Roman R. Williams

Originally published on May 27, 2010 in Sociology of Religion.


Despite modernity’s attempt to structure religion out of many social domains, people still make space for God—the sacred, spirituality, religion, transcendence, etc.—in their everyday lives. Religion may be less apparent at times, but it is not altogether absent and continues to show up beyond its taken-for-granted boundaries. Drawing from photo elicitation interview materials generated by the Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life project, I explore the ways in which religion and spirituality intersect with the domains of home, work, and leisure. A t first blush, photos of homes, bedrooms, offices, beaches, pets, and gardens do not appear to be enchanted. But when one looks to the stories behind the photos, it becomes evident that the meanings these narratives convey and actions they evoke push back against the social structure as individuals leverage contextual features of everyday life to construct space for God.

Key words: lived religion; sacred space; ethnography; culture.

“Victorious capitalism,” Weber argued, “no longer needs asceticism as a supporting pillar” (2002:124). The juggernaut of modernity and the material pursuits that accompany it proposed to structure religion out of the social system, paving it over—or caging it up, if you prefer. Durkheim (1995) imagined the role of religion in different terms. He described “the sacred” as a social force that animates life at certain times and in specific places, infusing actions and objects with extraordinary meaning. The sacred was thereby distinguished from ordinary, profane, everyday life. And a clear boundary was thought to partition these two “hostile and jealous rivals” (1995:37).

Despite the best attempts to structure religion out of the social system or to keep religion tightly bounded with in it (in theory or in practice), people continue to make room for the sacred in their everyday lives. Religion is less apparent at times, but is by no means absent. It continues to show up unexpectedly. At first glance, photos taken by ordinary people of the “important places” in their lives—their offices, beaches, bedrooms, and gardens, for example—contain few, if any, overt references to the sacred. These images and the stories they represent, however, provide clues about how people make space for religion across the many domains of their daily lives. Likewise they cast doubt on the notion of the sacred being set apart and on modernity’s “inescapable power over people” (Weber 2002:124).

Drawing from these photographs and narratives, this article explores how people “make space for God” in everyday settings that are not overtly religious. Specifically, it focuses on work, home, and leisure settings, analyzing how space is made for the sacred and what the dimensions, power, and meaning of that space might be. Far from being structured out or set apart, the sacred finds its way into many corners of everyday life, often extending its power from those spaces into other activities and relationships.

“There’s More to It Than That”: The Ambiguities of Places and M The Spiritual Narratives project, a John Templeton Foundation funded study directed by Nancy T. Ammerman, explores the ways in which “religious and spiritual understandings operate across the many domains of daily lived eanings

When I first viewed the photograph of the gazebo at Wellington Cove,1 I immediately wondered what it had to do with religion (cf., Williams 2009). Perhaps it had something to do with its location. Or was the view from this place somehow significant? Maybe something extraordinary happened (or happens) here. Could there be a connection with the architecture, the structure’s design, or appearance? Does the absence of people suggest that this place is set apart, its access restricted for certain times or events, or is it simply the off season and everyone has gone south for the winter? Perhaps it is the intensity of the sun or the mysterious ring of light that gives the picture an other-worldly appearance—was that effect intentional? My initial viewing of a photograph rarely apprehended the levels of meaning that would emerge as participants told their stories. The objects themselves were sometimes identifiably “religious,” but these were pictures of “spaces,” spaces that took on their meaning in the stories lived in them.

Consider Figure 1. The photographer, Grace Shoemaker, is a retired healthcare professional who lives in the coastal town of Devon, Massachusetts. An Episcopalian who rarely attends church, practices Reiki, and belongs to a group of women who meet periodically to interpret their dreams, she describes herself as spiritual, but decidedly “not religious.” The gazebo is a place Shoemaker experiences beauty, practices her spirituality, watches people, and spends time with family.

FIGURE 1. “I think there’s more to it than that” (Grace Shoemaker)

I like to go there and sit when it’s quiet, and when I’m at the water, that’s when I pray and I talk to God and um, it’s a quiet place usually. In the summer, it’s not that quiet but other times of year it is, and I’ve been there when [there] were weddings, and it’s just gorgeous to see the, you know, the families all together and the bride walking down. And I brought the kids there, my grandkids, and I often wonder who built it and why, and why that shape and I’m always curious what goes through people’s minds when they do that kind of thing.

It is easy to envision a bridal party processing down the boardwalk, to imagine children fearlessly leaning over the banister with string in hand to lure unsuspecting sea creatures into their traps, or to picture someone meditating, remembering, or “talking to God” in this place. Not only is the gazebo a special place for Grace, countless wedding albums mark it as a place of memory, ritual, and perhaps even sacred commitments (or at least well-intentioned promises), uttered under the watchful eye of a pastor, priest, rabbi, or civil servant. Indeed, this place is a brackish juxtaposition of nature and architecture, of the sacred and the ordinary, of family and strangers, of self and society, of God and woman. But there is more to it than that.

