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