June 7, 2009

Sitting in the Dark

Sometimes on Sunday I go back to the church in late afternoon or early evening to say my Vespers and just sit for a while. We tend to close up and lock the church on Sundays after Masses are over in the early afternoon. I really love the place with the lights off, and feel bad for most of our parishioners because they never get to experience it; we almost always have some lights on at least in the sanctuary and around the side altars. I always notice the windows--the Mysteries of the Rosary--more without the lights.

Now that I've been here for a couple of years I realize what a subtle gift it is to open up the church around six in the morning a couple of days each week. Over the course of the year there are so many variations in the light, from a superabundance in these days when we approach the nativity of John the Baptist, to an utter lack on the other side of the year, as we near that of our Lord. The church is "oriented" more or less south-south west, so the dawn arrives in the back of church on the Blessed Mother side, and the day disappears off to the St. Joseph side of the sanctuary.

The church is generally open during the day, usually from about six in the morning until seven or eight in the evening. I'm so grateful that we do this. People visit too; in the course of day I notice many people making visits and praying. Lots of them I don't even know, but some I can count on to be there at certain hours offering their rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet. The anonymity of it all helps me to remember that the community of prayer is larger than we know or are supposed to know. I don't need to know their struggles and anxieties and searing sadnesses, and they don't need to know mine in order for us to pray for each other. I try to remember all these folks I don't know when I pray my office (most of which I do on my own) or my own rosary. Oremus pro invicem.

"Solitude is a hard won ally, faithful and patient. Yeah, I think I know you." --Henry Rollins

At night, after we lock up, is special to me too. There you can sit in real darkness, with just the vigil light keeping watch--and making up for our negligence--before the Blessed Sacrament. That, to me, is a special darkness. Perhaps it's because prayer is a kind of darkness, or because the Light of God is so overwhelming to our mind that we experience it as an obscurity. St. John of the Cross talked about contemplation as rayos de oscuridad, rays of darkness.

City churches are sometimes quiet and peaceful solitudes, caves of silence where a man can seek refuge from the intolerable arrogance of the business world. One can be more alone, sometimes, in church than in a room in one's own house. At home, one can always be routed out and disturbed (and one should not resent this, for love sometimes demands it). But in these quiet churches, one remains nameless, undisturbed in the shadows, where there are only a few chance, anonymous strangers among the vigil lights, and the curious impersonal postures of the bad statues. The very tastelessness and shabbiness of some churches makes them greater solitudes, though churches should not be vulgar. Even if they are, as long as they are dark it makes little difference.

Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly, and do not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.

There can be no contemplation where there is no secret.

--Thomas Merton, "Learn to be Alone," in New Seeds of Contemplation, 82-83


Adoro said...

This is so beautiful.

I've had profound moments in empty, darkening churches, where it has been God and I, alone, no one else knowing, no one else seeing.

I wish I could spend all of my time prostrate, in the presence of Christ.

pennyante said...

You and Thomas Merton have expressed so beautifully what it means to me to be alone in prayer in church. Sadly, this can seldom happen since our church is locked during the day.

I have often told my priest how fortunate he is to be able to walk across the street anytime he wishes to open the doors and spend some time there in prayer...

He knows I will come early for any service just so I can have a few minutes alone to "listen" for what God might want to tell me...

Searching for His truth said...

Our Secular Franciscan group meet on Wednesday's for evening prayer in our church. My husband an I often arrive 30 minutes early to pray the rosory. I love entering the church in the winter when it is all dark. To me it is like the darkness closed in on me leaving only the small space that I share with Jesus in the tabernacle. Unfortunately the next person that comes always turns on the lights. He never stopped even for a moment to enjoy the peaceful darkness.

Anonymous said...

A few years back I went to visit a good priest friend of mine who was transferred to another parish. He gave me the tour at a time when the church was closed. It was quiet, dark and peaceful. I remember thinking how lucky he was to have this soltitude available at will. You can always find a bar open at 1am when desperate and in need, but the church's doors are locked.

J.A. Seeker said...

Wow! I thought I was the only fan of Henry Rollins AND Thomas Merton!

Glad to have stumbled across your blog!


Brother Charles said...

Excellent to meet you J.A.!