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Sacred Space

30 November, 1999

Sacred Space is a website for prayer begun in 1999 by two Jesuits, Alan McGuckian and Peter Scally. It now averages 20,000 visitors a day. Paul Andrews SJ tells its story. On Ash Wednesday 1999, when Alan McGuckian and Peter Scally launched Sacred Space on to the world-wide web, they were taken aback by the […]

Sacred Space is a website for prayer begun in 1999 by two Jesuits, Alan McGuckian and Peter Scally. It now averages 20,000 visitors a day. Paul Andrews SJ tells its story.

On Ash Wednesday 1999, when Alan McGuckian and Peter Scally launched Sacred Space on to the world-wide web, they were taken aback by the immediate reaction. A randy young man e-mailed from USA: I used to start the day by clicking onto a porn site. Now I have found Sacred Space, I’ve learned to start the day with a bit of meditation, and I’ll stick with it.

Instant response
In the Jesuit Communication Centre, Leeson Street, editors of magazines like the Sacred Heart Messenger and Studies were used to moving at a slower pace. There is a long time lag – several months in fact – between the writing of an article for the Messenger and any response from a reader. With Sacred Space it is a time-lag of only a few minutes. For a writer this is mind-blowing and delightful. It is like talking to friends in a small room, and watching their faces.

The notion of a website about prayer came to the two Jesuits when they were working in communications. The Holy Spirit certainly played an inspiring part. Alan and Peter saw that increasing numbers of office workers are sitting at a computer for hours every day, often doing repetitive work. They work better if they break that routine every now and again; and prayer is one way of breaking the routine.

Personal prayer (as distinct from saying prayers) is something we need help with. So Alan and Peter, with the long tradition of Ignatian meditation behind them, devised a way of teaching people how to meditate at their computer.

It might seem strange to pray at your computer, they wrote, especially if there are other people around you, or distracting noises. But God is everywhere, all around us, constantly reaching out to us, even in the most unlikely situations. When we know this, and with a bit of practice, we can pray anywhere.

With considerable help from the Holy Spirit and dozens of others, it worked. On the very first Ash Wednesday there were 1500 visitors. There was no turning back.

Initial hitch
Because it was being used by people at work, there was one problem that had to be faced. One Dublin worker told how she faced it: ‘I work hard and find Sacred Space great to help me when I’m a bit stressed out. Last Monday was a bad morning, and 1 felt like 1 was being hit with one thing after another which was going horribly wrong.

‘In desperation, I went to click on to Sacred Space to take me away from the chaos for ten minutes and to help me de-stress. The next thing, didn’t a message pop up that the site had been blocked as a “non-business” site? I couldn’t believe it! My oasis gone from me! I trotted off to the Ladies and sitting on the porcelain throne, I sobbed silently into a fistful of coarse loo paper.

‘Next day, with energy levels a bit better, I decided that I wasn’t taking the loss of Sacred Space without a fight. So, ready to do battle, I rang and e-mailed our IT people and (with certain trepidation at the fact that I was coming out to work colleagues as a ‘Person Who Prays To God’… gulp!).

‘I made the case that this site was used by me for business purposes in the form of stress management. I got the loveliest reception from my IT people! The site was unblocked that evening! That means that the 6,000 people working in my organization now have access to Sacred Space because I opened my mouth.’

That happened in Dublin. It quickly became evident that Sacred Space was going far beyond this island. In its first year of existence an Irish-language version called Tearmann was created, and launched for St. Patrick’s Day, 1999.

Numerous translations
That was quickly followed by other translations, all done by volunteers. Sacred Space now goes out in twenty-one different languages, including smaller ones like Latvian and Maltese, and huge language groups like Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. In a gentle, non-coercive way, it is bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth; and it is bringing it not just as something to be read, but as an invitation to prayer.

With any website you can count the number of hits, i.e. the number of people who visit the site each day. Whenever you have statistics available, things tend to become competitive. You try to keep upping the number of hits. That has happened. The daily average of visitors to the site has gone from 1,500 the first day, to 20,000 this year. Sacred Space has registered over twenty million hits since its launch.

It is comforting to know that every day twenty thousand good people are tuning in to pray about the Gospel. But there is much more comfort in the messages they send back about the impact of this on their lives. Here are two samples:

‘Logging on to Sacred Space is like stopping and looking up at the sky when all around are hurrying along, with their eyes intent on the two metres ahead of them. A sanctuary of peace in a life far too caught up in the trivialities of modern living. Your site is a release, an oasis and a truly Sacred space – comforting yet challenging.’

‘I love the beautiful simple way the prayers are written on your website each day. In clearing away the needless, His message sounds out so clear and beautiful, with the perfect Scripture to leave the Word nestled in our hearts. Whether it be morning or night when I find Sacred Space, the Word and your poetic prayers are carried with me as I walk through my day, or as I lay down my head to sleep. Be assured, the work you do enhances my life and brings me closer to Christ.’

Finally it is striking that the worldwide community of Sacred Space embraces all sorts of God-seekers, inside and outside the Catholic or other Christian churches. In ways and places beyond our guessing, the Spirit continues to bless the work started by Alan and Peter, who have long since moved on to other ministries. Try it yourself: www.sacredspace.ie

This article first appeared in The Messenger (December 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.