Why so many people go out of their way to stop in at apparently empty churches.
I was, some months ago, in a beautiful old church on the crest of a hill in Bavaria. As is usually the case in Bavaria, I wasn’t alone. In much of the world it’s hard to find an unlocked church. In most of America even those that are unlocked are usually empty outside of Mass, our churches too far from our busy lives for us to think of stopping by for a few minutes.
But in Bavaria, the church is still a privileged place of prayer, where a grandmother leads a well-bundled toddler by the hand while a handful of old men walk in alone and kneel to pray, never acknowledging each other though they must have known each other since childhood. Two middle-aged women come in together but leave each other at the door; they aren’t here to socialize. A family goes to a side chapel to light candles together, the teenagers giving no sign of embarrassment at the old ritual their parents insist on.
The cast of characters varies, but I’ve become used to them, these silent figures who stop by on their way to the store or home from work. It’s heartening to see their devotion, their conviction (whether or not they could put it into words) that there is something—someone—there, in that drafty old building full of garishly-painted statues.
But this time, one of them caught my eye: a 20-year-old man, dressed in clothes so cool I half wondered if he was on his way to some illicit club that pops up each weekend in a new abandoned warehouse. He caught my eye because he seemed so out of place in this monument to a faith the world claims is dying, a man so full of life, with so much he could be doing instead.
Like the others, he genuflected, then walked to a pew and knelt. Ten minutes, maybe 15. I noticed him and looked away.
As I was walking to my car, though, I saw him again. With an effortless swagger, he made his way through the frigid wind to his car. And somehow, that’s what struck me. He wasn’t ducking in to a church for a moment to get out of the wind, or even out of a sense of obligation given the building’s proximity. This young man had driven to the top of a hill, gotten out when it dead-ended into the parking lot, walked through the wind to a flight of steps, and climbed up 50 steps to sit in a fairly nice-looking church (by European standards, that is). And then he left.
It wasn’t on his way. It wasn’t convenient. He made a deliberate choice to make a visit to a building that most would say is little better than a small museum.
But he was visiting a friend.
… he was visiting a friend.
It’s the same reason I was there, of course, and the old men and the family and the grandmother with the toddler: we went to see a friend, the God-man who is present everywhere but who dwells particularly in the tabernacle, a prisoner of love who waits for us on the altar, so often alone and rejected.
A similar scene imprinted itself on St. Edith Stein’s memory some time before she became Catholic. She was at Frankfurt Cathedral when she saw a woman carrying a shopping basket stop in to pray. She reflected on it years later:
This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.
St. Edith later came to believe that someone lived in that cathedral, as he does in every Catholic church around the world, and that visiting him there brought about deeper intimacy in prayer. Many of us are profoundly aware of the power of Eucharistic adoration, of visiting the Lord when he’s exposed in the monstrance. We dutifully sign up for a holy hour so that Jesus is never left alone.
… someone lived in that cathedral …
But what about those times and places where adoration isn’t available? The same Jesus lives in the tabernacle, just as truly present as when we can gaze upon him. Instead of driving past, can we stop in for a few minutes? Can we make spending time with the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus a priority?
Many churches are locked when Mass isn’t being celebrated, though most of the time someone in the office will let you in. But even if you can’t get in, join the likes of St. John Francis Regis and Venerable Fulton Sheen, who would make a holy hour on the front steps when necessary. The real presence of God himself is powerful, and drawing near to him in the Eucharist is worth the effort—just ask the Bavarians.