Today in the Chapel I was so deeply annoyed and disturbed by people chatting loudly just outside while I was trying to pray in silence. Some woman, who I think was an organist came to the Sacristan standing just outside the door to the Chapel, and asked for the Chaplain:
-"No he's gone to the Ordinariate, he's become a Roman Catholic"
-"Oh really?! I didn't know, and I take the Church Times! I'm Church of Scotland, I'm an elder there, I'm from Glasgow, but I was baptised in the Church of England.....and so I take the Church Times, but I hadn't heard......and I regularly take the Church Times"
And so on and so forth. The very kindest thing I felt like doing was getting up and asking her if, in the Church of Scotland, they ever did actually shut up. I put my thumbs in my ears and tried to get back to concentrating on the Mystery of the Resurrection. Of course, the genius Victorian architects ensured that any words spoken in that place should reverberate and be amplified, and I could still hear her going on and on, just outside the chapel door, totally oblivious to the fact that people might go there expecting silence.
Somewhere in the middle of the Mystery of the Ascension, another woman came to the passageway before the Chapel door and again asked for the Chaplain. I could see half of her through the open door of the Chapel, and she was wearing a black coat and a fur hat, and spoke in a very clipped but slightly breathy Lumleyesque manner. By now I was starting to wonder if this might all be divinely ordered to test me:
-"Hello, I'm looking for the Chaplain"
-"He's not here, he's gone to join the Ordinariate....we should have a priest coming in a bit to say the Mass...."
-"Oh, I can't believe he's gone.....the Chaplain, yes....what's his name, Tom?"
-"Tim, yes Fr Tim"
-"Tom? Tim?......Oh, I hadn't heard about that"
-"Well, we should be getting a chaplain......."
And so again they both went on, right outside the Chapel door, almost shouting at each other. I couldn't believe it! Anyone who opens any space to the public should know that to try to enforce strict silence is to fight an uphill battle. Apart from anything, anyone shouting in the street can be heard inside. But for goodness' sake! Presumably these people have actually been inside a Church before, and know that people often go there expecting silence, and to rob them of even a bit of peace and quiet is incredibly cruel.
So during the Mystery of the Descent of the Holy Ghost, my mind slipped to wondering - If I can't deal with people chatting, what can I deal with? If I can't focus my heart and my mind on God and try to open up to him in prayer just because of someone chatting, how on earth will I be able to deal with greater intrusions? If I can't hear God over that Glaswegian woman, how will I hear Him over the noise of the world? If one thing in someone else that I don't like can stop me from seeing God in them, how will I ever love in a truly Christian way?
Sometimes, according to where we are, who we are, and who we are with, prayer is not about trying to block things out, but about letting them in. Creating a barrier around my sense of hearing in order to block that woman's voice out was ultimately futile, and what was left inside my head? Just stumbling words of the Ave Maria as I willed myself to focus, while my mind tried to focus in more and more on her ever fainter voice.
Sometimes, we just have to let it in. We have to let these disturbances become mingled with, or even part of, our prayer. How can we be open to God if we're trynig to block someone or something else out? Prayer is not about sweeping out of our bodies to some spiritual height, it's about striving to be who we are, where we are, with God. Perfectly being where we are, and offering all to Him. Even if this means being surrounded by noise.
I think the swine herders and villagers in today's Gospel reading at Mass were afraid of this. I don't know what lectionary it came from, but today's reading was of Christ driving demons out of two possessed people into a herd of pigs. After the pigs threw themselves into the lake, the swine herders went back to the village and the villagers wanted Jesus to go. Why did the villagers want Him to leave? He had disturbed the order of their lives. Before He came, the men possessed by Demons were safely in their tombs - excluded from society by the fear they provoked. When Jesus restored them to sanity, the Demons entered the pigs and so the villagers lost their herd. Presumably they didn't think it was a worthy exchange - two sane men for a herd of pigs. They were attached to their herd and they weren't interested in the demon-possessed men and their deliverance by Christ. The whole town went to plead with Jesus to leave, because they were worried what else he might take from them, and what else he might give them. How often are we like the villagers? You never know what you will let in when you open up, and you never know who you might be shutting out when you lock yourself in.
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