Sacred Spaces

Whitney Simpson, a United Methodist spiritual director, stopped by the studio for a conversation about finding and creating sacred spaces in our everyday lives. Simpson shares some great, practical tips for enriching our spiritual journeys and deepening our relationship with Jesus by finding those special spaces to be with God.

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This episode posted on March 30, 2016.


Joe: Ready to get your spirit in shape? My name is Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications, and for the next 30 minutes or so I invite you to listen along as we hear ideas to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.

Today we’re going to be talking about creating sacred space.

Many of us are moved when we enter into a sanctuary or another designated worship space. We feel like we’re entering onto holy ground.

But we don’t always have access to those kinds of places. And when we do, like on a Sunday morning, it’s crowded and hard to find that holy moment alone with God we’re looking for.

So how do we find or create those sacred spaces in our everyday living? Today I get to chat with Whitney Simpson who serves as a spiritual director in the United Methodist Church.

Welcome, Whitney. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.

Whitney: Thanks, Joe. I appreciate your having me today.

My work is indeed a calling, and it is one that invites people to experience the sacred, not just in the ordinary or the extraordinary, but in both every day. So I believe I’m called as a spiritual director not only for myself on this journey of life, but to companion others.

My background — and how I found myself here — is that I had a stroke and brain surgery about 20 years ago. That journey kept me homebound for about 6 months, after being in the hospital for quite some time. Those 6 months at home were pretty life changing. I’m definitely an extrovert. I love to be around people.

What was interesting during that 6 months is the church came to me and in so many different ways the church just showed up for me. It wasn’t just casseroles at my front door. It was transportation and people taking me to physical therapy and doctors’ appointments, people taking me to exercise and move my body. But also an opportunity to really look toward, how do I find the sacred in my everyday life at home when I can’t go anywhere?

J: Right. Everything had been kind of interrupted.

W: Definitely interrupted. So that began a journey of just exploring what it looked like to be with God in the tough times, the quiet times, the slow times as well as those mountaintop moments that we like to keep and hold onto as sacred spaces. But it was really an invitation to recognize and understand that the sacred is in absolutely everything—every step we take, every meal we eat, every opportunity to be with another...with that intention of being sacred can be sacred.

J: So you found those moments while you were laid up at home?

W: Yes, believe it or not, I absolutely did. I began exploring different ways to make our home sacred not just for me, but for my husband and son who were living this huge transition, as well. Our son was only 1 year old. So at the time he didn’t fully understand what we were experiencing. But now looking back on it I realize and recognize how the things that we began to implement and change really have made a difference in our lives. And that’s really just incorporating things like silence, and not having the TV on 24/7 is okay, in the home. I think we live in a culture where we think we have to have noise. Stepping back and acknowledging the quiet or disconnecting the cable, which came out of budget necessity, really was life-changing for us.

J: Oh, wow. That’s fantastic. So when you think of sacred space, what are we talking about?

W: Great question. So sacred space is defined many times as a formal place of worship for people. Right? So we think about a church building when we think about entering into sacred space. But nature, to me, is absolutely the ultimate sacred space. My family, we’re huge outdoor people. So being in nature is really the peak of sacred space. In our home, we began incorporating things to bring the outdoors in, whether it’s outdoor photography or maybe.... I have a small bowl of rocks that I’ve collected over the years from hikes and special moments and services, prayer rocks—different things that are just in this small, little bowl on my desk. They may not mean anything to anyone else, but they’re special and sacred to me. So, I believe that we have the ability to make any space sacred if our heart’s intention is for that to be a holy space.

One thing that comes up over and over again as I’ve studied and explored the sacredness of life, is that it really is important to have a set apart space, incorporating the sacred into everyday life. I absolutely believe we can take a stressful commute and drive sacred with the right intention. But if we want to have a sacred prayer space or a sacred space in our home that’s dedicated to such, it’s really important that we’re not doing other things in that space, too.