Underpinning Grace’s stories about this place is an understanding of how the world works. During our conversation, the light that surrounds the gazebo captured Grace’s attention. “I like this,” she said pointing to the ring of light, “the way this picture came out with the light around it.” The aura showed up in photos taken in two other locations, so it seemed natural for me to ask Grace about it. She explained, “Oh, oh, [it’s] a bunch of guardian angels or God or I don’t [know], just that spirit that’s there. There’s a spirit that’s there.” “So it wasn’t just the camera?” I probed. “No, I don’t think so,” she continued,

No, I think there’s more to it than that. It’s so pretty. I mean and maybe it was just the camera, but I think things happen for a reason. I really do, I just, I mean so many times in my life something, you know, like that where you can give it a good reason why, but there’s more to it than that. It makes it special.

Indeed, something special is happening. Behind the photo, beyond the gazebo, beneath her experiences and practices, underpinning her narrative is a set of interpretive guidelines or notions about how the world works, what is real, and what is plausible; they offer Grace a means for making sense of her everyday life. She allows for the possibility that the ordinary may also be extraordinary. These understandings travel with her; and at certain times and places, they can enchant an ordinary act, place, object, or conversation. Not only did her spirituality manifest itself when she was physically at the gazebo. It was captured in the photo and the narrative behind it and then reappeared in her living room as she offered a spiritual explanation of a photographic aberration for which someone else might attribute a material (a cheap camera), scientific (the angle at which the sunlight was refracted), or accidental cause. Her world is neither disenchanted, as Weber (2002) might have expected, nor has the sacred been reduced to an isolated compartment as Berger (1967) once anticipated.

This interaction with Grace suggests that religion and spirituality may appear in expected and unexpected places in everyday life. It might be anticipated that many people experience a sense of the transcendent when encountering the beauty, scale, or power of the natural world. Likewise it is no surprise that a mundane gazebo might take on ritual significance at a personal level for Grace or on a community level as a place for wedding ceremonies. More interesting is that Grace’s notions of the enchanted way the world works travel with her and govern countless other social interactions that lie beyond any taken-for-granted institutional boundaries that might be expected to surround religion and spirituality.

While Grace’s experience is unique, the pattern it suggests is not. Religion and spirituality operate across the domains of daily life. Although the presence or absence of the sacred is not always visible to the naked eye, there are often features of the social world at work that introduce a spiritual dimension in unexpected places. To explore the ways in which people make room for religion and spirituality in their everyday lives, this article draws from photo elicitation interviews (PEIs) conducted as part of the Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life project.

Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life

The Spiritual Narratives project, a John Templeton Foundation funded study directed by Nancy T. Ammerman, explores the ways in which “religious and spiritual understandings operate across the many domains of daily lived experience” and utilizes innovative methods to collect narrative accounts of American religious life (Ammerman 2006b:l). The research collected the stories of 95 people in Boston and Atlanta. Participants were selected according to a quota sample devised to approximate a representative distribution across Christian and Jewish traditions and with regard to gender, age, and degree of religious participation (Table 1). The study also included a Wiccan group, individuals who log onto the internet to find their connection with religion, and people without any religious affiliations.

Among the methods used in this study, which include participant observation, life history interviews, and digitally recorded oral diaries, one was particularly helpful in generating valuable insights into the role of religion in everyday life: PEIs (cf., Clark-Ibáñez 2007; Harper 2002). In this method, subjects collaborate in the research process by making decisions about what to photograph from within the broad guidelines provided by the researcher. Along with a 27-exposure, disposable camera, subjects received the following written instructions:

Think about the places that are most important to you. They may be special because of what you do there, how you feel there, what you experience or remember there, or who you are with or think of when you are in that place. This might be your kitchen table, a favorite park or forest, a memorial or statue, your back porch, your church or synagogue, your desk or easy chair, the golf course where you play, almost anywhere. Often places are important because of the people in them, so feel free to include people in your pictures.

The instructions also encouraged subjects to take one or two pictures in at least five locations.

The developed photographs were used in an interview to tease out the ways subjects find meaning in their lives, probing for the ways religion and spirituality operate (or not) in each context. At the beginning of the interview, interviewers handed participants their photos and invited them to tell the story behind each picture. As they responded, we followed up with probes that guided the interview away from generalizations toward specific, narrative responses. Through this process, subjects introduced new, valuable layers of detail into the study by taking the conversation in directions we may not have anticipated. At the conclusion of the interview, each participant received a copy of the printed photographs; negatives and electronic copies of the photos were retained for analysis.

