Open for Prayer

By Paul Westermeyer

When I was in college, a nearby church was open 24/7 for private prayer and meditation. For reasons of size, staffing, and design, not all churches could provide this opportunity, but I had learned by that time that there were churches in almost every community that could and did provide it. I also had learned it was not a new thing. The church has always been a place for sanctuary and prayer.

Not everybody in the church used this opportunity, and there is no reason why everybody should have. The number of people who used it was a pretty small percentage (though probably larger than one may think), but it became clear to me that it was important to those who did use it. It served the church and the world in a hospitable and welcoming way. It gave a much-needed pause for spiritual refreshment to anyone who sought it not only regularly—which some did — but also those who used it only once, or once in a while. Though tours in cathedrals have tended to turn churches into museums, even there tourists are told to respect those who are praying.

“Open for prayer” has gradually stopped. I found one church that reversed it with barbed wire and No Trespassing signs. At a church that was unlocked, a person blocked the door and told me I was only welcome to enter during service times. I have wondered more and more what this signifies. The Covid pandemic has made it more difficult than ever to keep churches open, of course, but closed churches are not only a result of the pandemic. In addition to the pandemic restrictions, security and safety concerns are a cause in normal times. So are our transportation and living arrangements. There are more cars, and people often live too far away from churches to walk quickly and easily to them.

None of these factors should be minimized, but is the importance of statistical tabulations that propel our market-driven economy also a cause, and maybe even the primary one? I would question whether it is a legitimate one. Is anything used by a few people by definition of questionable value? Should the personal prayer and meditation that arise from the church’s communal worship be controlled by the empire’s economy and popular opinion? Should the church provide a place for private prayer whether or not it is profitable and popular?

Of course we can pray in our closets, bedrooms, and kitchens; but there is value in offering places of retreat in or near (as in a prayer chapel) the sacred spaces where the body of Christ gathers communally around Word, Font, and Table with the cloud of witnesses and the iconography that’s there. Do statistics really matter? Or is the gathering of two or three in Christ’s name more important?

A much larger question lies beneath the surface, a question about the relationship between private prayer, common prayer, and the common good with its justice. I do not mean to suggest that nobody in the church cares about these matters. Clearly, there are those who do. I only wonder if we as the church generally have neglected questions like this, and whether closed churches are a symptom of this neglect. Have we separated private prayer and justice into isolated entities, minimizing their importance by pulling them out of their natural habitat in the rainbow of God’s grace and mercy?

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Paul Westermeyer is Emeritus Professor of Church Music and Cantor at Luther Seminary where he directed the Master of Sacred Music degree program with St. Olaf College. His life’s work has been devoted to church music and the role of the church musician. His writing includes Te Deum: The Church and MusicThe Church Musician, and the Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

10 comments

  1. I used to frequently go into our church for private prayer since it is very near where I work. We used to have to lock up the church in the month of October because there always seemed to be some vandalism as we approached Halloween. In recent years, growing concern about safety given some changes in the neighborhood have lead to the church now being closed all the time except for services. It is a loss but I also understand the concern for safety.

  2. This article touched a chord with me. There is something about being in an empty church or chapel that really opens up a kind of sacred space in one’s own heart and spirit, even when there’s no particular agenda one brings to the moment. It’s sad to lose that. It makes me lament the driven, practical mindset that spoils our ability to just “be” — one always has to be doing something, and be seen to be doing something useful and productive.

    Quietly sitting alone in a sacred space is often in fact productive, spiritually. This past weekend in Give Us This Day there was a reflection by Catherine de Heuck Doherty that may be relevant here. “Difficulties will abound. Trials will dwell with us constantly. Little pressures and big pressures will encompass us with their eternal demands… These things will happen, but if our soul remains in its cell of peace, dwelling at the feet of the Prince of Peace, all this will be as if it were not, for peace is the fruit of charity, and nothing can penetrate that cell unless we let it.”

