The word ‘sanctuary’ derives from the Latin ‘sanctuarium’, a sacred or private space. Its root is in the Latin word ‘Sanctus’, meaning ‘holy’.
Since the mid-16th century, the word ‘sanctuary’ has carried the more general sense of a place of refuge. Sanctuaries are special places that are set apart to protect the innocent or oppressed. This, however, was not it’s original intent.
For at least a thousand years in England, until King James the 1st abolished it in 1623, 'Sanctuary' was not for people fleeing injustice, but for people fleeing justice.
If someone had committed a crime, regardless if it were unintentional or not, the victim or the victim’s family would often immediately make plans for their own retribution. However, if the defendant could get themselves to a place of religious significance - a church, a cathedral, even things like a monastery or an abbot's house (even just land that belonged to the church) then they were able to effectively evade justice for a period of time. This played an important role in society because it would effectively institutionalize a sort of cooling-off period for people involved in crimes while authorities investigated the case. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be killed by a victim’s family before they had the chance to prove their innocence. Of course, not all were innocent.
Since this time a sanctuary has become a place of safety for the innocent and the guilty alike, but there have been monumental shifts that have taken place in the human understanding of space since the time of the old sanctuaries. We exist in a world where there are very few sacred spaces left, and yet sanctuaries have evolved into a more expansive concept that encompasses the area of an entire city or the intimate space of a conversation.
I’ve been recently obsessed with space and all the ways our understanding of it has changed. Space is more mysterious than we ever thought possible even 100 years ago. As our knowledge of space has evolved, I believe our understanding of sanctuary must evolve as well. We need an update on our definition of “holy space.” especially since we have an entirely new dimension that most of us exist in. I’m speaking of a virtual world where our profiles, footprints and digital residues reside. I’m talking about the ways we are extended beyond our humanity into a virtual reality.
In one instant we can be united in suffering with the world who is weeping and gnashing their teeth at a dead refugee child, face down on a beach, and in the next instant, we can be utterly alone in a bedroom watching strangers play a video game on youtube.
We can be outside at a park with our kids wholly absorbed in photos of our friends at a park with their kids.
This new space has come with a lot of blessings and curses. It has the potential of connecting us in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and it also possesses the destructive power of stripping away our humanity. Our need for sanctuary has never been greater. We need a sanctuary for our gender.
A sanctuary for our race.
A sanctuary for our loves and even our “hates”
A sanctuary for the innocent
A sanctuary for the guilty.
We need a set apart place where we can wait and withhold judgment for a little while so that in our grief we don’t act out our violence and fear.
We need a space of beauty that can return us to ourselves.
We need a sanctuary.