The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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On Sanctuary

In the seventh issue of Clerestory Magazine, contributors locate places of rest and refuge.

Listen to this issue’s playlist on Spotify.

Dear Reader,

Many years ago, I spent twilight in the Vermont woods. The ink colored, centuries-old trees stretched above me toward the watercolor sky. The rustling of leaves, a sound almost like ocean waves, soothed me. I remember feeling at once supported and humbled: encased by nature’s healing force, like a kind of love, and also hyper aware of my smallness. What lives had these trees witnessed? Who else had laid their spine, like a string of pearls, on the soft earth? Saturated by peace, I felt free.

The root of the word sanctuary is sanctuarium, meaning “holy place.” Holy places are sites of restoration, where we can retreat and emerge renewed –with fresh eyes and clear hearts, quiet minds and bodies at ease.

In some ways, all of Clerestory’s work is about sanctuary. We draw our name from cathedral architecture. In our photography and writing, we call attention to the holy places of pain, grief, longing, and love. In our conversations, we highlight vital work on healing, compassion, and the common good. And in our sharing these stories, we hope to provide a brief respite from our violent and dehumanized world, a kind of online sanctuary where we receive the wisdom of others with openness and grace. This is an apt time to focus on sanctuary because, frankly, we need it. We need more maps to healing and wholeness, to rest and contemplation.

The church my family attended when I was a child had the word “sanctuary” written on the threshold into the chapel space. Church, though, was not a sanctuary for me, but rather, a stifling place I was required to be, with theology and social teachings that enraged me. I am not alone in this experience of organized religion. As the Pew Research Center reports, Christianity, along with "churchgoing habits," is swiftly declining in the United States. For good reasons, many of us have left the restrictive faiths of our upbringings, but in the process, we have lost shared spaces for gathering with our neighbors, shared language for understanding everything from social responsibility to grief, and shared practices, or rituals, which bring us comfort.

It also bears mentioning that shared spaces in the United States, like schools, temples, chapels, grocery stores, community centers, and main streets have been the sites of massacres and gun violence in recent months. That horror and hatred so regularly pervade places dedicated to learning, community, and prayer is devastating.

Where do we gather to share joy and sorrow? Where do we shelter each other? How can we create spaces of sanctuary for ourselves and others? How can we build more loving relationships with our bodies? Why are holy spaces important? These are just a few of the questions our contributors will pose and respond to this season.

As we begin the fall, let me leave you with Mary Oliver’s “Song for Autumn,” a lovely meditation on sanctuary.

Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now
how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with
mossy hollows are beginning to look for

the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
stiffens and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind wags
its many tails And in the evening
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.


Sarah James


Issue cover photo credit: Marte Marie Forsberg

Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.

Discover more from Sarah James.
essay The Sanctuary You Create for Yourself

What does it mean to make your body a home when all it has ever known is the loud incessant chatter of rooms too full of thoughts so mean, you’d only dare say them to yourself?

essay Sympathy for the Devil

In 1330, five days after he killed his wife, Geoffrey of Knuston of Abingdon sought sanctuary in a church in Northamptonshire.

poem A Gusty Pier on a Winter’s Day

A flock of gulls rises from a choppy sea, hangs aloft in abeyance – a distraction

photo story Beyond the Self

To be alive means to be in relation...

poem A Neglected Patch of Ground Near the Railroad

Dew clings to leaves and calms the dust, soothing wild asters tangled in goldenrod.

interview Grieving Well with Amanda Held Opelt

Amanda Held Opelt is a songwriter, speaker, and writer based in Boone, North Carolina. Her work stands at the intersection of faith, grief, healing, creativity, and belonging.

essay Public Transport as a Civic Re-Education

I used to think that my hometown would always feel welcoming, that I would always be able to slide back into place. I plotted my return for many years.

poem Perimeter

It takes 650 steps to walk the perimeter. 

poem Looking out from Stella Maris Chapel

The stars were dancing on the waters as I looked out from Stella Maris chapel.

essay How Many Calories Are in the Body of Christ?

It is common to intellectualize the sacrament of Communion, and to view the practice as a sacred ritual of reverence. 

poem Luck Quarry Dump #2

Some things never change. I love that.

essay Mint

I am one of two hundred teenage girls walking through the Ozark green on a muggy July evening.

essay Water Becomes the Sacred

What is “sanctuary”? To me, sanctuary is a refuge, a retreat from the noise and myriad voices competing for our attention.

poem The creases on your palms draw road maps to your body.

I learnt of loss and how it attaches itself to your body

essay The Marshall House

On a sweltering August afternoon when only a man deranged would return to Savannah, I wheel up.

essay Reading Makes Us Free

How can I explain the joy that I get from reading? Words can't fully express it.

poem Reading Room

The shack’s one room is wallpapered with pages of the Denver Post, a decorative soul.

poem An Ordinary Sanctuary

on the page we grew like dusk falling, something breathtaking, impossibly ravishing

essay Coming Home: Women Circle as Sanctuary

Last weekend felt like coming home. 

essay Fire and Water

Fire, 20 miles south, 30% contained.

essay Finding My Flock

“Who else is on the reservation?” asks the assistant naturalist, who appears to be around the same age as me, as she finds my name on the registration list for a bird talk.

poem  My Majorca

Low-water years, our pond is Walden-size, just right...

photo story Protecting Ranomafana National Park with Théo Farafidson

Théo has lived and worked in this forest, Madagascar’s Parc National Ranomafana, his entire  life.

poem Great Pond

I was swimming alone late one September afternoon at Great Pond in Wellfleet when...

essay Too Many to Count

I go there again and again, never tiring of the place. When I’m away, I imagine that it waits for me, no matter how long my return might take.

essay Coming Home from the Georgia Coast, Late Summer

Sunday, a day early, but those murderous temperatures, and we’d had our gators if not our dolphins, our tidal marsh kayak if not our sunset river cruise, decent meals if never a feast...

essay Holy Ground

I don’t want to worry. But I do. I want to lay my burdens down and find rest. But I don’t. My mind interferes.

photo story  Labyrinth

Came on my bike, hot in the August sun and beaten down by what life had been dolloping out to me.

poem there's always more

laid out in the tiny details...

essay Summer at Nrityagram Village

I arrived at Nrityagram dance village in Karnataka, India in July of 2014 with the monsoon rain.

poem In the Memorial Garden

Gardenias droop in August heat at the Episcopal plot

essay My Covid in the Third Person

Earlier this morning, he called his parents with the bad news. He had just learned he has Covid-19.