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Sacred Space


The Cantor at my synagogue has taken up a new topic to study this year: the technology of prayer. I can’t say that I understand what he means by that yet, but the first lesson was about sacred space, and how we arrange it. Butterfly is very often in sacred space, because she listens to the sounds around her and stands still and lets them encompass her. Cricket prefers hidey-holes as her sacred spaces. She feels safe and solemn in those small, enclosed spaces, and it allows her to rest and reemerge more whole.


“You can’t see me!”


“I hear everything, Mommy.”

But, I am not good at interior design. When I decorate, I basically put things where they’ll fit, no Feng Shui or harmony involved, so the idea of contemplating the use of space made me whimper with anticipated boredom. The cantor talked about how most sanctuaries, Jewish and Christian at least, are set up with the congregation in rows of seats, all facing one way, with the clergy up on a riser, and the congregation a step down, like an audience watching actors on a stage. Then he showed us pictures of Jewish synagogues that were set up differently, with the congregation on two opposing sides, or even three sides of the sanctuary, and the clergy in the middle. The idea being to focus attention on the community, rather than on the clergy, who are there to lead the congregation, rather than to be the show itself.

The Cantor’s class on sacred space happened the night before Slichot, which is a service that takes place a week before the Jewish New Year, late at night. It is a preview of all of the themes of the high holidays, with all of the atonement, forgiveness, and cleaning of old forgotten laundry intended for this time of year. But for this one service of the year, the clergy members placed themselves with us in the congregation, and some of the ideas from the previous night’s class must have stuck with me, because as soon as the Cantor began to sing from his seat among us, I felt the change in the shape of the space. I got it. He became one of us instead of separate, and he became a voice only, rather than a performer to be watched. It was a small group the night of Slichot (not a lot of people come out a week before the high holidays, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, to pray), which meant that the Cantor didn’t need a microphone to be heard, so that his unamplified voice, so intertwined with our own, made him seem even more a part of us.

Over the summers, at our synagogue, we move from the formal sanctuary to the small sanctuary for Friday night services. It saves on electricity, especially for the air-conditioning of the sanctuary and the social hall, and it saves us from seeing all of the empty seats from the families who go away on vacation, or just don’t feel especially religious in the heat. But the side effect of moving to the smaller, less formal room, is that our whole tone changes. The clergy stands at our level, and not above. We sit closer together, instead of spread out across the room. We can hear each other sing, and breathe. The space itself, usually just an ordinary room, becomes sacred space because of how we live within it.

Maybe sacred space actually changes from person to person and moment to moment. A lot of the time, I think a space feels sacred because of the people who are in it with you. That’s why I wish that the dogs could join me at synagogue, especially when we are at our most informal and communal. Cricket could sit in my lap, or hide under my chair, and Butterfly could wander around the room and listen to all of the voices around her. That would be my ideal of a sacred space.


That’s Cricket’s foot.


Cricket in her sacred space.



Butterfly’s not allowed in, but she makes do.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

63 responses »

  1. Cricket is so cute! I love the second picture.

  2. Ah, Cricket’s adorable face in her sacred space is too cute. And yes, Butterfly looks pretty content where she is. 🙂

  3. The idea of Cricket and Butterfly with you at synagogue warms my heart. Somehow, I imagine Butterfly sliding in next to someone, watching them sing and then joining in. Butterfly would be amazing yoga buddy. Cricket is adorable, of course, and I had to chuckle at that first photo. Such a great post, Rachel.

  4. That first photo is a winner. I agree that sacred space can change with the poeple you are with- or even within ourselves. Gmar Tov and wishing you all good things in the coming year

  5. I can see Butterfly at your synagogue, but Cricket, she may out sing every one in the congregation 🙂

  6. Kaci isn’t about sacred places but she’s about places she doesn’t feel scared.

  7. I totally “get” the ideology of sacred space in church as my former priest practiced it at times. You are correct in that it adds a more intimate sense of unity and oneness which I rather enjoyed. I also opted for the Saturday pm mass as it had the smallest attendance. I’ve taken a sabbatical if you will as something is missing with the new priest. Not sure if it’s on my end, in my perception of him for he is nothing like any priest I’ve met in my travels.
    I think it would be delightful if you could take the dogs to the small sanctuary! Until I stopped attending I had a “thing” I did every month; wash all the pews and wooden shelves and fixtures with Murphy’s Pine Oil. it was something I enjoyed and offered me a sense of giving. I usually took Inga (Sasha’s sister) with me where she made friends with the PT secretary and maintenance man. By the second or third time she knew my routine for she would get to my destination way ahead of me.
    The girls look exceptionally cute in these pictures BTW!🐾💕🐾💕

    • The older members of my synagogue talk about how things were in their previous building, where everyone pitched in to set up the chairs and clean the kitchen. They loved feeling necessary to the functioning of the community.

      • It gives one (at least it did me) a sense of accomplishment and belonging instead of just sitting for mass then bolting out.

