When I was in college, my roommate and I used to hang out in the chapel on campus sometimes. She liked to do her homework there, because it was so quiet and peaceful. Sometimes, if she had the place to herself, she would sing, because the acoustics were so good. I thought both practices were a little weird, and not really the right way to use the chapel, which ought to be used for prayer.
My best friend and I would sometimes hurtle into the chapel and land on our knees to rattle off a few desperate decades of the rosary, begging Mary to help us pass some test we hadn’t studied for, because we had spent the night drinking beer in the woods, instead. I knew some of the upperclassmen (including our big sisters) thought this was a pretty shoddy practice, because the chapel was a spot for quiet, contemplative prayer, not vending machine-style intercessions.
Then there were some tormented evenings throughout my early adulthood when I would turn up in any unlocked church I could find just because it was open and I didn’t know where else to go, and all I could do was sit there and feel terrible because I didn’t know how else to feel. It seemed like at very least it couldn’t possibly hurt to feel that way inside the walls of a chapel.
Then for a long time, after I started my family, I was too busy to go to the chapel. There were years and years where I was barely even physically at Mass on Sundays, because I was always wrestling with a toddler in the foyer, or dragging a screaming baby out of the building, or trotting back and forth to the bathroom with a kindergartener. I looked back on those previous years when the chapel just stood there waiting for me, and I could pop in any time I wanted, and I couldn’t believe how poorly I used that precious time.
There was a good long spell a few years ago when I made wonderful use of the chapel. I had a whole program of prayer worked out, and I made sure I followed through on all of it every time. I prayed every kind of prayer I knew how to do, and I brought a list of people to pray for. I was so busy and so thorough, and did so well. I kept this up for as long as I could, until I got too busy again.
And I’m still busy, sometimes miserably busy, but I decided to sign up anyway. Or I guess because of how busy I am, I decided to sign up. I have started to figure out that the busy-ness doesn’t go away; it just shifts and takes on a different character.
Now when I go to the chapel, I don’t use my time well. I don’t use my time at all. I just sit there. These are strange days, and it seems like there is less and less I am sure of, fewer and fewer things I feel comfortable putting into words, even silently, even in prayer. So mostly I just sit. The time passes slowly.
Sometimes I feel like a rock at the bottom of the ocean, much too heavy to be stirred much by waves moving overhead. Sometimes I fall asleep, and that doesn’t seem so bad.
That’s the good thing about not having an agenda: Even if you can’t manage to stay conscious, you’re not missing anything. All you’re trying to do is be there, and you can do that when you’re asleep. Just be there.
Somebody said that the way to encounter God is to empty oneself, because God cannot bear emptiness, and will fill you with Himself. I can’t say that I have noticed that happening. I have noticed that I have some pity on my past self, though. I no longer look back and think, “Oh, what a fool I was to use the chapel so poorly. I should have known better; I should have done differently.”
Instead, I think, “At least I was there. I was sitting there with the only one in the world who is always glad to see me.” And that’s a good way to use the chapel. Whatever I had at the time, whatever I was, I brought with me, and that’s what I’m doing now, even though it looks a lot like nothing at all. All I do is sit. At least I’m there. I believe it’s a good way to use the chapel.