In my life, retreats have been important to break away from the busyness and noise of my suburban world. But taking a full weekend away is difficult to schedule, which means that I have to find places of retreat near my house.
Having learned the need for solitude in my life, I’ve assembled a mental map of quiet places to pray in Knoxville and East Tennessee. I’ve grouped these places according to driving distances, depending on how much time I have. I’ve got a good shortlist of locations within 10 minutes, 30 minutes, and an hour’s drive.
One recent Saturday night, I needed the refuge of God’s stillness, but I didn’t have time to drive far. It had been a crazy week of phone calls, emails and conversations and I wanted all of that to fade away. I visited the local Catholic church, which is open for prayer 24 hours a day. Within ten minutes I was seated in the pews, beginning to pray the Jesus Prayer, focusing on my breathing, and seeking the voice of the Spirit. And then came the sound of an electric bass…
I wasn’t sure what I was hearing and I tried to block out the distractions, focusing on breathing and the Jesus Prayer. But then the lead vocals and electric guitar joined the bass and drums and I’m thinking, ‘this can’t be happening right now. Not even a Catholic church is safe from noise?’
At this point in my frustration, I begin jumping to conclusions, wondering why the Catholic church has rented out their space on a Saturday night for a teenage garage band to rehearse. But then I hear a tune I recognize, not the gritty distortion of teenage indie rock. I’m trying to center my thoughts in prayer when the vocals of imitation Neil Diamond rudely demand my attention. All while I’m seated next to Station VII in the Stations of the Cross.
Instead of hearing the voice of the Spirit, I hear the lead vocalist belting out, ‘Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good!’ I wish that my first thought wasn’t ‘the guy’s singing flat,’ but that thought was totally involuntary. My next thought was, ‘I love hearing this at Fenway Park, but I just want to pray right now.’
I had hoped that the band’s rehearsal would soon be ended, but now I put the pieces together that this was no rehearsal and this wasn’t ending soon. My prayer time was officially under siege. I was in Wedding Band Purgatory. Dear God, save me. I moved to the prayer chapel adjacent to the altar. I moved to the front right candle prayer station. I moved to the back right pews near Station XIV. There was literally nowhere to sit in the Cathedral where this throbbing bass and drums could not be heard. There was no sanctuary within the sanctuary.
Instead of leaving in frustration, I did my best to pray anyway. I returned to praying Scripture phrases and the Jesus Prayer with moderate success. But it was only a matter of time before I heard Van Morrison’s tired, worn-out-by-wedding-singers tune, Brown-Eyed Girl. How do I center myself with this playlist and the lead vocals constantly singing flat in the background?
I wish I could block out environmental noise during prayer, but it’s not easy for me. I wish I could be in prayer like many athletes who block out thousands of people standing and yelling in the stands. I wish I could be an athlete in prayer.
And then it occurred to me why the Spirit had drawn me here this particular Saturday night. He drew me into this sacred, yet noisy space precisely to teach me how to pray in a world filled with distractions. If I only pray in ideal conditions, I will rarely pray at all. If I only practice silence when the environment is right, I’ll never learn how to practice solitude with Christ in my heart.
When the Spirit opened my eyes to what he was teaching me, my frustration transformed into a strange sort of gratitude. I became grateful the Spirit drew me into this noisy, contested, sacred space. He is training me to be an athlete in prayer and he’s showing me how out of shape I am in spirit. I’m entirely a novice at praying with noise—of lawn mowers mowing, people speaking loudly, and lead singers singing flat. My frustration usually gets the better of me and I give up too soon, allowing the distractions to prevail. And this is exactly what the Enemy of God wants: for me to cease in prayer. The Spirit is training me to overcome the Enemy’s use of distractions so that I become more resilient within this world that so heavily resists prayer.
I’m thankful for spiritual teachers such as Martin Laird who have taught me to acknowledge the distractions and continuing praying. Instead of boxing the thoughts and distractions in mind, sight, or hearing, I simply return to the Name of Jesus. I may not achieve a completely focused, prayerful mind or heart, but the Spirit is training me to become centered in Christ when everything else competes for my attention.
After 45 minutes, I couldn’t take the 80s hits playlist any longer. I had enough and went home. Stepping out of the cathedral, I learned the Catholics were absolved from booking a wedding band on their property. It was the Protestant church across the street instead.
Leaving the church that night, I realized that God had not required me to achieve total focus in prayer. He invited me to the turn to the Name of Jesus when distractions abound. I become a more resilient athlete in prayer that Saturday night.
You can be sure that I’ll go to the mountains soon enough where wedding singers nor lawn mowers can enter in. But I’m not waiting to retreat to the mountains to seek the Lord in silence. Silence is a Person more than an environment. To paraphrase a story from Martin Laird, ‘Jesus Christ is my monastery.’* Jesus Christ is my inner sanctuary even when the outer sanctuary is surrounded by noise.
*Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, 137.