While not all of our subjects participated, 80 snapped over 1,300 photo״ graphs; and 57 participants included material that was coded as “space for God” (Table 2). Each batch of photos was, to borrow a phrase, like a box of chocolates: we never knew what we were going to get. Interviewees introduced us to a variety of people, places, and objects: pets, family members and friends, computers, cars, workplaces, knickknacks, pictures of pictures, homes (inside and out), and the outdoors (gardens, yards, beaches, mountains, etc.). These photos “took” our research team to places we could not have gone otherwise. Likewise, the stories behind these images often led our research in directions we may not have anticipated. Some photos, such as those of houses of worship, congregational events, or religious accoutrements (crosses, Bibles, etc.) clearly signaled religious meaning even before the inter״ view. In other images, like the photo of the gazebo above, religion and spirituality were only visible in the narrative elicited during the interview. And in some cases, no trace of the transcendent was found in the image or the story behind it.

The photographs we received may be grouped into several broad categories (Harper 2002:13). They document inventories of everyday life including homes (inside and out), prized possessions (books, knickknacks, guitars, etc.), neighborhoods, workplaces, beaches, woods, parks, cityscapes, pets, people, and houses of worship (inside and out). Participants also took photographs that represent events and activities such as church potlucks, holiday celebrations, family meals, worship services, personal religious practices, exercise, and commuting to work. Likewise, the pictures hint at social institutions such as marriage, family, education, leisure, work, and religion.

Making Space

Fortunately, as Grace Shoemaker reminds us (above), “there is more to it” than inventories, events and activities, and social institutions. Most of the photographs do not depict symbols, practices, or objects associated with a particular religious tradition. What is significant about the photos are the narratives they elicited. By asking people to photograph “important” places, we evoked a process of meaning-making. The stories they told us were a second level of meaning-making that existed in interaction with the meaning they had already made in the places themselves. And the “more to it than that” factor helped in identifying what constituted religion and spirituality. When participants attributed supernatural forces to be at work or when they introduced beliefs, practices, or objects from a religious tradition into their explanations, these attributions were coded as “space for God” to signal that sacred content. The intersection of these meanings with the places (physical and social) became the basis for parsing out how, if, and when (or not) the sacred showed up in the midst of their everyday lives (cf., Nelson 2005:46 ff.). In what follows, I explore the ways people make space for God in everyday life by “seeing” what our subjects say through their photos and interviews about religion and spirituality across the domains of work, home, and leisure.

The choice of the phrase “space for God” is a deliberate attempt to shape and structure the conversation about the incidence of the sacred in everyday life. It is an invitation to reconsider the components and constructs of the sacred from a lived religion perspective (Ammerman 2006a, 2006b; McGuire 2008). Space for God is shorthand for locations, occasions, and actions to which people attribute spiritual or religious significance (meanings). While the literature may advance thoughtful criticisms of the word “space” (e.g., Gieryn 2000), the alternative term “place” overlooks the value of the multiple meanings space enjoys in the vernacular.

In common speech, space is a cognate for place or location and it is used metaphorically in reference to time (I don’t have space in my life for that right now) and to talk about doing something (I’ll make space for that later). Location, time, and action are important dimensions of a more nuanced understanding of the spaces in which we find the sacred in everyday life (cf., Chidester and Linethal 1995). By considering several examples, across the domains of work, home, and play (i.e., leisure), we can see how people from a variety of religious backgrounds have made “space for God.”

Space for God at Work, Home, and Play

Traditionally, work is not a place known to welcome religion. Nevertheless, as people enter the workplace their beliefs, values, and practices accompany them. For some people like Charles Curlew, a conservative Christian who works as a statistician in a large government agency, religious practices are an important feature of the workday.

Oh, that’s my office …. That’s where I spend a lot of my time. … [As] I’ve said on the oral diaries… prayer is very much a part of my day. … Often I, as a [statistician] I’m a lot of times trying to solve problems or … [find] better ways to do things, and a lot of times I’m, I just think I really don’t [know] where to go with [a particular problem]. And I will pray and I really feel like God gives me, you know, a thought that I hadn’t, hadn’t even thought about and it helps me get on with what I was doing.

Perhaps it is not surprising that a religious person would try to tap into the power of the transcendent when faced with a difficult, perplexing, or otherwise challenging job. Likewise, the choice of prayer, which can be practiced in ways that are not necessarily obvious to one’s co-workers, makes sense in a scientific context where one may be expected to check faith at the door. The sacred practice he has chosen might be seen as “private,” but the object of his practice—how he does his work—is very much public.

The practice of prayer becomes more visibly public when it brings him together with other Christians in the workplace. Every week he meets with a small group of men in a workplace snack bar for lunch to “have a time of sharing prayer requests and [to] pray together.” Not only does prayer inspire solutions to scientific questions, talk of prayer inspires camaraderie in a workplace where being a person of faith might be a matter of suspicion. Religion shows up at work in other ways for Pam Jones, a middle·׳aged, African American, mid-level professional who attends her Baptist church a couple of times a month on average. She also describes God as the reason difficult situations get resolved and as the source of success.

