A week or so ago, I wrote a nervous email to our local Catholic parish:
Hi! I’m a Protestant, but I heard that your adoration chapel was open, and I wondered if it might be acceptable for non-Catholics to come and to pray.
Given my track record with responses to email, I honestly didn’t expect to hear anything back. And yet I received a warm reply a day later. It was fine for non-Catholics to come, the parish assured me. They explained the purpose of the adoration chapel and the concept of Eucharistic adoration, asked me to respect those beliefs even if I didn’t share them, and then offered a list of the safeguards they were using in the parish to protect against COVID-19.
And so off to the chapel I went last Wednesday after work for some quality time with God.
I have been missing church. I have missed being in a church. And while sitting in a chapel for quiet reflection, prayer, and meditation on Scripture is not quite the same as a full church service, I had a hunch it might quiet some of the frustration I’ve been feeling over my online faith practice of late. Yes, God is with us at home as anywhere—and yet there is something distinct and special about going to a place particularly for the purpose of meeting with Him (and often with other believers). I had missed it.
I enjoyed my time there. The chapel is beautiful, I got to spend some time focused solely on God, I felt safe (a nice thing in our current pandemic!) and I left feeling renewed. But I also emerged from the experience having learned the following, which I wanted to share here:
- I am not accustomed to silence. There is silence and then there is pin-drop, you-can-hear-the-candles-burning chapel-silence. Even turning a page in my Bible sounded enormously loud! It was fine as I was by myself in the chapel, but it struck me how noisy my everyday life is in contrast: full of TV, phone noise, computer noise, notifications, people talking, cats meowing. And in the silence, I learned that…
- I am not accustomed to going to God. I mean, I spend time with God a lot. But it is always in my environment, where I am always attuned to other things. Even times “set aside” for God are, in some way, hedged in by where I am: the knowledge that the oven timer is on, that I am going to get a phone call soon, that dinner is in a half hour, that I have work in a few minutes, that I am sleepy. I am always meeting God in my space, but I rarely leave my comfort zone to go to Him. Taking the time to go into an environment where there was nothing to think about other than God, nothing else familiar around, was quite different than what I am typically accustomed to doing.
- My faith experience is too much about me. It has been an accusation leveled against modern believers – and, I believe, not an entirely incorrect one – that we have become self-centered and self-serving in the way we practice our faith: that we come to our church services as consumers, demanding to “be fed,” be entertained, have someone else bring us to God. In the chapel, with nothing else to do but hang out with God, I was surprised by how awkward I felt without the structure of a church service or a guided reading, all the aspects of faith practice meant to be geared toward my comfort and education. Here, the burden was on me to simply be present and to be with God and allow him to work.
- Senses matter. To this day, when I enter my childhood church, something about the scent of the air and the curve of the walls, the color of the carpet, snaps my senses to attention: you are here in God’s house. I assume that the years of being in that building, worshipping with others, created a strong sense-memory in me that is hard to shake even after all this time. When I went into the chapel, the first thing that struck me was a scent-memory: it smelled familiar, like the sulfur of burning candles, and my brain snapped back to all the cathedrals I have seen and entered that smelled exactly the same way. It’s a nice sensory prompt to turn your mind to God: an entry into reverence.
- It is a gift to God. I am not great at stillness. I am always doing, thinking, being. The chapel is pretty much the antithesis of that and so I felt, as I mentioned, awkward. But it occurred to me, halfway through my time there, that I had still taken time out of my day to devote entirely to God—not for any demand or request, not to receive anything in particular, simply to be there and experience His presence. And regardless of how strange it felt, when I am not frequently someone who does this, it also seemed like the best gift I could give: time. My thoughts. My restless energy.
If you are struggling with missing church, I encourage you to take a few steps to find that sense of aloneness with God that you need. Even if there isn’t an open chapel near you, I think increasingly that it is good for us all to experience a sort of mini-pilgrimage—to go somewhere with the single intent of seeking God outside of daily life. Maybe that is a local garden or a park, a quiet walk down your street—maybe it’s even your car if there’s nowhere else to go! Sometimes a simple shift in scenery and a deliberate step away from all the ‘regular’ and the ‘distraction’ of your everyday life in this pandemic can feel like a very necessary and renewing practice.
In our efforts to fit God into our lives, I think we can sometimes de-glorify and de-mystify God, turn Him into a chore we accomplish alongside our to-do list. But when we make the move to spend time with Him in a deliberate, intentional way, it can be surprisingly revealing and renewing. And we need it—especially now, when many must experience churchgoing through a screen.
I hope you find a place to sit quietly with God this week.