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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


There is a wonderful though apocryphal story that was well known to residents of New York’s Greenwich Village area where I once lived. The tale was set at Christmas time at a monastery attached to the church of St. Marks on the Bowery which hosted a live creche—well the animals were live --during the entire season. As you might imagine it was quite a sight especially given the somewhat sketchy nature of the surrounding neighborhood at that time. A low iron fence surrounded the creche—just high enough to keep the assorted livestock from taking off.

The story was first told to me by a barman at a certain local establishment, though I have heard it repeated from time to time from various sources. It seems that one evening just before closing time some fellow who had imbibed a good deal more cheer than he could handle thought it would be a really fine idea to snatch up a baby lamb from the creche. He climbed the fence, bundled the animal in his arms and proceeded to amble off down the street. As luck would have it one of the monks who happened to be exiting the chapel at that precise moment saw the theft in progress and took after the miscreant robes and sandals flapping in the breeze. The chase apparently went on for several blocks until the thief realizing that he could not sustain the race bolted into the very same drinking establishment where I heard the tale. Right on his heels came the monk crying out loud—"Stop Thief". As the two, now winded runners, burst into the pub the thief bellowed out at the top of his lungs, “SANCTUARY” invoking the ancient right of feudal protection from the law, albeit in a somewhat twisted manner.

I like to think the story happened as it was told—it added some color to the pub and the neighborhood, but whether it did or not, the story reminds us that at one time there were more clearly defined laws of nature, of man and of the church in each of which the right of sanctuary was preserved. Sanctuary has even more profound meaning for us today.

Our home, Earth, is a sanctuary—a planet so uniquely endowed that it has been able to nurture sentient and abundant life—so far as we know the only such planet in our solar system and possibly the known universe. But that sanctuary is being violated daily by the very beings whom it nurtured. We have mined, poisoned, deforested, neglected, and despoiled the Earth and it's creatures to the point where we can longer predict that life will be sustainable on this planet for generations to come.

Man’s laws make provision for several kinds of sanctuary—asylum from deprivation and oppression surely but political asylum as well. Our country itself was founded as a sanctuary from the rule of tyranny and embodies in its fundamental charter rights and privileges accorded its citizens that are today being challenged, usurped, and denied with impunity—sometimes by the very forces whose charge it is to protect and serve.

The sanctuary afforded by the church (and by church, I mean any organized religion) represented at one time both a place of protection from man’s law and a place set apart from the cares and woes of civil society—a place of spiritual refuge and respite. Today, many religions and their leaders are often inseparable from the world’s conflicts and in some instances are agents provocateur in an effort to claim primacy over one another and to maintain their worldly status and power.

In short, sanctuary is no longer something to which we may lay claim. No longer are we able to find respite except within our own minds and bodies. Even then we are assailed by provocations—extreme divisions, aggressive-- sometimes violent attempts by one group or another to enforce their beliefs, their morality, their views on us—over the airways, on social media, and in person.

We cannot run away and hide—as we have learned, there is no place safe from the ills of the world—no place where we can be assured of peace. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King delivers a rallying cry to his troops gathered at Harfleur urging them to enter battle again—“once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead.” “In peace” Henry says, “there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the Tiger: Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage….”

Shakespeare knew what we must remember. Sanctuary—the peace we crave and is our right can only be preserved if we are willing to stand strong for it. We cannot, must not succumb to the forces that would deprive us of our birthright. We must stand firm with nature and heal our planet, stand firm with our constitution and the freedoms our country once represented and stand firm with our faith—not in the words and pleadings of men but in our understanding of those universal truths of human compassion, forgiveness and love.

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