You know, I do believe that we’re totally not in control of things and because we are so not in control of things, I don’t really have an explanation. It was God’s will, that was my time to, wasn’t my time to go the night before driving into the back of the truck [on the way home from work], and it was time to have everything kind of come together at that point, professionally at that point.

With God in control, her professional life has greater significance, situations beyond her control are superintended, and a kind of humility is available in the midst of success: God is behind it all. With this narrative comes the possibility of seeing one’s life as being part of something larger, mysterious, and purposeful.

Frequently, however, the realities of a busy life override this narrative, blunting Pam’s ability to draw upon the ideas it conveys.

Just sometimes I think we, or I, am a gerbil on the wheel all the time, just running, running, running and you don’t take time to stop, and think, and listen, and I often ask in time of daily prayer okay Lord, lead me to the right decisions, what, what do you think about such and such? Help me to make the right decisions and sometimes because I am going, going, going, going, going all the time, I don’t have that time of clarity and time to listen and think about what God is leading you to do.

The pressures of everyday work life and the demands of family crowd out the narrative that God is in control, working things out, giving meaning to life. Along with the time demands associated with the roles of professional, wife, and mother, competing notions of what it means to be successful in each role sometimes win out over religious ones. In order to recalibrate, Pam retreats to the family beach house. The beach is a place where Pam turns off her mobile phone, does not take her computer, and does her best to tune out work. Because her family owns a home on the coast, she is able to spend numerous weekends and many holidays in this quiet and beautiful place, which is the antithesis of work. Here she slows down enough to experience God: “I just think it is the beauty and the peace that just make me think of God when I am at the beach, and listening to the seagulls and the ocean or kids playing …. Such a blessing” (Figure 2). The beauty of the natural world is seen as a divine gift; to experience natural beauty is to experience God. And experiencing this beauty and change of pace allows a narrative that God is in control, working behind the scenes, to wash over her afresh.

FIGURE 2. “…a beach to me is an example of just God’s beauty” (Pam Jones)

In an effort not to lose sight of God, she brings reminders of this narrative with her to work in the form of pictures. When we discussed what her office looks like,5 she indicated that we would find “beach scenes, there is a like a ton of pictures of beach… [along with] craziness in my office. It might have captured on any given day the chaos that can go on with all the papers all around. And it could have in spite of the chaos captured a sense of order in the background.” When she is not able to be at the beach to experience God, she brings the beach to work and thereby experiences the peace, beauty, and order in the background. Beach scenes, then, mediate the experience of God at work and bring a sacred dimension to an otherwise frenetic professional life.

Not everyone is as subtle as Pam Jones. Andrew Hsu, a young conservative Christian who sees himself as an “undercover corporate chaplain,” is more provocative in his choice of office décor. In his job as a software engineer, he uses art to remind himself of his faith and to open opportunities to propagate it: “I had some verses in Greek and Hebrew, you know, First Thessalonians [5:16-18] and I think some sections of Psalm 119 [verses 97 and 105] that I had on my wall….And people would come by and just say, oh, what language is that? And what does that mean? And, of course, giving me the door to talk about faith.”

Where some people use work as an opportunity for their faith, others see their faith as an opportunity to escape from work. Cynthia Gardner, a middle-aged single mother who works from home and is active in All Saints’ Episcopal, finds refuge from work and the pressures of life in her bedroom, a place she calls her “sanctuary” (Figure 3). “It’s just a place where I can go to be by myself, to be with God. I never work in my room, ever. [It’s] a place to be alone and just to be quiet, to sit, to read, to relax. So it’s one of the few places in the house that I never work.”

FIGURE 3. “I took the picture because it’s like a sanctuary for me, to be able to get away and be by myself” (Cynthia Gardner)

Cynthia is a night owl who requires little sleep, a reader with a voracious appetite, and the kind of person who needs time to herself to recharge. As she discussed photos of her bedroom, she inventoried numerous items of symbolic value: a souvenir given to her during her childhood by her mother, a memento from her grandmother, an icon of Jesus she painted, and a framed prayer from the Compline Service “asking God to watch over those who work or weep this night and those who are sick and suffering,” which she finds “very, very comforting.” All these items, along with a variety of books including religious literature and sacred texts, are displayed on furniture that belonged to her grandmother and became her father’s when he was a child. Even her bed is covered with sentimental meaning: it belonged to her parents.

Vicki Johnson, a retiree and devoted Catholic, makes space for God at home in a similar way. Vicki’s living room is a place where she does “a lot of praying and studying” of the Bible. The décor of this location plays a role in shaping her practice and experience.

