Symbols of the Sacred in Ordinary Life

By the Rev. Paul Frey

Thanksgiving two years ago, while climbing Enchanted Rock outside of Fredericksburg, Texas, I had reached the summit when a young boy ran up to me very excited and animated. It took a moment, but I realized he was deaf and signing something to me emphatically. Fortunately an older girl with him, who was also deaf, simply pointed at my hat. I pointed back at my hat and mouthed Denver Broncos, holding up my finger saying, “They’re number 1.”  The boy yanked open his jacket and, smiling ear to ear, revealed his Denver Broncos t-shirt.

Symbols connect us to the reality they represent.

Sometimes we dismiss a symbol, not realizing the power it has over us. A carpet and a flag are both made of fabric — colored threads woven together. But if I stand up and walk on the American flag someone will be unhappy. Why? The flag is just a piece of fabric like the carpet.

The flag is somehow more than just fabric; it represents our beloved country. To deface the symbol is to show disrespect to the country. Symbols connect us to the reality they represent. Sacred spaces do the same thing.

When we step into an elevator, we are presented with a panel of symbols, most of them numbers. Each of the numbers represents a real physical location in the building; if you push the button, that small symbol will connect you to a real place.

To push the metaphor further, in some busy buildings, each floor has very distinct characteristics — different businesses, doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, banks, gyms, lobbies, stores, and more. 

We may see many floors we want to explore, or we may find certain floors totally irrelevant to us. But those floors might be the most important floor to someone else.

Think of the many things that connect people with God. Tactile symbols like crosses, rosaries, and prayer shawls; food symbols like bread and wine; visual symbols like candles, windows, and icons; written symbols in the words of Scripture. Places themselves are sometimes symbols: churches, homes, deep places in our own soul; natural places like woods, lakes, rivers, deserts; imaginary places in spiritual exercises; and even dangerous places where God has met us and we have met God.

By themselves these places and objects may have great beauty. Or they may be very plain, ordinary symbols and places. By themselves they have no spiritual power.

But when approached with reverence by a person who bears the image of God, they have the power to transport us into the presence of the Holy One who made us. They become for us sacred spaces.

In 1998, I stood at the altar in the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Momentarily I was seven years old again as the smell of my childhood church swept over me. It brought back hidden memories and a heavy sense of God’s love and faithfulness, even though I had not been in that place for more than 30 years. For me, it was a sacred space; for some of the people with me, it was just a rather boring, non-descript Episcopal church.

So what are the sacred spaces in our lives that connect us to God? We immediately think of our churches, but if we examine it further we will find other spaces that are our connection points – a favorite chair where we read a morning devotion, the backyard swing, or even the highway along which we drove our oldest child to college for the first time.

God speaks to us in special ways in our sacred spaces, those places that connect us with the holy. Our part is to slow down long enough, listen intently enough, trust enough to allow the connection to happen.

The Rev. Paul Frey is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in LaredoTX. Find him at


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From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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