Last year I was visiting a beautiful new school building (that’s you, Minnehaha), a facility rebuilt after a horrific explosion that destroyed much of the former campus. The staff spent countless hours with architects and builders to imagine the new space. Walking into a place that has been so thoughtfully imagined, so intentionally designed, so intimately prepared felt like a sacred act. I wanted to take off my shoes. An abiding presence consumed me. I was in a sacred space.
The experience left me with a new appreciation of God’s directions for his dwelling place in the tabernacle and later the temple. Typically, when I get to Exodus 25, my first reaction is not one of exalted anticipation. But if I were to walk into a space where the thoughtful details of design reach into every granular, majestic detail of the building and every artifact in it–every dimension, every shape, every size, every image, every material, every fabric, every utensil, I imagine that the environment itself would call me into the presence of God. Something about His presence in the design thins the veil from our eyes, and we see the footprint of God, who has always been there. Sacred space.
That same flame of awe sparks when I walk into a classroom that has been intimately created, every detail integrated in a master design, every artifact purposeful, every chart meaningful, nothing present just to fill up space. Beauty. God the Creator, and we His image bearers, continuing to create in His name. Sacred space.
I’ve asked my wife, Joanna Levy, Spiritual Director of New Covenant School (a kindergarten through fifth grade community in Arlington, MA) to describe the practice of creating a Sacred Space for New Covenant. She and her colleagues have created such space for years, often to align with the seasons of Advent and Lent.
Sacred Space at New Covenant School
One of the most powerful formational practices we have adopted in our school is that of the Sacred Space, a space dedicated to God and into which we invite the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is presented as a place to sit in, and respond to, the presence of God. At graduation, when students reflect on how they grew spiritually at New Covenant School, Sacred Space is one of the most frequently mentioned experiences, a time when they felt deeply loved and known by God.
Setting up the Space
Several times a year, for three or four days, we transform part of our building’s sanctuary into a place of beauty and quiet. Because this is a holy place, students remove their shoes before the enter. Wordless worship music fills the air, and as they enter the space they see strands of white lights shining, starlike, against the black curtains delineating this space as one set apart. Inviting pillows dot the floor.
Picture Bibles for younger children, Bibles, and art books with illustrations of Bible scenes are strewn about the room. A book displaying Hubble images of the wonders of the cosmos invites the students to meditate on God’s creation.
A prayer journal awaits their entries. We set out fresh flowers, beautiful stones and shells, and whatever else our imagination and resources can provide.
How the Students Engage the Sacred Space
We make sure there are art supplies available: water colors, colored pencils, crayons, and paper. For the younger children we often have modeling clay. Students are invited to respond artistically to God’s presence, and their artwork is hung in the space. In the prayer journal students record prayers, insights, or scriptures for others to read. Prayer requests can be posted in the sacred space so that all who spend time there have the opportunity to pray for them.
One of the most powerful aspects for the children is a wooden cross with nails in it. They are invited to write a prayer, fear, or burden on a piece of paper, fold it, and press it into one of the nails on the cross. They take a small stone from a basket to remind them that they have left their burden with Jesus.
Preparing the Students
At a chapel before the Sacred Space opens, we’ll talk about a quiet space they have in their own lives and what those spaces mean to them. We’ll also talk about how important it is to have quiet places in order to hear the “still small voice” of God. The only rule we have for them in the Sacred Space is that they may not talk. Otherwise, they are completely free to engage in any of the activities listed above.
In our lunchroom, there is a sign-up poster for the Sacred Space. Teachers can sign up for a time slot to bring their class, and older students may sign up to go alone or with a friend with the permission of their teacher. During Sacred Space days, teachers see this experience as a priority and gladly release their students for it. Parents are also welcome, and the time slots can extend before and after school. It is wonderful when people leaving the space can pray over the ones just coming in.
Someone needs to “own” the Sacred Space because it does require maintenance. The artwork will make a mess, and in order to keep it beautiful someone will have to do some straightening after each group. It is also helpful if a supervising adult can be in the space so that teachers with large classes can send part of the class at a time.
When the Sacred Space is over, we save and display as much student artwork as possible. We also ask the students to reflect on their experience, and those who are willing may share at chapel. Many student reflections are about the peacefulness of the space, how they are never are in places that are so quiet. Here are some actual quotations from student reflections:
It feels quiet and alone even though other people may be with you. It feels like you can just pour out your heart in there.
This time was important to me because you could read the Bible or draw or paint. It really helped me talk to God and understand how He works. Because it’s so quiet, you can really think and talk to God and I could hear God talk to me.
And this from a 6th grade boy who was starting down a concerning path: This is the first time I really knew God was talking to me. It was a full-out conversation—17 or 18 minutes—with Him. And then that feeling of an empty hole in my heart wasn’t there anymore.
Sacred Space during the Pandemic
Because of the pandemic and the need for social distancing, this year in the sanctuary we set up “stations” based on the seven “I Am’s” from the Gospel of John. Each station had visual images of the I Am and a written devotion and prayer. Worship music created a peaceful, meditative atmosphere. Small groups of students moved through the stations and then were given time to sit and reflect on what they had experienced.
When other schools have set up Sacred Spaces, their students responded in similar ways. In cases where the school as a whole was unable to set up such a space, teachers have used their own classrooms and seen the power of it as well.
In my 30 years as an educator in a Christian school, I find Sacred Space to be one of the most transformative experiences we can provide for our students. What greater lesson could we offer than to invite them to taste and see that the Lord is good?
I hope you will provide your students the gift of a sacred space as we enter the season of Lent. May they become ever more aware of God’s presence wherever they are, wherever they go.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.