The Patina of Prayer – UPDATED


City churches are sometimes quiet and peaceful solitudes, caves of silence where a man can seek refuge from the intolerable arrogance of the business world. One can be more alone, sometimes, in a church than in a room in one’s own house. At home, one can always be routed out and disturbed (and one should not resent this, for love sometimes demands it). But in these quiet churches one remains nameless, undisturbed in the shadows, where there are only a few chance, anonymous strangers among the vigil lights, and the curious impersonal postures of the bad statues. The very tastelessness and shabbiness of some churches makes them greater solitudes, through churches should not be vulgar. Even if they are, as long as they are dark it makes little difference.

Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly and not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.

There can be no contemplation where there is no secret.
– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Your mission today, should you choose to accept it: go to an empty church (they’re not hard to find), one preferably a little old and outdated, with cool tiles and deep shadows, and stained glass windows that filter the light. Go find your place within it, standing or sitting, and close your eyes and breath; all are welcome. Let yourself be present to the place, let it be present to you. The hopeful and joyous prayers, the agonized and despairing prayers, the angriest and most humble prayers of thousands who passed through before you were uttered there, or whispered, or shouted, or wept–released upon the air, through which the Holy Spirit moves. They have left something of themselves, behind; a soulful patina. You can sense all of it. You can enjoin your prayers to them, and breathe deeply, and then simply be still, and know.

UPDATE: Another reason to make a habit of visiting empty churches: if there is more traffic within them, desecrations and thefts are less likely to occur.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • amba (Annie Gottlieb)

    This helps me understand why I have always loved to go sit, or kneel, in churches where no service is going on. There’s something about the shape of the space, too, the height above you–loft and shelter in one.

  • kelleyb


  • Jim Hicks

    I have long appreciated the opportunity to go inside a church, just sit, and think on God and whatever problem is afflicting me at the moment. Or use the time to think on God AND FORGET the problem on my mind!

    Alas, an unlocked church is often difficult to find in my area. Rev. Bob Duncan, now bishop of an Anglican province, was keen on having his church open during daytime hours, so people would have a holy place open to them. The nearby Roman church was kept locked. Many priests and parish councils forbid unlocked doors these days due to the crime rate.

    If you have an open church nearby, treasure the opportunity. Pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

  • shana

    Domenico Bettinelli reported yesterday on his blog & FB that the Cathedral of Holy Cross in Boston was desecrated and the relic of the Holy Cross stolen.

    The crucifix in which the relic was placed (used during Good Friday Services) had the bottom ripped out and the relic taken. This cross was in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the damage was done there.

    I completely understand why some churches are locked as much as it breaks my heart when I find one that is.

  • Kris, in New England

    That was just beautiful. As I navigate my way back to church – this resonates more now than ever. Thank you.

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  • Fuquay Steve

    The best post – I’m grateful – you are terrific.

  • Ellen

    When I was a child our church was open 27/7/365

    Then in the mid 70s, when things were beginning to fall apart, someone stole the entire tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament inside. We were horrified. The church has been locked ever since.

  • Bill

    My wife and I were lucky enough to go to Europe this spring. There are some fantastic Churches from tiny ones to cathedrals. Some (certainly St. Mark’s, St. Peter’s, Notre Dame, the Duomo in Florence) are full of tourists but even in those there is still an opportunity to pray or attend Mass.

  • elmo

    I am blessed to have a church nearby that is always open into the night. In the summer it is cool; in the winter, it is warm. It is my refuge; my home, my room where I can weep before the tabernacle or pray or meditate or just simply breathe.

  • Cathy

    I hadn’t even read the blog yet today. Guess where I just was…an empty church!

  • Jeanne

    I used to spend my lunch hours at St. Francis of Assisi church on West 31st st in Manhattan. I’d go down to the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes in the basement and pray the rosary. It cleared my head to be away from the craziness at the huge global company I worked for and all the pressures that came with it. Wherever I worked, the first thing I did was figure out the closest Catholic church within walking distance and if I could get out to noon Mass during my lunch hour. Good stuff.

  • Jeff

    The picture reminds of a visit I had once to the cathedral in Segovia, Spain. A gorgeous church which was dark, cool and empty.

    The “emptier” it is the more you can feel God’s presence.

