I spent a lot of time sitting in the church while my wife underwent chemotherapy. I would drop her off after her session, put her to bed afterwards, then make my way to the church. I would slip in the back entrance, making sure to avoid anybody who happened to be in the building. I didn’t worry about saying anything or reading anything specific. I picked up no prayer book; I sang no hymns. I did not actively pray in any traditional sense. I would just sit, silently, sometimes for an hour or so.
There is something restorative about being in a sacred space. The ancient world knew this well; Israel had a deep understanding of sacred space. The temple was looked upon as the house of the Lord. It was where God, in a special and unique way, dwelt among the people. When someone felt lost or confused, when they wanted to be in God’s presence, they could sit in the sanctuary of God. This is because the sanctuary was a holy place, a place of divine encounter. For Israel, the temple served as big sign to all who looked for God: “If you want to find me, you can find me here.”
As a priest, I have witnessed myriads of strangers randomly stop by and ask to sit in the church. It happens more than one would think. They sit in silence, and leave in silence, often with some tears in their eyes. And because I give them space, never hovering over them or forcing a conversation, I have always wondered about their story. What drove them to sanctuary?
I now have a better understanding. I get it. Like a child who desperately needs the presence of a parent, sometimes we just need to sit in God’s house.
How do we view the sanctuary of God? Do we define the sanctuary by the activity so often engaged in? Is the sanctuary simply the place to pray, to sing, or to worship? Yet if we only see the church as a place of activity, we will instantly feel that the church is not for us when such activity becomes labored or difficult. It would be like going to a restaurant when we feel sick of stomach. Why go to a place of sacred activity if we can’t bring ourselves to take part in the actions?
The church is a place of encounter. Sitting alone in the church, therefore, can be a freeing experience. It can be a time where we need not concern ourselves with how to act in faith; we simply sit as we are.
To this day, some of my favorite times in the church is when there are no one around. Don’t get me wrong, I love my congregation. The people I worship with every week are graceful, supportive, and kind. Yet there is something about being in an empty church that reminds me that I am surrounded by Jesus’ loving presence. A church without people is still a full church. I sit in the presence of Jesus.
So, if you are discouraged in your faith, try going to church. Please understand what I am saying, I’m not asking you to go and participate in the worship. This isn’t a creative way to suggest that you should attend your local Sunday service. No, if you feel unable to join the company of worshipers on a Sunday morning, then do not force yourself to be there. Sitting in a room full of people singing about the “joy of the Lord” can feel very alienating when you are not in that place. But our inability to join in festive hymns doesn’t deny that the church, as a sacred space, can’t spark life for our weary souls.
What would it look like for you to sit in the sanctuary by yourself? How could you bring that about? It’s quite simple, really. Just drop by your local church and ask to sit in the pews. If you don’t have a home church, simply call up one closest to you. As I said, this happens more often than you might think. You won’t be considered weird, or odd, or out of place. You will be received and welcomed. And you might just have the experience with Jesus you have been longing for.