I’ve worshiped a lot of different places in my life. On the banks of a cold lake on a parish camping trip. In the cafeteria of a public high school. In the open air sanctuary of St. Agnes’s Catholic Church in Ao Nang, Thailand.
Each of these places has its own sort of holiness. Mass in Thai is still sacred, even if I don’t understand it. Centering Prayer in a candlelit sanctuary with a few other souls is powerful, as is singing “Oh How He Loves Us” with 700 college students.
Unfortunately, none of these spaces were available to me last week. Instead, I found myself in a Hampton Inn in suburban Southern California. If you have never had the misfortune of visiting the area, imagine your least favorite strip-mall in your hometown: Chain restaurants, payday lending, second-rate mobile phone dealers, and so on. Add a cloud of dingy grey smog, no trees, and miles of traffic, and you’ll have a good idea what the suburban sprawl that extends outwards from Los Angeles is like.
The Hampton Inn was full of the usual suspects—business travelers in town for a conference in khakis, polos, and name tags; tired looking parents chaperoning summer cheerleading camp trips; and me—on day two of a drive from Sacramento, CA to Austin, TX.
I woke up early and headed down to the breakfast area in the lobby, which the marketing materials call a “Communal Oasis” (which is just proof that you can be a marketing executive without knowing what the words “communal” or “oasis” actually mean), for coffee and Morning Prayer.
The lobby was surprisingly full for so early on a weekday. There were a handful of guests eating cold cereal from paper bowls and staring with glazed looks at the overly loud local morning show blaring from the TVs. Two teenaged sisters still in pajama bottoms argued with each other at the waffle maker. I poured a cup of coffee from the counter and looked for a place to sit.
I approached the only available space in the Communal Oasis: a few empty seats at the end of a longer table for eight, which was only occupied by one person. He was middle-aged, reading a book, accompanied only by a spiral-bound notebook and paper cup of coffee. “Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked. He just looked up and nodded with a half smile as I set my Bible and Prayerbook on the table.
Ever curious about what people are reading, I glanced over at my new tablemate and was startled to see that he was reading the Bible too.
Nothing really grand happened between us. I didn’t ask him to pray with me, or even speak to him. He didn’t look up again from what he was doing. I just opened my Prayerbook and began the office, silently. Oh Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall show forth thy praise. Come, let us sing unto the Lord. Let us shout for joy to the rock of out salvation.
It was a completely ordinary event, but my heart felt just a little lighter. What were the odds that two people at the same hotel, in the same unadorned town, would get up early, come downstairs, and read scripture? How many more little spots of glory were around that I didn’t notice? I felt like Jacob, awaking from sleep: “Truly, the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it!”
This, I suppose, is what makes a sacred space. Of course stained glass, incense, soft music, candlelight, a gentle breeze, and towering trees help one feel the presence of God. But if God is who we say He is, then someone must also fill the lobby of the Hampton Inn with praise.