  • roc scssrs

    “…as long as they are dark it makes little difference.” So many churches today have no dark, restful corners. They’re more like auditoriums or bus stations. I’m glad more churches are adding chapels, and more parishes supporting Eucharistic Adoration.

  • Ellen

    In a couple of weeks, I will be at a Benedictine retreat. Their church is magnificent, and I love to go in when it’s empty. It’s permiated with prayer.

    I need to get out my copy of In This House of Brede where Dame Phillipa is thinking about places that are steeped in prayer.

  • Kathleen

    Thanks for the reminder. I can run into our church while my son is at karate later this afternoon. And it is across the street from the library…so it’s all good.

  • DWiss

    “…the intolerable arrogance of the business world.” I never would have used those words but they’re perfect. That explains why I feel a little out of step after Mass on weekdays when I can attend at lunch. Makes me realize that what we all need is a daily dose of holiness to keep our priorites in order.

  • Ray

    “…the intolerable arrogance of the business world.” That’s leftist cant.

    “…the intolerable arrogance of the world.”
    That’s a Christian outlook.

  • Lori

    While working a brief stint in downtown Chicago, there was a lovely church I used to take refuge in during my lunch hour. It’s so wonderful that God gives us such places of rest and repose in His presence.

  • AMDG

    I love dropping by our catherdral; it is a beautiful Neo-Gothic church with incredible stained glass windows. The smell of incense when one walks in is powerful and I love having just a few minutes in there alone.

  • Rick

    I too have found many churches locked…


  • TeresaBenedicta

    While at college, I had my choice of three or four chapels to pray in. There was nothing like going in for a late night holy hour. To be alone, in the darkness, with Our Lord. I miss that.

    I’m blessed at my current parish to have perpetual adoration. But most churches around my area are locked at all times.

  • Nancy

    I have a key to our Church. Liturgy Committee Chair. I let myself in often to do my duties, but I also will let myself in to pray quietly or play the piano. It isn’t an old Church, but it does have beautiful stained glass windows that glow in different colors as the sun sets or rises.

    I also love wandering in to Churches in Europe that seem so old on the outside and yet inside are these exquisite jewel boxes of stained glass and art.

  • Elaine T

    I love to go into a quiet church, but as with others posting, most of those churches around here are locked unless Mass (or other services, like a funeral, wedding, or something) is going on. There are a couple that are open, but they’re far enough away I have to make a point of getting there – it can’t be a spontaneous move. The church building of my childhood used to be open, but sometime in the 70s people set fires (more than once) in it. So now it is locked. My current parish has had vandalism problems, too. Such a shame.

  • AMO

    Ditto on seeking out the old churches while travelling in Europe.

    My first order of business when I enter is to immediately find the Blessed Sacrament.

    I’ve gotten many a puzzled look from wandering tourists noticing me kneel/genuflect before Him.

    That’s the beautiful thing about our Church — wherever we travel, He is truly there.

  • expat

    I’ve encountered a big problem many times here in Europe; even if you find an unlocked church, many frequently have a recorded music loop playing continuously.

    No silence to be found.

    For me, this is a demonic manifestation at a high level. I am forced to flee the very sanctuary I am seeking.

  • oldbat

    Most of the churches in Manhattan are not locked but every pastor worries about possible crime or vandalism. I love to drop in on churches I do not know and savor the peace while the city outside goes on its way. My only problem church is St. Patrick’s where tourists take pictures of you praying. I suppose it is living proof that Catholics do pray and wonder whose web page I am decorating.

  • AMO

    @expat – Fortunately I’ve very seldom experienced that intrusive “mood music” in the European churches I’ve visited. Perhaps it subliminally steers me away from entering in the first place…

    @oldbat – I remember praying at St. Patrick’s in the Eucharistic Chapel (in the back of the Basilica) just behind a Missionary of Charity. I can only wish that a picture of the two of us would be tucked into someone’s Facebook album!

  • Mike

    But the Churches today are all bright and open. Full of light and offices behind the walls. Not a corner to sit in if you wanted to. No darkness. Jesus loves us all and sheds light on the world! We’re all happy and without sin. It’s a sin to be sad and sit in darkness, therefore the new Church protects us from that near occasion.

  • Rudy

    Thank you for this beautiful post. Merton is one of my favorites and this excerpt is very beautiful. Whether a church is dark or filled with light, God is present available to answer the longings and needs of one’s heart and soul. There I have found real peace and true joy.