29 January 2014

Why does prayer feel different in a church than in my room?

As I sat down this morning to catch up on the world through Facebook and Twitter, one of my former students asked a question of me.  He had just returned from a period of prayer in a nearby church and asked, "While I was there it was really weird feeling compared to like just praying in my room.  Why is that?"

I thought I understood what he meant, but, just to be sure, I asked what felt different about it.  He said, "Like someone was there with me when I was alone for the majority of the time."  He had just come from a Catholic church and was praying before the tabernacle.

He had not been alone, I answered, but was in the very presence of Jesus Christ, present in the tabernacle; the Lord was with him.  He had stumbled upon the great secret of life and found the means through which Jesus keeps his promise to be with us always; though a Catholic who prays, the reality of the Eucharist was revealed to him in those moments of prayer in a way it had not been before.  Have you had such an encounter with the Lord?

If often happens - regrettably - that we do not feel the Real Presence of the Lord at Sunday Mass.  There are often many distractions around us: friends and family, music and responses, children crying, people chatting and moving about, and even by a desire to participate as fully and consciously as possible.  None of these are bad in and of themselves but do sometimes lead us to miss the simply reality that we have come into God's presence; they can disturb the silence necessary to be aware of his presence.

To enter a Catholic church or chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved at a more quiet time is quite another matter.  If we quiet ourselves and are still, we will slowly become aware of a certain stillness unlike any other.  There is a quiet peace and a subtle glory to it and, as my former student found, it can also be uncomfortable.  Why?

To be in the very presence of Christ makes us aware of our sins, of our failures to love, and of our need for his tender mercy.  Rather than acknowledge our sinfulness and confess our sins, we often would prefer to put our minds to something else and so we carry on about our day without spending much time in his presence (if we even visit him in the tabernacle outside of Sunday Mass).  This is a great tragedy.  If we do not wish to be in his presence in this life, would we want to be in his presence for eternity?

He gently calls us to himself, saying, "Come to me."  The uncomfortableness we might experience does not come from him, but from ourselves; it comes from our pride.  If we enter his presence with humility and allow ourselves to rest his stillness; if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable; if we yield and allow ourselves to be conquered by his love, then we will know a joy and a peace the world cannot give and does not even know.

This was the experience of Saint Damien of Moloka'i, who wrote of the Blessed Sacrament:

I find my consolation in the one and only companion who will never leave me, that is, our Divine Savior in the Holy Eucharist. . . .It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength necessary in this isolation of ours. Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But, having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content. . . . Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please Him. His goodness knows how to proportion itself to the smallest of His creatures as to the greatest of them. Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.
Please, do not shy away from him!  Enter his presence with thanksgiving.  Bow down in humility and he will raise you up!

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