That’s the chair I sit in (Figure 4). That’s a seashell from the coast. That’s … a little bowl from Ireland, a very small bowl, and these beads, these beads, these rosary [beads belonged to]….Someone who was very close to me, she called me her granddaughter, I wasn’t, she didn’t have any children, she had no children. But I was as close to her as anybody’s ever been, and I had a lot of joy from her and I wish she was still here….I loved her dearly, and she loved [me] and I pray for her [laughter] a lot [laughter]. And this table was another, this was a real aunt, and it was grain and she and Uncle Bob both died and I got that and I painted it black and it works great. But this is—that’s a good space for me.

Where the four walls of Cynthia Gardner’s bedroom confined her space for God, objects mark out the boundary for Vicki. For both of these women, the location for connecting with God also connects them with their personal and family histories.

FIGURE 4. “This is where I do a lot of my praying and studying” (Vicki Johnson)

Sam Levitt, an observant Jew, describes his home office (Figure 5) as a place where home, work, and spirituality are “totally integrated … it’s a place where I feel comfortable to do work, to pray, and to put my life together. It’s sort of just a home space for me.” For people like Cynthia, space for God at home is a refuge from other aspects of daily life, but for those like Sam, home, religious practices, and work comfortably comingle. Not only are the interior space and the ritual of prayer important to Sam, so is the view of the outdoors from his home office. Between the houses he can see the ocean and when he davens in the morning he is

very conscious of the sky and the sun and whether the sun has risen or not and typically, while I’m there, [for] several months during the year, while I’m davening in the morning, I can see the sun rising at the same time. So its very connected to me with the seasons, the tides that I can see in the ocean, and the rising of the sun….Being aware of the natural cycles and it’s an important part of the Jewish ritual life. So there are different prayers that are said at the beginning of the new moon, which is a lunar moon….And because of the prayers, I would actually say the prayers make me more aware of the lunar cycles. So I know that we’re half way now between the new moon and the full moon….So, yes, there is an interplay between the prayers and the natural cycles.

FIGURE 5. “I daven in that area” (Sam Levitt)

Sam is not alone in connecting his faith with nature, study participants consistently identified the natural world as a context in which they construct space for God. For Tom Miller, a middle-aged legal professional who attends synagogue monthly, a photo of the beach near his home in Edgewater, Massachusetts, evokes memories of friends and family (Figure 6). It is also a place where he goes when he needs “time to either make important decisions or to relate to, you know, a higher power, to pray or to just meditate on things and think about them, that’s one of the places that I would, I would go to.” It is almost as if, when faced with uncertainty he returns to a place of familiarity to get his bearings, to dial in his spiritual compass, if you will.

But it is not only when he needs to meditate or think that he creates sacred space outdoors. As someone who lives an active lifestyle, has teenage children, and resides in a place known for its natural beauty, outdoor activities are a significant part of Tom’s everyday life. And so is his practice of making space for God in the midst of it:

I mean I just, you just go to places like that or out at sea, and you watch, you know, a beautiful sunrise or something and you, you know, be struck by how gorgeous, you know, life is and how, how, you know, how could this all be just a mistake, you know, or a random occurrence. So yeah, I look at, at the intricacies of nature and the universe, and you know, thinking I guess if you want to call it a spiritual way all the time….I think that there is something more and so that I think about it the most strongly when I’m out in places like that.

Whether he is at the beach, hiking in the woods with his family or dog, fishing in the ocean, or driving to work, Tom is emphatic that “God…can be found more out in nature than necessarily in a church or a synagogue.”

FIGURE 6. “I’ve always thought that whatever God is…can be found more out in nature than necessarily in a church or a synagogue” (Tom Miller)

Theresa Collins, a retirement-age writer and committed member of All Saints’ Episcopal, also finds God outdoors. Like several other project participants, Theresa enjoys gardening as a leisure activity; likewise, it is a way for her to experience God.

God is the one who put us all here. God’s the one who created us. God certainly, of course, created the Garden of Eden and all gardens, and I don’t understand how things grow, but uh, I know that it’s part of the miracle of life that you put a little teensy thing in the ground or in this case in a pot and it grows. So I, it makes me feel the awe of God’s creativity and power and it’s, it’s also just, I mean I feel closer to God because he’s up there helping all these things grow that I don’t understand. And, and the other thing about the garden is, as you well know, I mean there’s always surprises every year in a garden. Good surprises and bad surprises. Things that don’t come up or things that come up you weren’t expecting or whatever, and I just think it’s all part of the miracle of life and the world that God has created. I just, it makes it easy to understand.

This God-as-creator narrative accompanies Theresa on her daily walk with her collie Yankee, a time at which she prays as she exercises and enjoys the beauty of the seaside town in which she lives. Taking the same path everyday, she follows a structured routine of prayer that includes “introductory prayers,” creeds, and extemporaneous prayer for friends, family, and neighbors.

