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I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. The Berlin Wall was never so formidable a barrier as Woodland Avenue which separated the Black neighborhood of the Projects from Murray Hill or “Little Italy” as it was known. Like water and oil the two worlds just did not mix.
However, there was one point of non-violent contact between them, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. The parish straddled both neighborhoods and acted as a kind of membrane through which blacks and whites could occasionally view each other and almost…almost touch a world that was just next door and yet a world away. The parish was overwhelmingly Italian but one could always find African-American faces sprinkled in among the congregation at Sunday services. The Church was neutral territory respected by both sides.
Its doors were always open, unlocked day or night, at midday or midnight. I remember being ten years old and trudging through the deep February snow with my mother late one night to light a candle and say a prayer for my baby brother, who was fighting for his life in the hospital at that moment. Everyone knew that the church would always be open.
I remember the mysterious beauty of the church that night; the quiet, the stillness, and the heavy sense of “presence.” The smiling saints bathed in the flickering glow of red and blue votive lights, the lingering fragrance of incense and bees wax, and out of the corner of your eye, everywhere, the glint and glimmer of gold and polished brass.
For years I always found it to be the same. On campus or in town, you could always find an open church: a quiet oasis of silence in the midst of the busyness and noise of the world. But things have changed. Recently I went looking for an open church here in town and couldn’t find one. Every church was locked. No visiting hours were listed. I wondered, where do people go today to find that place of quiet communion with God…with life…with self?
It’s not very likely that many of us will find that special place in our own homes. Not with dogs, telephones, kids, and televisions. It seems to be getting harder and harder to find those islands of silence and solitude where we have a chance to come face to face with the truth of our lives.
Libraries have become communal baby sitters, elevators and stores bombard us with “Muzak,” and the guy in the next lane seems to be on a mission to share the sublime joys of rap music with any and all. Even the majestic solitudes of our national parks, our country’s natural cathedrals, are now shattered by the sound of gunfire as people cart their personal arsenals into the public parks in the exercise of their Second Amendment Rights.
What we have forgotten is that it is not just the natural beauty of these parks or the artistic grandeur of old churches that inspire us. It is the silence, the blessed, peaceful silence that restores and heals us. Throughout history our ancestors have always known the wisdom of carving out and setting aside public spaces of peace and quiet reflection where the world and all its’ distractions may not trespass.
From a purely practical perspective, these “empty,” “undeveloped” places are a complete waste of resources. But these lonely spaces, churches, temples, gardens, or parks, are a kind of public acknowledgement that human beings have an interior life. That we are not simply robots made of meat.
Call it “spirit” or call it “mind,” it is the transcendent part of us that needs the nourishment of beauty, and silence, as surely as our bodies need food and drink. It is in the “lonely places” where we meet what is most truly human in us.
Night of Churches in Prague – In 2005 the first Long Night of Churches took place in Vienna. Over the next four years this event spontaneously spread throughout Austria and in 2009 it crossed the border.
“Slope,” by Mike Shell. North of Ashville, NC, along the Blue Ridge Parkway (7/10/2012)