So for me I have a tiny, little corduroy chair that I bought at a yard sale. It’s from the 1970s, I’m sure. I’m petite in stature. So my feet don’t reach the ground in every chair. And when I discovered this little chair at a yard sale I only imagined who had sat in it before me and maybe, you know, what prayers had been uttered in the past, maybe none. But I began a new tradition that that chair is a sacred space for me. So while our home doesn’t have tons of space to create a room that is only dedicated to quiet reflection and prayer, this little chair is tucked away. And it just always reminds me when I see it that it’s a great place that I can go and offer prayers and time to be with God.

J: And that’s what we’re trying to create here, is this place where we can go and talk to God and also listen. Right? One of the things you talked about was unplugging the cable—making it a quiet place to be. So what are we looking for when we create that space?

W: Yes. And don’t hear me wrong. I’m definitely, like I said, a huge extrovert. And I think when we live in a noisy world and live in a place where we have noise coming at us constantly, 24/7, that gift of unplugging and listening, it doesn’t have to be carved out for hours a day to listen. It might be the moment that you have in the morning or in the evening to just connect to that space and find a little bit of stillness.

J: So it’s just finding that place where you can be with God, with your thoughts, whatever that is?

W: Yes. And for some people that may not be a chair in a corner. For some people that might be a hike in the woods. For others it might be an exercise — a treadmill, a yoga mat — wherever they are able to connect with God and find the sacred, to be able to disconnect from the distractions and listen.

J: So some part of it is an attitude. Right? It’s this coming into it that creates this holy ground.

W: Absolutely. There’s a quote by Paula D’Arcy that says how you approach something determines what you will see. And that has stuck for me for a very, very long time, ever since my health crisis, because we can take those eyes and look at something and be stressed and be maxed out and be overwhelmed. Or we can look for the opportunities to break away and listen and find stillness, even if it’s only a moment.

J: Being still is not easy. You were just saying that we live in a noisy world, and we’re used to that noise. Even when you go shopping, they’re pumping in some kind of music. We’re very seldom in a silent area. What are some tools that you would recommend we use to get into that place of quiet?

W: There are so many spiritual disciplines. And there are apps that you can use, centering prayer opportunities — maybe you just set your timer on your Smart Phone, if apps are not your thing or if that seems even too distracting for you. But to allow yourself to use the tools that you have. We have so many wonderful tools in this day and age that do allow us to find that time with God. So whether it’s a spiritual discipline of prayer or centering prayer or the practice of lectio divina — reading scripture for meditation purposes rather than breaking it out and identifying each word and phrase and what it says to us in the past. But how does it speak to us today? So these tools, these practices, the Prayer of Examen, reflecting on your life in the past 24 hours. We do that at the dinner table. So on busy weeks.... last week we had a really busy, busy full week as a family and sat down for dinner. And my husband went, “Whew, we haven’t been here in a while.” And we missed it. So for years we’ve practiced the Prayer of Examen at the table without my family recognizing what that is.

J: Talk me through that. What’s that sound like?

W: Sure. So it sounds like, “What is the highlight or where have you met God in the last 24 hours?” For my son oftentimes I may not use the term ‘where have you met God?’ To an 11-year-old that might seem a little, “Moooom.” But to an 11-year-old the invitation of, “Where have you felt the most full, the most happy, the most proud of who God’s made you to be in this last day? Where have you made good choices and where have other people been present for you and supportive of you?” And then, “When have you felt the furthest away from who you truly know you are? When have you felt the furthest away from your God, the God that created you and loves you and cares about you?” When we process through these things like the Examen around the dinner table, that is sacred space. And it doesn’t have to look like anything. It can look like a table with crumbs on the floor and burnt chicken. It can be sacred space. It’s all in how we approach it.

J: I’m convinced that our dining room tables should be sacred space. We gather around that table as a family. That’s a time to really reflect on what is doing in our lives. You talk on your website and other places about things that you can do to make this space more inviting for this time to be with God. What are some of those tools—lighting, music?

