Sanctuary is like a singularly beautiful flower in a vast garden of words. It comes in varieties ranging from a place where we are safe from harm to an interior region of the heart where God dwells. “Sanctuary” originates from the Latin root word sanctus, which means holy. Peaceful and quiet, a sanctuary is a sacred place that brings us closer to God.

A sanctuary can be a place close by where we go to dwell on the beauty, goodness, love and truth of God. We all need places that sustain tranquility, calm, and rest that supports our spiritual health. As a holy place of refuge, we use our sacred place to listen to the Lord, explore deep Christian realities, examine and make positive changes in our spiritual life, ponder our love for God and our dear ones, seek God or dwell on the many characteristics that make up the kingdom of God on earth.

An obvious place to find sanctuary is inside our church. Romano Guardini’s words are worth pondering:

“Between the outer and the inner world are the doors of the church. They are the barriers between the marketplace and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the men and women who open it to go inside that they must leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which are out of place: their curiosity, their vanity, their worldly interests, their secular self. Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.

“Do not rush through the doors. Let us take time to open our hearts to meaning and pause a moment beforehand to make our entering a fully intended and recollected act.

“The doors have something else to say. Notice how as you cross the threshold you unconsciously lift your head and your eyes, and how as you survey the great interior space of the church there also takes place in you an inward expansion and enlargement. Its great width and height have an analogy to infinity and eternity. A church is a similitude of the heavenly dwelling place of God. Mountains are higher and the wide blue sky outside stretches immeasurably farther, but whereas outside space is unconfined and formless, the portion of space set aside for the church has been formed, fashioned and designed at every point with God in view. The long pillared aisles, the width and solidity of the walls, the high arched and vaulted roof bring home to us that this is God’s house and the seat of his hidden presence.

“It is the doors that admit us to this mysterious place. Lay aside, they say, all that cramps and narrows, all that sinks the mind. Open your heart, lift up your eyes. Let your soul be free, for this is God’s temple.”

External Sanctuary

External sanctuary can be anywhere in our home, backyard, a corner of our bedroom, a workplace or any place where we can retreat and quietly sit and ponder. Fifteen minutes a day can be our sanctuary time, a time to relax in a comfortable chair and muse about things beyond the temporal realm. Decorations around us are simple, a holy card, flower, candle, or a favorite item that inspires trust in God. This is our time apart from the concerns of the day and from the suffering and confusion in life. We reflect on the deeper meaning in life as we remember our love for God, for dear ones, for those who have gone before us, and the love they have for us.

Our sanctuary is a shield from the world of hurry, a space for tranquility and consolation, a time for silence and solitude, and a rest stop for sacred meditation and spiritual rituals. Sanctuary nurtures faith in God and reveals how others are blessings to us as we are blessings to them. We review how God reveals himself to us and deeply appreciate how prayer is the key that opens and closes the doors of each day.

Prayer becomes the most important part of our day. We make time for prayer by getting up earlier, or going to bed later, than our family. St. Edith Stein, a brilliant woman, wrote, “When we wake up in the morning, the troubles and duties of the day crowd around us. When will we do this? When that? One wants to jump up in a rush and dash away. You had better take the reins in your hand and say, ‘Whoa!’ None of this must come near me just yet. . . . It is important to have a quiet corner where one can commune with God as if nothing else existed and it is important to do this on a daily basis. The obvious time appears to be the morning hours before the daily work begins.” Time in our quiet corner calms and rests the mind and unveils a deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of people and the ineffability of God.

Reflective prayer can lead to pondering deep questions: To what purpose do I dedicate my efforts and life? How does what I do show my priorities? How do my priorities define my Christian lifestyle? Through God’s grace, we adjust our priorities to be Christians that are more effective. Our love of God and neighbor grows as we weave prayer through our days and years. Prayer is our lifeline to God and the essence of our days. It helps us learn to adapt to Christian changes in ourselves as we recognize our deep spiritual needs and our dependence on God. A prayerful life well centered on God leads to amazing discoveries about who we are and who he is.

Discovering the expansiveness of God infuses our life with new meaning and freshens what we do. God’s Son, Jesus, is the sum and summit of our refuge. Jesus loves us more than anyone else does. We rest, assured in his love. Silence and solitude are essential and profound ways to submerge ourselves deeper into the mystery of God incarnate. Silence and solitude no longer frighten us because they offer a sacred way to be with Jesus. Our external sanctuary helps us maintain and strengthen our friendship with an infinite, mysterious yet personal God.

Internal Sanctuary

A cloistered place in our heart can be our internal sanctuary. This sanctuary is deep in the heart of people even though they may not recognize it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, The heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw.’ The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully.” (2563) The Holy Spirit leads us beyond the noisy world of space and time deep into this silent realm within where God dwells.

