Our friend Tim—one boy on his lap and another at his side—joins us for Holy hour. Behind me his sons click their tongues. They smack their lips. The sound is sharp in the tall rectangular space of our friary chapel. It fascinates them. Wonder teems in their little minds at the big echoes’ ricochet. Tim shushes them with one of his dad sized hands so that the chapel is suddenly soundless. Like the sight of an anthill, like the oaring motion of the darter hawk's wings, to the boys, the silence is a puzzling wonder. The older boy, Timmy, scoots out of it with a breathy whisper: Dad. Dad, why is it so quiet?
Is it so quiet? I think to myself. The sounds of Nepperhan Avenue—that constant lurch and growl of traffic, that large dragon's belly always crouched outside the friary, always stalking our prayers—always always there, patient as rat trap—none of this was noise. Nor was the interior scrimmage against sleep; nor the battery of anxieties; nor the inchoate shouts of the self; nor that montage reel of anything interesting, incriminating or inciting enough to distract from the One upon whom we all gazed—no, none of this was noise to the boys. The men in the chapel were all silence: shut mouths, unmoving lips, stroked beards. The tall space was so loudly hushed that whatever the clamor within or without didn't count to them for noise at all. Dad answers the question: It’s quiet because they’re praying, Timmy. The loud whisper back: I don’t hear them praying.
I wonder at what moment a child becomes aware of his heart. And how does he learn to sit within his heart the way these men sit in the chapel silently worshipping God? For every heart can be like a chapel where the living God lives, where without, there lurks a beast loudly patient. When does the boy become aware of the world inside him and how?
When did I?
I was supine lengthwise along the painted slats of a wooden bench. It could be Goshen, Virginia. It could be Pelican Lake, Minnesota. It may have well been anywhere. Everywhere the sky is domed at night and the fixed stars boast of their white light quietly. They are small, and I, a teenager, already hacking away through the brush of life, am so so obviously (uncomfortably) smaller. For twenty minutes they tasked us to sit alone in silence. Twenty seamless minutes—no phones, no friends, no forfeits—at the end of which a bell would sound signaling a return to our cabins.
How is it that you feel heard on a bench thinking? Is it by some residual pagan impulse that we talk to starshine? Is it a deception of physics that because sound waves travel outward, we, lonely men, assume they travel toward someone? I blocked the lamplight with the palm of my hand and the starlight flexed. I said words. I didn't know I was praying. Prayer was something different than this, afterall. It was formulaic, ostentatious. I heard the shifting of my weight, trout surfacing like laughter in the water, a mosquito’s hum at the lobe of my ear. I saw and (imagined?) I felt the blunt beats of moth wings. I got bored. Scattered across the camp hundreds of teenagers sat stranded in unusual silence. Twenty minutes is a long time.
It was pitched to us campers as part challenge, part invitation. For days we had heard different talks about Christ. “Jesus is more than just a pal.” (Cue the then popular imagine of buddy Jesus) “Jesus is like the star in the child's shape sorter.” (The preacher actually has one between his hands.) “We try the yellow square or the plastic yellow circle.” (He literally tries the yellow square and the plastic yellow circle.) “But in your heart is the star shaped hole and only the star fits.” (He’s right. It slides in—clink, clink—on the inside of the ball. He’s somehow earned our attention. He keeps it with stories of celebrity suicides and NFL stars catching their super bowl rings in the light on the bus ride home with that digging question on their lips: “now what?”) “If you put your love into something that will always love you back, something that will last forever, you won’t be let down.”
These are the ideas brushing up against our ears all week. This night was the dramatic cliffhanger: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” we were made to know. And, “the wages of sin is death.” That was the bare bones of it, and that's how it felt—like the preacher's words were bones ground into dust, and we were made to drink them. Then they marched us off into the darkness and asked us to think and to pray. Apparently, I had mismanaged my love. I had chosen sin rather than Jesus and that choice earned me death, and I was powerless over the consequences. I couldn’t remember having experienced that dilemma. How could I have chosen against a man I thought so little about? It didn't occur to me then that the question was the answer to itself.
I was silent for twenty minutes in Virginia (or Minnesotta). I considered the talks. I spoke aloud. I addressed someone—God made more sense than anyone else. Still, as far as I was concerned, I wasn't really praying—and, as far as I was concerned, He didn't really answer either. Of course, He did answer. It was so soft and imperceptible an answer that I hadn’t even noticed it. No words. No miracles. Something unexplainable and unfelt happened. It would take time and reflection to recognize it. That first presence, though—the very first presence—I came to know that night was not His. It was my own.
The wood slats running the length of me. Lapping lakewater. Stars far too urgent for their size and distance. In the silence, O Lord, these things shouted beautifully, and I heard them. But those things that were me—the push of my lungs and crack of my knuckles, my own humorous, my own pensive, my own vain or searching thoughts—these also shouted, and, although alone, I knew that they were heard by another.
In the silence the heart first knows itself. It then reaches for the next nearest heart which is always yours. Prayer—before it is a work of articulation—is a blind and mute longing.
Therefore, in the back of our chapel at St. Leopold Friary, Tim may have answered his son: You don’t hear them, Timmy, because prayer doesn’t always take words.
+ Br. Joseph Michael Fino, CFR
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