHaus many times in my weeks in Vienna; even now, I am comforted by the thought of the art and the space and, in particular, the floors.

***I should quit undermining my own thoughts on the matter. To me, the incident was very much a violation of my space, even if many wouldn’t or do not understand why; that it was my perception does not render the reality of what happened as false, even if the demons remained metaphorical.

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