I’ve gotten to the point where I really sort of pray for almost everybody I know by name, so that it makes me feel close to them as well as talking to God and having, asking God to help them in their lives and I was told by my niece that I prayed too hard, because she’s, I guess she’s 37 years old. She’s a “doctor-doctor,” MD/PhD, and she got married a couple years ago and I started praying on … these walks and during my prayers for her that she would have a baby. Well, she told me I prayed too hard because she’s having twins.

Also important on Theresa’s walks are the landmarks that represent memories and help to time her prayer. For example, a blue spruce along her route, which she photographed for the study, reminds Theresa of her parents’ love every time she passes it because her father used to call her mother his “little blue spruce.” Likewise, when she gets to certain points along her route, she knows where she should be in her routinized conversation with God. Just as her daily exercise is structured, religious, and informed by her environment, Theresa’s day is structured by her walk and the strong spiritual narratives it reinforces.

FIGURE 7. “…this is about the point where I recite the 100th Psalm every day…” (Theresa Collins)

Not everyone pictured life in these ways. But a significant number of photos we collected depicted the role of religion at home, work, and play from a range of religious perspectives and levels of participation (Table 3). Likewise, the images and narratives above are representative of the kinds and content of images generated through PEIs. In these contexts, location, action, and time are important components in the construction of meaning and suggest the effects the sacred may have in the social worlds of ordinary people.

Location: Behavioral Residue, Identity Claims, and Feeling Regulators

Locations tell stories. In order to understand the role of place in constructing space for God, it is important to read the physical clues found in work׳־ places, homes, and the outdoors. Over time people make their mark on everyday environments, leaving evidence of their behaviors, identities, and feelings. “Behavioral residue” such as Vicki Johnson’s well-worn Bible or the tallises, tefillin, prayer books, and Jewish calendars that lie atop a file cabinet in Sam Levitt’s study are “physical traces of activities conducted in the environment” (Gosling et al. 2002:381). Traces of practice (or intended practice) serve as cues that help structure future behavior and they stand as reminders for Vicki and Sam of the kind of people they are.

Not only do locations point to what happens there, places also have much to say about who a person is or aspires to become. Gosling and his associates suggest that people remind themselves and others of who they are by making two kinds of assertions about their identity. Self׳directed identity claims are “symbolic statements made by the occupants [of a location] for their own benefit, intended to reinforce their self׳views. Many of these statements can make use of widely understood cultural symbols (e.g., a poster of Martin Luther King, university memorabilia), whereas other artifacts may have a more personal meaning (e.g., a pebble collected from a favorite beach)” (Gosling et al. 2002:380). Along with efforts to reinforce their own sense of self, people “display symbols that have shared meanings to make statements to others about how they would like to be regarded….By displaying such symbols…[people] may be intentionally communicating their attitudes and values to others” (Gosling et al. 2002:380-81). Both types of identity claims are evident in the ethnographic account above. Cynthia Gardner’s icons, which are located throughout her home, strengthen her sense of self, and advertise her religious sensibilities to her children and guests. Pam Jones’ photos of beach scenes are subtle yet powerful reminders to her that God is at work in the background of her chaotic work environment. And Andrew Hsu’s Bible verse artwork reminds him of who he is as an evangelical and selectively presents his identity to his coworkers.

Not everything, however, that decorates a person’s lived environment is there to reinforce or project an identity. Other items at home, work, or play may act as “feeling regulators,” strategically placed there to create a mood, manage thoughts, or motivate behavior (Gosling 2008:21). The intrinsic sentimentality of items such as keepsakes and knickknacks, the history embedded in furniture and photographs, the cozy feeling of being under a certain blanket or on a favorite chair, as well as the memories rooted in a garden, beach, gazebo, or sunset all evoke feelings. And these feelings are often a precondition for being in a frame of mind conducive to making space for God.

Locations do not necessarily need to be decorated by the person experiencing them to play a role in constructing space for God—indeed offices, beaches, public parks, or forests are less accommodating to a personal touch. In environments where personalization is not possible, the sentimental or symbolic value of a location is sometimes sufficient to regulate feelings, evoke actions, or reinforce identity. For Grace Shoemaker, Pam Jones, and Tom Miller, for example, being near the water heightens their awareness of the sacred.

Action: Practices, Consolidation, and Imagination

Constructing environments that have the capacity to reinforce identity and regulate moods and feelings is an important kind of space making, but it is only part of the story. When it comes to making space for God, our participants emphasize practices—what they do in the space they have marked as sacred. As with the domestic shrines created by the Latinas that McGuire (2008:52) describes, the ritual practices associated with them bring spaces to life. The practices in which people engage at work, home, and in nature are] more important than the location by itself. The physical and intrinsic features of a place may set the stage for certain actions, but it is the practices themselves that enable (or constrain) the person’s attempt to reach toward the divine.