W: Right. Absolutely. I think that when you are a mom or you’re a busy professional or both, it’s really important to know what speaks to you. So if you are in your home and there is a space and maybe the only space you have is your closet floor.... some of my favorite writers and others talk about how, you know, their prayer closet is literally their closet floor because there’s nowhere else in their home that they can get away and shut the door from their family and find that moment of quiet. So I invite people to explore their house. Where practically is there a spot at home where they can find 5 minutes? Practically speaking, every room may be full, and it might be a corner of a bedroom or a corner of a closet or even outside in the garden or on the deck. That’s my husband’s sacred space, is the table on the back deck. So watching the birds and the bird feeder that’s just beyond that with the wind chimes. That is a sacred space in our home for him. So I invite people to explore their home practically, see what works, what they have available, and then maybe like me you find a chair that speaks to you at a yard sale, and you stick it in the corner.

And then candles. It seems so simple. Even as we were coming into the studio today to have this conversation, we were discussing the light and do we want them on or off. And we said, “It feels a little more homey without that overhead light on.” Just those practical things of maybe what feels right to you. What speaks to your soul?

Then bringing things in, whether it’s the aroma therapy of fresh baked bread or an essential oil that speaks to you. Have a sense of engaging all of our senses is really powerful, particularly for me. I find it to be powerful for other people as well. God created us and our bodies with these senses, not simply to just use our ears, but to also use our eyes and our nose and our touch. So I love prayer beads.

There’s a great book from the Upper Room called A Bead and a Prayer. It allowed me to journey with beads in a way that I didn’t know I really longed for. So that tactile touch of prayer and having those prayer beads in your hand is just a beautiful way to connect with the senses.

J: And I’ve heard you talk about movement and yoga. You’re a yoga instructor.  

W: Yes. I’m a Holy Yoga instructor. That practice is connecting the body, mind and spirit. That practice is defined as one for me that brought me not just physical healing, but also spiritual healing and a closer connection....

J: Talk about how you came to that.

W: Yes. So after my stroke and brain surgery I had a great deal of chronic pain. And interestingly enough my doctor prescribed yoga. And I laughed at my doctor. I said that can’t possibly work. I’ve tried everything. I’m in chronic pain. Really, if you’re gonna have me lay on the floor and do stretches....

J: That sounds non-traditional.

W: It really does. And I was absolutely wrong. And so that’s hard enough in and of itself to say. But I find myself realizing that when I fight something and when I push back on something as some of you who might be listening even have found for yourselves, that maybe there’s a reason to explore that. So as I pushed back against it and really began to explore and pay attention to how yoga was helping my body physically, it not only changed me and my physical pain, but it allowed me a greater spiritual connection to my creator, and this God who made my body. So, in a practice that I share with others, we meditate on scripture, and we meditate on the truths of God’s word, and who God made us to be. So a holy yoga practice becomes a spiritual experience, not just an opportunity to stretch out those tight hamstrings, but to stretch our heart and our minds, too.

J: Wow. That’s a great.... I mean, that’s just a wonderful image of this connectedness of who we are. So often we separate the spirit and the physical body. And you’re saying we need to put those two things together.

W: Yes. I believe that is our invitation. And it doesn’t mean that we’re gonna be okay with you know, thinking the way our bodies feel. I still have pain. It doesn’t mean that I’m gonna have a day that my body is perfect and I like the way it feels or even as a woman one of the things I think we struggle with a lot is liking the way it looks. And men, too, but I’m not one so I can’t speak for a man. So I think that as we accept and realize how God has created us is not just one form. God did not create our bodies solely to move around on this earth and to walk from place to place. But God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so in the New Testament Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples and now we have received that gift.

In my exploration and journey in spiritual formation that is what we are living out today as disciples. We are living out this call of body, mind and spirit because God is with us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And some would argue that that can mean any place could be sacred. Right? Because if the Holy Spirit is with us in our human flesh, in our bodies, in our souls, then where two or more are gathered God is here.

J: I’ve had friends say — I have a friend I’m thinking of specifically — who is a wood worker, and that was his place to go. Some of it was working with his hands, and some of it was pausing. He just like walking in the room. He smelled the sawdust.

He described this to me one day, “When I go into that room, that’s my space.” It was a holy experience. And it was the tactile, the touching the things that he had done, smelling the wood.