  3. A few summers ago, while visiting the parish of the Conventual Franciscans in Syracuse (with whom I had done a year of post-grad service ’99-00), I was struck by their hospitality within their church sanctuary. During the hot months of summer (and I presume the cold winter days), they opened their sanctuary during parish office hours so people who needed to cool off could do so in their sanctuary. They offered bottles of water, snacks, silence and AC. There was a staff member working quietly in the back of the sanctuary in case someone was needed. The effect was beautiful, quiet and reverent – those who needed a safe space, cool air and/or nourishment could have those. But there was also the occasional person who wanted to sit quietly in a church. It took the staffing (I assume by volunteers and Franciscans) to keep it going, but it was beautiful. I suspect this worked because it was in an urban neighborhood, and there were pedestrians to take advantage of the opportunity.

    As a lay Catholic who doesn’t know all the rules, perhaps this was breaking one rule or another. But I couldn’t help but feel that this felt like a church that felt open and welcoming to all of God’s people, even those on the margins.

  4. I worked as a church secretary where the office was in a repurposed vestry space in the church. The first thing I did when arriving for work each day was to open the door and put out the welcome sign. And at the end of the day — bringing in the welcome sign and locking up. The office itself wasn’t visible within the church, but an array of cameras meant the whole place could be seen from the office. We only had one incident with someone trying to light a fire in the five years I worked there, and it was quickly dealt with by a friendly approach to the person.
    Being able to open the building brought the privilege of hospitality and pastoral presence. There was a fair share of the usual drifters and wanderers that come in the inner city, along with people coming with more complex needs. Having instant hot water and an endless supply of tea and coffee meant we gave a supportive place to those looking for help. Those conversations often helped to identify the best place to refer onward, and established a sense of security for the person seeking help to feel valued.
    And yes — sometimes people sat down and meditated, prayed, or enjoyed the play of light on the walls. The greatest privilege was to hold the space open for people to simply come and rest in the sacred place.

  5. Great essay. Aside from profit and popularity, there are other considerations that close or open doors.

    Women and older people make up most of the population of church staffs these days. Not all feel at ease with potential dangers. Years ago at the university parish, an unconscious student was found in the baptismal font one morning. Even white males can be scary when they’ve been drinking.

    Business managers get tired of calling in for cleaning or repairs or to deal with a misbehaving guest. They ask, why are we open when nobody is here to monitor? Sometimes practicality wins the day.

    We do PR on our Christmas and Easter Masses, but do we think of advertising for that quiet moment of prayer? Not so much, I think.

    My new parish has land for a new church building, but it remains undeveloped and occasionally raided for firewood and ATV fun. I’m not sure our sign stating, “No trespassing; violators will be prosecuted” is the right message to send. I suggested: “Church property. Feel free to walk on our land and say a prayer for what’s on your mind. If you are a non-believer, offer a thought for peace and unity.”

    I think each church would do well to have staff and interested parishioners walk up from different streets, and drive in from other directions. What do you see? How are you drawn in if you had no idea what this building was? When you walk in the door, where would you go? What would appeal to you? I think we “professionals” can be very much in a rut. And after all, I have keys, so I can pray there whenever I want.

    What an excellent discussion for parishes.

    1. FWIW, an invitation for people to enter means legal liability for maintaining the property against injuring those people. It’s the boring American torts law reality likely behind the no-trespass signage (also a way to control people from bringing weaponry onto the property).

      1. Sure; I can see that. I’m not prepared to argue against the likely legal reality. But it is inherently antigospel. By all means, let’s protect our land and buildings and bank accounts. But let’s recognize that stance runs contrary to a Christian view and admit it openly.

      2. Totally agree with you.

        The ways of the New Creation are not the same was the ways of the old one. But because people – being human – don’t like to carry the cognitive dissonance of Now/Not Yet in the front of their consciousness, people tend to toggle it away. But it’s resisting that and carrying that dissonance more actively in our consciousness that’s part of how the Spirit moves among us.

  6. I am the priest of a parish in Kent, England. As a suburban church with attached office and ancillary room, and with many dog walkers passing, we are able safely to open. So many people drop in. Some do so very regularly without – as far as I know – worshipping with us or other local churches. During covid lockdown when people were not allowed in church we turned out porch into a chapel – it was well used and appreciated.

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