  8. Every year the Franciscan Friars at our church bless the animals remembering St. Francis’ love of all creation. The live animals are blessed in the garden. Stuffed animals are blessed in the sanctuary recognizing the way they create a safe place for us. We have worshipped in the round among Quakers who are completely non hierarchical and it is powerful as you mention at your prayer service.

  9. Your post reminded me of a special period in my family’s lives when my kids were young and we were very involved in our catholic church. Our space was set up like a horseshoe of sorts (which was a stark change from when I was a chid and the priest and other clergy were totally separated) and created a very interactive worship space. I loved the energy and spiritualness of sitting in this space with my family before mass started hearing the sounds of voices softly chatting as we waited for the mass to start. It was home. We felt safe and loved in that space. So thanks for invoking this pleasant memory – I totally understand where your Cantor is coming from.
    As for the dogs, I think their holy space is wherever we are at. If they had a concept of god I think they would believe it was us. As the saying goes, “Feed a dog and they think you’re God. Feed a cat and they think they are God”…. 🙂

  10. I love the idea of sacred space being made by the people in it. I think that’s why prayer groups and meditation groups work so well – people praying or meditating together raise the whole vibration of the room.

  11. – Mine sacred space is outdoors 🙂 Better disbursement of spiritual energy out there! Thank you for sharing your sense of what it means for you and those you share spirituality with.

  12. The way you told of you sensing the change in the space…I get that! I thinks it’s how you tell its scared, it changes, almost like a tone. Love it!

  13. I love the first picture! I have sacred space in my house where I do my yoga and meditation. For me it is very magical and does help my prayers. Your Cantor is right that our space does help our voices into the Universe. Your dogs certainly get that! 🙂

  14. Loved Cricket’s squash by the books!

  15. I think you’ve got a good grip on it, and your two little friends are teaching you as well. A sacred place doesn’t have to be anything other than a peaceful, comfortable place that takes you away from all the distractions of life. Mine is in my office where I write. I have a comfy chair and my Ollie dog tucked close beside me. It’s our ritual every morning, and Ollie always knows right away where I’m going. He runs up ahead of me looking back just to make sure I’m right behind him.

  16. So interesting. I have friends and family who set up little altars with icons and candles and talismans and that’s their sacred prayer space…I respect that, but it feels funny and artificial to me. My crazy dog, Greta, however, has claimed beneath a dining room chair as either her sacred space or her hermit’s cave…and woe to the one who tries to oust her!

  17. Hi Rachel,
    I really appreciated your post. I used to go to a small night service where our Pastor was amongst us and it was a small group. I loved these services and really absorbed the message and sense of belonging and community. He was dressed more casually as well. I still remember going to Church in the morning to the conventional service and he was wearing robes and it was almost like he was standing on the moon, compared to our more intimate services. Your post explained what I’d experienced very well.
    My dogs usually love sleeping under my desk when I’m there.
    I need to sort a lot of stuff out to find a sacred space in our house that’s beyond the TV.
    xx Rowena

  18. I think I am with Cricket in this 🙂

  19. That last paragraph, Rachel, is gold 🙂

    So glad you included first photo – have never seen dogs do that, especially having to back up into a tiny den.

  20. Rachel, I agree that our dogs can teach us about sacred spaces–or how to make any space sacred.

  21. Very interesting, thank you.

  22. hairytoegardener

    I think sacred space is important. I’d not thought about this topic in quite awhile. For many years, i attended a Maronite Catholic Church, and one definitely felt both chapels were sacred and to be treated with reverence. I’ve moved and now attend a non-traditional Methodist church. I didn’t realize until I read your post that, while the services are very good, I don’t feel a sacred sense of space in the new church. Perhaps a sacred space is something I need to incorporate in my garden. Love your dogs!

  23. The first picture is so cute!! Hope you’re having a good Sukkot X

  24. What a cute picture of Cricket (the first one)! Chag Sameach!

  25. Hello Rachel ! It has been quite awhile and I enjoyed this post. For me being real close to people is hard. Crowds really make me uncomfortable. After being out when I come home it is like a huge relief. My home is sacred space. For my skittish dog BabyGirl she is the same as Cricket. Her space is her crate with a cover to make it cozy and her most favorite spot is under my desk. She is there now. She is big so she doesn’t have as many places as Cricket has. The pictures are adorable.

  26. Sacred space. Holy space.
    Silent night, Holy night.
    The place where it is well with my soul.

  27. Barnaby attended the funeral of an elderly woman he used to visit and who loved him. The vicar was very welcoming! We wish there were more services blessing the animals who share their lives and loves with humanity. Pip

  28. Sacred Space. So interesting. So different for everyone. I like the idea of the teacher (Priest, Rabbi, Minister, whatever) being IN the crowd, among the people s/he is leading. Not up on the stage wagging her/his finger at the congregation telling them what to do. In the crowd it is more like she/he is SHOWING us what to do. Being an example, being a part of us not being apart from us.

  29. I am currently taking a class on spiritual development and one of the disciplines is to find a sacred space. At the beginning of the year I am planning a trip to a monastery for a few days of solitude and reflection. I don’t just need a physical sacred space, but I need to clean out my mind and create a mental sacred space also. Hope to accomplish this during my time at the monastery.


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