Perhaps the most common religious practice is prayer. Prayer is practiced across the spectrum of religious backgrounds represented by the study participants. In the broader American public, 58 percent of adults claim they pray on a daily basis and over half of Mormons (82 percent), African American Protestants (80 percent), evangelicals (78 percent), Catholics (58 percent), and mainline Protestants (53 percent) pray daily (Pew Forum 2008:44). What the surveys do not ask, however, is where people pray. How does prayer represent a literal and metaphorical space for God in everyday life?

What we know from our study participants is that prayer consolidates concems that intersect many domains of everyday life. It gathers together social contexts and the individuals who inhabit them into a shared, albeit fictive, moment in time. As Theresa Collins exercises and prays for “almost everybody [she] know[s] by name,” it makes her feel close to them. The framed passage from the Compline service connects Cynthia Gardner to “those who work or weep this night and those who are sick and suffering.” Pam Jones’ daily prayer request that God would lead her to the right decisions brings together the concerns of a mother, wife, and professional. And davening in his home office with an awareness of the seasons and rhythms of nature aligns Sam Levitt’s calendar, ritual practice, and the natural world. In the practice of prayer, what were once thought to be separate spheres of social life come together.

Not only does the space created by prayer cross social domains, it also introduces divine power into those varied social spaces. With desires and dilemmas gathered through prayer, they are placed within the reach of the divine, and new actions in the world are perceived to be possible. Theresa prays (perhaps a little too hard) for her niece to conceive, and twins are born. Cynthia asks her God to watch over hurting people. Pam requests wisdom. And although Sam isn’t praying in the same way as these Christians, he pursues a similar end as he davens. His is a desire to be attuned to the rhythm and forces of nature (centered) not just in his home office as he prays, but throughout his day.

As people pray, they imagine outcomes influenced by their understanding of the way a divine actor (or actors) works in the world. They anticipate sacred power actually doing something in the context of their world. When a desired end—whether babies, protection, wisdom, or being centered—comes to pass, it is attributed to divine power; the sacred transcends taken-for-granted boundaries of possibility. But practices such as prayer also allow the sacred to transcend institutional boundaries, introducing enchantment into otherwise disenchanted places. Moreover, in cases where religious or spiritual actions are deemed efficacious, that action may become a pattern for the future (Emirbayer and Mische 1998), thereby perpetuating and perhaps even increasing the volume of sacred space making. While this enterprise may not be as ambitious as what Berger (1967:28) once described as an “audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant,” constructing space for God through practices such as prayer invites religion and spirituality to be involved in making the human world more significant.

Time: Discipline, Creativity, and Countervailence

Having time in one’s schedule to do something religious or spiritual is often in short supply. Pam Jones feels as though she is “a gerbil on the wheel all the time, just running, running, running…going, going, going, going, going all the time.” Many Americans share her sentiment: time is not on their side. When work becomes home and home becomes work, little space is left in schedules for other pursuits (Hochschild 1997). Incorporating time for God in everyday life, then, becomes a balancing act that requires discipline and creativity.

Despite time’s power to constrain, some people make room in their schedules for personal practices and participation in religious and spiritual activities. Many weekly schedules reflect, with varying degrees of regularity, participation in some form of organized religion or personalized spiritual practice. Sam Levitt and his wife mark the Sabbath every Friday by lighting a candle and eating together. For some a weekly prayer meeting, Bible study, or worship service put demands on their time. And others consider it a religious obligation to cheer for their children during their Sunday morning basketball game or to forge family bonds through a day at the beach, boating, hiking, or exploring nearby communities. Making space for God in the midst of a busy schedule requires some measure of self-discipline.

Not only do time constraints engender discipline, a packed schedule also inspires creativity. Theresa prays while she exercises every morning. Charles prays as he showers. Pam talks with God during her commute to and from work. Tom experiences the divine in the midst of enjoying the outdoors with family. Instead of making choices between competing time constraints, people resolve schedule conflicts by inviting God to join them as they exercise, shower, commute, or go for a hike. They accommodate religion and spirituality in their busy lives by creating situations in which everyday activities and making space for God may take place simultaneously. In other words, busy lives seem to require a certain degree of creative scheduling when it comes to making time for God.

It comes as no surprise that time is not on the side of religion and that the scarcity of time necessitates discipline and creativity if space for God is to be constructed in daily life. The process that the competing pressures create, however, is counterintuitive. As the demands of everyday life encroach upon times that traditionally were set aside for religious and spiritual practices, the sacred is not completely erased from the calendar. Instead, the same social forces that were once thought to be bringing about the extinction of religion open up new possibilities for religion beyond its taken׳for׳granted boundaries. I call this the countervailent property of time. It acts back on itself. The lack of time to pursue religious interests within conventional boundaries causes the sacred to show up beyond them while, as, during, and in the midst of other activities. While time is not entirely on the side of the sacred, it seems that it is not completely against it either.

