This article is from the Spring/Summer issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
by the Rev. Mary Earle
Several summers ago my husband, Doug, and I met our son Jason in Paris, with the intention of heading toward Brittany to explore that region of France. We arrived in the midst of a French transportation strike. Getting from De Gaulle Airport to our hotel in Rennes was a singularly hot, long, frustrating and exhausting journey. What should have been an easy transfer to an express train turned into a convoluted nightmare of subway, taxi and train. We were weary beyond words when we finally checked in to our rooms late that night.
The next morning, still reeling from the events of the day before, we began walking around Rennes. The sun was shining. Festivities were beginning in honor of a local saint. Crowds were gathering. We were jostled and greeted. We came around a corner and saw an old church. I headed in and was immediately enveloped in the exquisite semi-darkness of candlelit space. Prayer was palpable. Ranks of votive candles stood along the walls. The welcome silence descended upon us like balm in Gilead. We sat in a pew. I found tears trickling down my face — tears of exhaustion and tears of relief. That old church offered us respite from travel and travail. That quiet sanctuary welcomed us in the embrace of calm.
It was medicine for my soul, the medicine John O’Donohue referred to as “the sheltering silence” of liturgical space.
The sheltering silence of our churches is disappearing as fast as the Amazonian rain forest. We lock them, for one thing. It’s an understandable, and unfortunate, response to theft; for it also has the effect of halting the natural “going out and coming in” (Ps. 121:8) of those of us desiring the healing medicine of being still and quiet in sheltering silence before an altar. I am not suggesting we all leave our church house doors open all the time. I am suggesting we find other ways and other times to seek out and spend time in the “sheltering silence” of liturgical space.
When I was a young mom, our family attended church regularly, and it was a blessed time in a church community that has been the unshakable foundation upon which I have relied as my family has grown and scattered. But in many ways, it was just as busy as my life the other six days of the week. There was still the getting up, getting dressed, herding children, missed naps (leading to cranky children), and all the busyness of family life.
Then a kind older woman in the parish suggested that I step into the sanctuary during the week, when my boys were in the nursery. I was amazed at the way my body felt when the doors from the narthex (entry way) closed behind me and I was abiding in the hushed splendor of space “where prayer has been valid”— a phrase used by the poet T.S. Eliot in his description of encountering this kind of sheltering silence.
Just as we need to breathe in and breathe out, we need the balance of active love and receptive prayer, of engaged ministry and quiet abiding. Of course, we can always pray anywhere. But the embodied practice of going into a sanctuary when all is calm, all is quiet, recalls us to the communal nature of our prayer.
We are reminded that our personal prayer is always within the context of the prayer of our community, the prayer of the church at large, the prayer of the whole Communion of Saints.
I was with a friend once and we had occasion to visit a church unknown to us. As we stepped inside the church, my friend stopped and said, “Ah, this place has been prayed in. I can feel it.” Some church spaces feel more “prayed in” than others, he said. A “prayed-in” church, even when it is vacant of people, is far from empty, for it is infused with the prayers of others offering a sweet aroma that, like incense, lingers.
Some years ago at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown San Antonio, where I currently worship, a group became concerned about the needs of the homeless persons who would gather in Travis Park across from our church every day. They had begun to eat breakfast with us on Sunday morning, and so conversations began. “What do you need from us? What can we offer?” we asked. Of course there were expectations about what the responses would be — money, shelter, medical assistance. What our homeless friends asked for, however, was this: a place to sit quietly after having breakfast. So, for a time, Bethlehem Chapel on our campus was open to any who wished to sit in quiet prayer on Sunday morning. Amid all the hubbub of a big downtown parish on Sunday morning, with all the varieties of classes, children’s activities, breakfast, worship, hospitality swirling around, at the center, there was the quiet of Bethlehem Chapel, welcoming those whose lives on the street were so buffeted by noise and interruption. With the advent of the citywide Haven for Hope homeless care center, and our parish house restoration, this no longer happens.
But I remember that the homeless guests asked for a place to abide, a quiet place of beauty.
Sometimes, in the ebb and flow of our lives, in the midst of the various twists and turns in the journey of faith, we need to allow our own weary and feeble prayer to be upheld and sustained by the enveloping prayer of those who have gone before, and those whose prayer permeates the wood, glass, brick, mortar and tile of our own churches. We need to allow ourselves the profound and essential respite of abiding in the sheltering silence of space where prayer has been valid. In that entering into quiet communal space, we are reminded yet again that it is God who has made us, and not we ourselves. We remember that with every breath, that Love sustains us, steadily, quietly, infinitely.
The Rev. Mary Earle is a writer, teacher, retreat leader and author-in-residence at The Work+Shop, a ministry of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX. Reach her at email@example.com.