In this hushed realm, our humanness is sanctified by a divine intersection with Jesus. Indeed, he is the vine and we are the branches. Still and silent on our branch, we blossom through the immensity of God as prayer becomes silent communion. Without thoughts or words, we are immersed in the quiet love of God. Prayer becomes more than a duty or obligation. It is the sacred manifestation of our genuine love for God and our authentic concern for others.

John of the Cross counsels us about the cloister in our heart: “Oh, soul most beautiful among all creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved so you may go in search of him and be united with him, now we are telling you that you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place. There is reason for you to be elated and joyful in seeing that all your good and hope is so close as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without him.”

Prayer of Quiet

Prayers that rely on words are the most common form of prayer. We need not rid ourselves of prayerful words and thoughts. However, we should be conscious of times when God moves us toward silence. In a large chamber of our heart, words and thoughts vie for our attention, but in a deeper chamber, words and thoughts decrease because we focus our attention on listening to God.

In Teresa of Avila’s spiritual classic on prayer, the Interior Castle, our first experience with the prayer of quiet is in the fourth mansion. This mansion is known as the mansion of transition. At its entrance, thinking much begins to fade and loving much takes its place. Prayer takes on a new dimension as the human effort we put into prayer evolves into God’s supernatural movement within us. The prayer of quiet is our first encounter with prayer that is beyond words, concepts, methods, techniques or other formulas that activate the mind. Quiet prayer is important in our prayer development because it represents a significant change in the way we pray. It is not accomplished by our own determination or words. Rather, it is being filled with God’s indescribable presence. His presence moves from the inside out and flows into our relationships with others promoting us to act more like the sons and daughters of God. The prayer of quiet is generally described as a prayer of deep stillness, profound peace, interior calm or a serene recollection. Combined with a placid joy, they well up from the very depths of the cloistered area of our heart where God alone resides.

Often, after experiencing the prayer of quiet, we cannot understand what transpired or what we have received. The prayer of quiet is not specific as to time, or content. Rather, there is a loss of time within the many levels of this prayer. Usually we come out of this prayer when we realize we are praying. There are no signs that indicate when it has begun or ended or if it will happen again. It may be as insignificant as a passing sigh or as profound as a gentle invasion by God. There is nothing we can to do to duplicate this prayer. We cannot will or desire it into being. It is pure gift from God. The after-effect may include an intensification of our awareness of God’s love, a deepening of humility and a desire not to talk about the experience we have had in this prayer. The prayer of quiet is a gift from God and not a reward for good behavior or a sign that we have been singularly blessed by God.

In the prayer of quiet, our mind could resemble a lake when the water is completely still. The bright sunlight on a clear day is reflected on the water in silent, indescribable beauty. A quiet and serene mind is receptive to the warmth of God’s love like the water takes in the sunlight. These moments are rare indeed, and we usually become aware of them after they occur. When we are conscious of God’s presence in the cloister of our heart, we have a clear perception that God is in charge, that life is mysterious, and that no matter what struggles come our way, God has a way to redeem them.

We treasure sanctuary as a place of repose and as the cloister of our heart. The cloistered part of our life is hidden with God. In the quiet of our cloister, gentle graces confirm that Jesus is by our side, and in our heart, as he guides us through the ambiguities of life. John of the Cross wrote: “There is much to fathom in Christ, for he is like an abundant mine with many recesses of treasures, so that however deep individuals go, they never reach the bottom, but rather in every recess find new veins with new richness everywhere.”

I love to gather flowers that I find along the highway,

discarded by some pilgrims because their petals wilted.

And I place them all before him, for they’re all I have to offer,

with silent conversations in the cloister of my heart.


And as I sit beside him, all my troubles seem to vanish.

 I can’t recall their number or just what it was that plagued me.

For he shares with me his riches, takes pity on this leper,

touches me with mercy in the cloister of my heart.


And it doesn’t seem to matter that my home is not a castle,

for he’s used to shabby stables and friends who are not wealthy.

Then his love begins to shame me, for he asks so very little

in return for all he offers in the cloister of my heart.


All the world seems strangely silent just as long as he is speaking.

The time no longer passes and I can’t remember breathing.

For his presence is transforming and the splendor of it lingers,

through all the lonely winters in the cloister of my heart.


Peggy Wilkinson, OCDS


Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the following books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, Living Through Cancer: A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns, and Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. Her latest book, Courage Through Chronic Disease, was published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Her articles have been in Spirituality, Mount Carmel, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Review for Religious, Spiritual Life, Human Development, and other Catholic journals. Carolyn's reflections can be found online at


  1. Avatar Mary Salmond says:

    After reading the article on Mommy Needs Wine, etc., it sounds like mommies need time in the sanctuary for peace of mind. A visit to church in silence would help a stressed mother to calm herself better than a glass of wine. Who knows she may hear God’s voice in the sanctuary?
    The same would work for the dads, too.
    If church isn’t available, waking up before the family would provide a time of sanctuary and thought collection, prayer and reflection!