Today was one of those Sundays when I both open the church in the morning and close it in the afternoon.
At six this morning I went to the church to set up for the first Mass. Once I had everything set up, there was almost enough light to offer Morning Prayer, so I made my meditation first and then opened my breviary. All this before turning on the lights or opening the church. (As anyone learns fast, you can't open the church too early in the morning, because no matter how early it is, someone will start coming at that time and then resent you when it's locked.) It's such a privileged solitude to sit, locked in and alone with the Blessed Sacrament and the paschal candle in the dim, early morning natural light. I am unworthy of the privilege of being able to pray this way.
Then I open up and everything gears up. I offer two Masses in a row, have a break, and then have four babies to baptize. In the course of the day I probably greet a couple hundred people. I promise to pray for all kinds of intentions, sign bulletins for children and sponsor forms for adults. I bless a couple of rosaries, and hear reports from retreats.
Then, at about four in the afternoon, having wrapped up the baptismal paperwork and some other random stuff to get ahead on the week, I go back to the church and find it empty once again. I grab the arcane set of keys that open the poor boxes and the vigil candle donations. I collect all of the crumpled money and put in the right bags. All quiet. I check the holy water bucket and decide that it can get through the week. (I don't know what people do with it, and maybe I don't want to know. We go through several gallons a week.) Then I put off the lights, lock up, and sit down again in the solitude to offer Evening Prayer. I'm back where I started, there in the dark with my breviary and my Lord. Before the Our Father I try to remember all of the intentions I was given today; a complicated pregnancy, a blood test tomorrow, another young man who said, "Please pray for my attitude."
I know I repeat myself and write about this over and over, but it continues to strike me at deeper levels: the starkness of the shift from intense social-ness to total solitude in the life of priestly ministry. The day begins and ends with solitary prayer in the sacred space of this church, but in between the same space is filled with people and noise and music and prayers.
It speaks to me of celibacy. It isn't a life of separation from people. On the contrary, I feel very embedded in the fabric of this community and its neighborhoods. But what I offer in all those relationships begins and ends with the God I meet in my solitude. Whatever I have to offer emerges from this mysterious and exclusive intimacy that I clumsily call prayer. It is an exclusive Relationship, for sure, but an exclusivity that wants to become fruitful, if that makes any sense. Maybe I'm not saying it right. I'm pretty tired.