Mariah Ziemer on artists and sacred spaces for Salt & Iron:

An Artist’s Reflection on Sacred Spaces: part one

When we think of space, we often think of it in a physical sense. The garden, the living room, the bus stop, and the waiting room are physical spaces—in this case, locateable “places”—often curated with care in order to create a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who steps inside their borders. Imagine a spectrum when we speak of these physical spaces. One “end” is nearness or closeness, and the other is distance or spaciousness. We physically move about our world in light of this spectrum. I may run to the kitchen because my mom just bought my favorite brand of chocolate milk. I may also run away from a bee because it’s madly chasing my floral-patterned dress. In both scenarios, I can imagine I’d be running rather quickly.

If we think of space in a conceptual or metaphorical sense, our minds and hearts move toward or away from something metaphysical, like an idea or conviction. When I read the Harry Potter books for the first time, I became completely immersed within the landscape of my own visual imagination. I met Harry and his friends and tagged along on all their adventures, seeing the sights and listening to the dialogue as if I were standing right next to the characters themselves. The stone colonnades and sweeping green lawns of Hogwarts reminded me of that university I had just recently graduated from.

In short, my imagination became a conceptual space, which possessed the ability to shape my inner world of thought and memory just as much as it had the ability to entertain me. My friends could attest to its influence the moment I picked up a twig in the park and uttered, “Wingardium leviosa!

Framed by Divine Presence

For both conceptions of space, there is a relational aspect at work. Literally or figuratively (or sometimes both), we are moving toward or away from something. The relationship could be viewed as either positive or negative in light of the object, person, or experience we are in relation to. For a child who is in close proximity to an adult, the relationship is deemed appropriate if the adult is a trusted parent but inappropriate if the adult is an abusive acquaintance. 

The nature of the relationship could depend on the attitude or perspective when approaching that object or person. As a teacher, I sometimes feel scared when I’m about to speak in front of an audience, but I become much more relaxed and motivated once I view speaking as an opportunity to connect with and impart ideas to my students. 

As we move toward something, we are simultaneously moving away from something else (and vice versa). Whenever we travel far from home, we can temporarily leave familiar and comfortable routines, knowing we are simultaneously creating opportunities to meet people, try new foods, or walk different paths. Whatever the scenario, this relational aspect indicates a coming together of things, a kind of meeting place

If we think about these meeting places in light of spirituality, they can also be opportunities to encounter or invite a personal and divine presence into our lives. In light of the Christian faith, this is a space where we can meet Yahweh, the God of the universe. It is sacred space, space filled with and framed by the Lord’s divine presence. Like Moses and the burning bush, we “take off our shoes” because we have now stepped onto holy ground (Exod. 3:5).

Sacred space is seen throughout the biblical narrative, and it often shows the interplay between both conceptions of space. The book of Genesis begins with the formation of physical space, where God, being transcendent in nature, humbly and lovingly brings the universe into existence. God creates physical space and time, and He sustains this good creation in perfect wisdom and power (Heb. 1:3). The Fall of humanity then signifies the weight of sin: the relationships between God and man, man and man, and man and creation are tragically distorted. What once was—and ought to be—is no more. 

Christ, the Paradox

Then God lovingly creates a story of redemption. Through the people of Israel, God meets humanity by dwelling in their holy tabernacle and later on the temple. Look ahead to the Gospel of John, where we meet the man Jesus, the culmination of this redemptive plan. He is the infinite God of the cosmos who enters history—our time-space reality.

Jesus tells a Samaritan woman that the hour has come for man to worship God in spirit and in truth. It is no longer imperative for man to meet God in a temple, on a mountaintop, or any other physical space. While the church has widely interpreted this notion throughout the centuries as it relates to the doctrine of Christ and church practice, I will generally claim that one who believes in the person, life, and ultimate sacrifice of Christ can meet God within and outside the walls of a church building, all through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.

 In proclaiming this, Christ reveals in himself a mysterious and beautiful paradox. He takes on human flesh and therefore attains a certain “located-ness,” but since Christ remains fully God, he also transcends space and time according to God’s divine “otherness.” In this sense, Jesus perfectly embodies both conceptions of “space”. He represents and is the very dwelling place of heaven and earth. 

If one pursues Christ as both Savior and friend, how can one cultivate a space to connect with Him and experience a kind of spiritual nearness? Personality, cultural upbringing, artistic and aesthetic taste—if we consider these and other factors within a Christian’s individual context, the answer to the question may take many forms.

As a visual artist, my meeting place with God is often found within the pages of my sketchbook.

To be continued.

Author: Mariah Ziemer

Mariah teaches studio and art history courses for middle and high school students at the Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs. Her personal interests and educational background are interdisciplinary in nature, often combining technical and theoretical studies in the visual arts with history, culture, aesthetics, and theology. When she's not teaching, you can find her chatting with friends at a coffee shop, catching up on a BBC show, or playing pickleball with her friends.

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