Living in the city is hazardous to my prayer life.
For about 10 years, my most profound moments with God have occurred in one of two places: the deafening silence of a chapel or the softer quiet of nature.
The city, the beautiful, bustling, loud, vibrant, engaging city, shelters neither of these places. I am privileged to live in Washington, D.C., home not only to our nation’s capitol but also to “Little Rome,” the stretch of North East D.C. dominated by the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (which dominates the skyline of that quadrant of D.C.), the Franciscan Monastery, the USCCB, and a score (or more) of Catholic colleges, universities, seminaries, abbeys, and convents. If you want to settle into a Catholic Bubble, D.C. is the place to be.
But none of these wonderful gifts can help my prayer life. You see, it’s one thing to do Catholic stuff, you know, go to Mass, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, hang out at a bar with your Catholic friends making Catholic jokes, and quite another thing to slow down and shut up long enough to hear God talking to you.
Prayer is more than saying words and doing thinking about God, prayer is devoting time, energy, and attention to the God as the bride in the Song of Songs does to the Beloved: breathless with joy and undistracted by anything else, ready to meditate on, listen to, and rejoice in God as with the perfect Lover.
The city makes any kind of prayer difficult. There is noise everywhere, even in the bowels of the Basilica you can hear the step-step-step of the tourists and the ringing voices of the tour guides. At my home parish, even if my fellow parishioners aren’t chatting in the pews I can still hear cars driving by, see their shadows on the stained glass windows. My little apartment is invaded by noise from outside, the sound of the neighbors, my husband, and my cat. If I try to shut out distractions, more come. The sound of a child outside my door reminds me I wanted to rewatch Up when I’m supposed to be praying the rosary. The constant traffic has me thinking about all the errands I need to run when I should be allowing the Liturgy to carry me through every kind of prayer as I speak of, think about, and consume the Beloved.
The city, in other words, has reinforced the grave error that life is all about me and that the Beloved will be there when I want him.
I am sure the readers of Ignitum Today are well familiar with the Prayer Phenomenon: the more you pray, the better you feel and the better person you become; the less you pray, the worse you feel, and the worse person you become. Living in the city, I could feel myself becoming snappy and viceful, and I was well aware of the reason: I wasn’t praying like I used to.
Perhaps some people can live in the hustle and bustle of city life and still remain intimate with the Beloved. For me, moving to the city was like changing over to a long-distance relationship and calling up God on an old fashioned pay-phone for occasional 10 minute conversations. Not good. I knew I had to get out, but I didn’t know how badly I needed a breath of fresh air—physically and spiritually—until I got to the strawberry field.
Over the summer I’ve been volunteering at a wonderful place called Claggett Farm, helping with the harvest and enjoying the sun, the breeze, and the quiet of the country. Picking strawberries in companionable silence with five other people a few weeks ago, I looked out at the vista of rolling farmland and deep green forests and found myself praising and thanking and petitioning and desiring God so profoundly that my soul could not contain its joy and fell silent, hushed by Love.
Praying in the strawberry field reminded me that the Beloved is not a phone-call away on a payphone, but dwells in my heart and in the world around me, speaking to me above, below, and in the noise of the city. I am grateful He took the time to shout at me in the quiet of the strawberry field, reminding me to listen for His whisper in the commotion of the city.