I came into the Church nineteen years ago. In the preceding years, working as a lawyer, I’d sought, wept, read widely.
But maybe the best thing I did was that I started ducking into churches to pray. If you are really seeking, and really conflicted, and really troubled by the emptiness of the world, a church with an open door is a very big deal.
It was the open door of St. Basil’s, in Koreatown, that beckoned me to my first real Mass, at noon on a weekday.
I tell the story in Redeemed:
“I remember a bronze statue of someone who appeared to be a robed lunatic looming in the foyer: this, I later learned, was St. Paul. I remember pushing open the doors to the sanctuary and being afraid “they’d” know I wasn’t Catholic and would kick me out. I remember the way the light shone like honey on the teakwood pews, not knowing whether or how to genuflect, not being able to follow along in the missallette. I remember instinctively understanding that here was consecrated time, consecrated space; that the people who had come to worship in the middle of the day, who were kneeling, standing, praying, were part of a parallel universe that intersected with eternity.
But mostly I remember seeing Christ on the cross above the altar. I’d been seeing images of the crucified Christ all my life, but I’d never seen one in the context of Mass—of this mystery, this ritual. And I didn’t exactly have a burning bush experience, but it pretty much stopped me cold. St. Basil’s has a beautiful 4th-century Tuscan crucifix, and as I gazed up at Christ, his head drooping towards his breast, everything in me wanted to move towards him: to comfort him, to touch him, to be near. I saw he’d come to address the deepest mystery of humankind—the mystery of suffering. I saw that like us, he was in pain and he wasn’t sure why, whether it would ever end, or what it was for. I saw he wasn’t saying we were supposed to suffer extra; he was acknowledging the suffering we were already in.”
At the time I did not know a single practicing Catholic—another reason why those open doors were a Godsend. Now that I know lots of Catholics, I may need those open doors even more.
In The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of her time as a young girl at the local abbey school:
“I didn’t have, like the other former students, a teacher friend with whom I could go spend several hours. . . . Nobody paid attention to me, so I went up to the gallery of the chapel, and I remained before the Blessed Sacrament until the time when Papa would come to get me. This was my only comfort: Wasn’t Jesus my only Friend?”
That Jesus is our Friend at all may be the central Christian mystery.
That God took on a human body, heart, voice, face, opens the way to an intimacy that, with our fear of vulnerability, is almost unbearable.
We could ponder for all of Lent a single passage from John’s Gospel: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” [John 15: 12-15].
Jesus also tells us, But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you [Matthew 6:6]. If our “room” is sometimes a sanctuary, or a chapel, so much the better.
Shortly after moving to my new neighborhood in Pasadena, I came across St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church on North Lake Avenue in Altadena. I discovered that the side chapel where daily Mass is said, through a courtyard with roses and a beautiful old fountain, is generally open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 9 at night, and on weekends from 10 a.m. until 2:30.
I often make my way on foot to that blessed space with its whitewashed walls and old-school Stations of the Cross, a red candle burning beside the tabernacle. I often say Evening Prayer there, alone.
In silence, I realize how tired I am and think: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
In solitude I realize all over again, Isn’t Jesus my only Friend?
I know that not every church, especially in the inner city, has the resources to leave its doors open all day. But what a blessed gift we receive from the churches that can.
Thérèse of Lisieux was once asked what she said to Jesus when she prayed. She thought for a minute, then replied: “I don’t say much of anything. I just love Him.”