We tend to think of this in church language, but I think there’s some other stuff that can be brought out in this. And some...and some other odd...well, maybe the....

W: ...outside the box.

J: ...outside the box places where we can find the Spirit with us. And so I think it’s a wonderful thing.

If I wanted to get started today, to find that sacred space in my life, what would you recommend?

W: I would suggest you find that spot that you can sneak a chair into or roll out a mat or plug in a treadmill, whatever it looks like for you. And then I would suggest a favorite book of maybe prayers or poetry or Bible, to have those accessible. A lot of times when we go to those places, especially in the beginning, we say, Okay, God. I’m here. Now what? But over time what happens is our bodies have memories. And when we get into that space we know and are reminded that this is a sacred place and to start that, to have that book of prayers that’s special to you, to have that set of prayer beads that are special to you, whatever speaks to your soul (no two of us are the same — we’re all different. We all have things that draw us in and things that don’t really sit well with us, for whatever reason, that may attract someone else.) have something that speaks to you that’s tactile, whether it’s something you can read or touch or hold onto.

Sometimes for folks that’s music that they want to have a small radio or CD player or some kind of grounding music for them playing. That’s a really practical way. They may want to have icons or a photograph of nature or something that they can meditate on with their eyes. I have a friend recently who told me she’d been practicing centering prayer, but she had a really hard time keeping her eyes closed. And centering prayer is just an ancient practice of selecting a word or phrase that grounds you in God, and then spend some silent time listening and using that word to bring you back whenever you disappear. We’re humans and we go to the grocery list all the sudden. So that sacred word that grounds us and draws us back. But she mentioned that sitting there with her eyes closed with the sacred word she wandered a whole lot more. So she began the practice of lighting a candle in front of her. When she practices centering prayer, she lights the candle and just looks at the flame. For her, that’s really grounding.

For other people that might be flowers or plants or seashells that they picked up at the beach. A water fountain is a really lovely background noise, too, that element of earth is a great reminder as well. Because at the end of this time, whether it’s 5 minutes or 55 minutes, a lot of times we’ll have a moment that the phone will ring, a kid’ll come in, the family member will call, work will buzz, whatever it may be, and we might forget what this holy sacred moment was all about for us. So one way that I’ve really journeyed with my past and sacred space and listening is to journal. And from that sometimes I’ll write a poem. Sometimes I’ll just journal what I felt or experienced or how God was present to me.

I’m not an ar.... Well, I say I’m not an artist. We’re all artists. I don’t necessarily do much more than sketching or maybe a stick figure. But sometimes an image will come that I’ll jot in my journal. So I think it’s really beautiful to then log that and hold onto it so we can see this journey as it unfolds and revisit it later, is a great opportunity to look back and see how God’s been active in speaking to you in ways that you may not even have realized.

J: You talk about God speaking to us. In a real practical kind of sense, how do we know.... In other words, that our sacred time is — I don’t like this word — but that it’s working. Right? That I’m actually in that ... I’m in the zone. I’m in that place where I’m actually meeting God. How do we get there? How do we know we’re there?

W: I don’t think you can do it wrong. I think if you’re heart’s intention is to be with God, then it really can’t be wrong. So whether it’s that hike with the family or that quiet moment that doesn’t look so quiet to you, with children on the ground if you’re in that season. It might seem a little out of the ordinary. But if your intention and heart’s desire is to be with God I don’t think that it could possibly wrong. So I think it’s definitely right when you make it a priority.

J: If you’re a college student listening to this and you live in a dorm room or you’re a high school student and all you have is those 4 walls that you call your own in that bedroom, what are some ways in those small areas and shared spaces where you can find that and create that sacred space?

W: That’s a really practical question for a lot of people. One of the questions, especially when I meet with individuals for spiritual direction, which is a great practice of presence of God. Spiritual direction is just allowing another person to be with you in that sacred space and companioning you to listen for God. And so many times when I meet with someone for the first time for a spiritual direction session, I will ask that very question, “Do you have dedicated space?” or “Are you in a tight quarter? Are you sharing this with others?” One of the ways that’s a great opportunity, especially if you have shared space, are earplugs. Headphones, noise-cancelling headphones and some non-distracting music that you can put on the headphones, put the music in your ears and just allow yourself....whether that’s worship music. For some people they really connect through lyrics in worship music. For others that’s hugely distracting, and they need more of an instrumental music. But I think just taking the opportunity to find what works for you and then not being afraid to say, “Hey, friends, I care about you and you’re important to me, but I need a little bit of quiet time to listen and to be with God.”