Construction, Constraint, and Concealment

Space for God in everyday life is constructed, in part, by combining elements of location, action, and time. Features of location may stimulate a feeling, remind of past behaviors, or animate a particular sense of self. In turn, certain feelings, habits, and identities invite people to do something religious or spiritual. Practices lay down new layers of behavioral residue, renew and generate feelings, and reinforce identities. Through practices such as prayer, contexts are brought together in ways that open times and places to the possibility of divine actors or forces to be present in a social setting. As practices are perceived to achieve their desired ends, their effectiveness invites them to be utilized more frequently and in more situations. In the event God shows up, so to speak, at home, work, or play, traces of feelings, behaviors, and/or identities may be preserved in the physical features of the context and/or the meaning that is ascribed to the location because of what happened in that place.

Thick layers of behavioral residue, compelling feelings, and strong signals about identity, however, do not oblige one to make space for God. Even relatively disciplined and creative people are not consistent in their religious pursuits. Locations and times have their own logics, which have a tendency to constrain the range of religious possibilities available in a given context. Likewise, the people with whom work, home, and leisure are shared often have competing ideas about the what, when, and where of religion and spirituality. What happens, then, when the sacred is constrained?

Grace Shoemaker, with whom this article began, offers a way to consider how people respond when their capacity for constructing space for God is diminished by circumstances beyond their control. Toward the end of my interview with Grace, a photo of the coffee table around which we sat took our conversation in an interesting direction. This glass-topped coffee table is designed with a drawer under the glass for displaying Grace’s collection of seashells and sea glass. About the time her health began to deteriorate due to a debilitating disease, her collection of seashells and beach glass began. Grace remembers, “I used to walk the beach and I had to stop doing that… so I started saving them and putting them in jars around and then we got the [coffee] table.” Friends and family return from beach vacations with shells to add to Grace’s coffee table. Sand from Hawaii is displayed in a hallway. Another friend regularly supplies sea glass to Grace. A large portrait of Grace’s grandchildren playing on the beach is a focal point in her home. As mobility decreased, beach-related artifacts increased. Thus, when her circumstances inhibited making sacred space in her usual way (walking, praying, talking to God) at her usual place (near the ocean), she improvised. By adapting to changing circumstances, she put the sacred within reach. Proximity does not mean, however, that the sacred is continually mediated. Sometimes her coffee table is just that, a coffee table; at other times, however, it is part of what creates space for God in Grace’s daily life.

Improvisations and adaptations are integral to making space for God in everyday life. When religious people enter a situation or setting that in some way precludes religion, they leverage the features of their environment that are under their control to adjust the way space for God is constructed. Pam Jones decorates her office with pictures of the beach that mediate God’s presence at work. To the casual observer, however, her artwork merely indicates a love of the seashore. Charles Curlew meets like-minded co-workers on the neutral ground of a workplace café during his lunch break, a time while he is off the clock and thereby avoids some of the constraints of his workplace. Andrew Hsu camouflages his Christianity in artistic renderings of Greek and Hebrew scripture verses that hang on his office wall. He cleverly employs his artwork as a legitimate means to introduce his faith to unsuspecting co-workers. And as far as her community knows, Theresa Collins enjoys walking her dog and, other than talking to herself while she walks, she seems relatively normal; what they don’t know is that she’s not talking to herself. Religion may be concealed from view in these and many other everyday situations, but it remains at play in the social world.


Modernity, it seems, has not barred religion from everyday life. Boundaries are more permeable than they were once imagined to be. Religious and spiritual people carry their understandings of how the world works with them as they navigate their everyday lives. Those that tap into divine power at work, home, and play, do so as though it is a natural part of their social world. As they do, evidence of the sacred is deposited in their surroundings. The nuances of the physical evidence of the sacred may be overlooked or misread by some, giving the appearance of a world disenchanted. The sacred is not easy to discern in photos of the beach, exercise routines, or home offices, for example. This is not the case, however, for those who endeavor to make space for God in everyday life. Their practices, orientations toward time, and physical environments invite—if not expect—the sacred to show up at work, home, and play. When the sacred transcends personal and institutional boundaries, the social world becomes more meaningful to the religiously or spiritually inclined.

Like the photographs above, this study only allows us to see within the frame. Our project explored the everyday lives of a relatively small group of people from Boston and Atlanta. Although participants mirror many of the contours of religious life in America, they represent a snapshot of a much more diverse religious landscape. My observations suggest that locations, actions, and times are important dimensions for thinking about the ways religion and spirituality show up in everyday life. Our use of photo elicitation interviewing indicates the promise of visual methods for the sociology of religion.


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