“….you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense into the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness.”
The Long Loneliness p.9
Dorothy Day opens her autobiography with a description of a city church on Saturday nights. Churches create small crevices of silence. Even a chapel out in the country encompasses a stillness unlike the quiet in field and woods.
In grammar school I had my parents drop me off early at a daily Mass. St. Mary’s was a dark cavernous church in a small city. Every weekday morning an ancient priest said a Mass for the Dead, complete with black vestments, women in black shawls, and me. The Mass was in Latin, so I had no idea what was being said. I just liked that quality of stillness. I could sink right into it. Later on, my high school had tiny chapel with yellow walls and bright windows. I’d sneak in to catch a breath of quiet. I was always the only one there.
My mother lived in elder housing which had taken over a nun’s retirement home. The “chapel” gaped larger than many churches and people sat praying (or something) all times of day. I had long since stopped going to Sunday Mass, but I’d sit there briefly, before going to Mom’s apartment, surrounded by statues of saints I’d forgotten.
One evening in Boston I wandered into a chapel hidden below a storefront sidewalk. The smoke of incense drifted in the small room, no doubt drifting there for a few decades. Two women covered in black knelt hunched over in prayer. Above the altar hung a life-size Jesus, bright red paint dripping down his body which writhed in realistic agony.
Suddenly medieval Italy and 1970 Boston co-existed in time and space, and I stood suspended somewhere between. As one of the women began to gather herself together I left, afraid to be dragged into some fifth century Inquisition dungeon and left there. Or maybe I was just embarrassed to be caught touristing on this woman’s sacred place.
Cultivating stillness is a spiritual practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us.”
While this is true, PLACES of stillness, of silence are precious.
I’ve stayed too late at nightclubs, and believe me, nothing is more shocking than 2 a.m. when the lights blare on and the music shuts off. That’s not the kind of quiet I’m talking about. That is more akin to waking from a dream in fairyland and finding out it’s ten years later than when you walked in. An awakening indeed. Especially after a few gin-and-tonics.
Dorothy says later in the chapter: “I have not always felt the richness of life, its sacredness.”
Silence nurtures that awareness.
“We can’t find the peace of silence without stopping.”