J: So there’s opportunities to do that even if you don’t have a designated space necessarily for that.

W: Absolutely.

J: What are some good resources. If I wanted to learn more about this, where can I go to learn some more about creating that space in my life?

W: Absolutely. As we talked about this and the time together today, I started pulling all of my books and exploring where have I...where...who has been a teacher for me in this over the years? And how can I dive in and share that with others? So I think there are some beautiful and great resources. I already mention the bead book, A Bead and a Prayer, which is Kristen Vincent’s book. And I can put links.

J: Share them with me and we’ll put ‘em on the site.

W: Richard Foster has a great, just wonderful, wonderful resources on prayer. There’s a beautiful book of Freedom of Simplicity. And I think that has some great resources on just the spiritual disciplines. There is a Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which is a super tool for someone who’s just starting this journey and not sure what spiritual discipline might be right for them. And that’s a good way to dive in. There’s a book I’m reading right now called Living Faith Day by Day: How the Sacred Rules of Monastic Traditions can Help You Live Spiritually in a Modern World.  It’s a long title, but I ... I think just connecting back to that ancient and bringing it into the modern-day world today is something that we’re really invited to explore and see how it works for us. Ruth Haley Barton has a Sacred Rhythms book. There’s a Holy Yoga book, specifically about what it looks like to practice yoga with a spiritual focus of Christianity. So many resources out there. But not one single resource that says this is how can set up your room, because it’s a journey that’s private and really unique for each person.

J: We’ve been chatting today with Whitney Simpson, spiritual director in the United Methodist Church. Where can we learn more about you?

W: My website is I realize I said ‘explore’ about 10 times, I think, today. I think that’s really the invitation...that was my invitation at the beginning of this journey, is that this with-life God is a journey. And it’s an exploration. It’s not something you’re gonna figure out tomorrow because it might change tomorrow, what works for you and what doesn’t, and how you best connect with God.

J: I want to thank you for this time to be able to talk about this because I know I can be this way. You get into this task-oriented—what’s the next thing on my to-do list—and all of these things crowd in and get in that goal-oriented mentality. Realizing that we just need to take time to be alone with God, and have those quiet things and build the relationship. That’s what our spiritual journey is all about. It’s not about knowing more, necessarily. It’s about building a relationship and being in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. So thank you very much for sharing this with us today.

W: Thank you. I believe that it’s truly my heart’s desire and for my own tragic life crisis experience I have this longing to help people realize it’s really in the practical ways that we can connect with God. We don’t have to be in a crisis to cry out to God. So I’m grateful to share that.

J: We don’t have to wait ‘til Sunday.

W: Absolutely.

J: Any day.

W: And the Wesleyan roots teach us that, that this started in homes for many of us if we look back to the ancient days of the church. So embrace it there.

J: Absolutely. Thank you, Whitney, for sharing your thoughts and your experiences with us today.

As we come to the end of this conversation, I also want to thank you, the listener, for spending this time with us. I hope you found it useful and encouraging. If you like what you heard, please consider doing a couple of things for us. First, take a moment to head over to iTunes or wherever you received this podcast and give us a really good rating. Excellent reviews will help more people find us and join us on this journey towards spiritual health. Also, be sure to go to our web page In the comment section, share your thoughts about this episode. Ask questions of me or Whitney, or share ideas that you have for future topics. You’ll find my email address there as well if you’d rather send your thoughts along that way, just a little more privately. Finally, share what you’ve heard today with others. Anyone you think will benefit from this spiritual food and these exercises. Thanks again for being with us. We’ll be back soon with more ideas of encouragement to help keep our spirits in shape.

I’m Joe Iovino with United Methodist Communications. Peace.

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