The man who broke into a church….

This is an article from the Guardian (not my normal paper of choice, I must confess!). However it is an interesting read about the need for prayer.


The church door had been forced open during the night. The church warden arrived early on Tuesday morning to unlock the place, only to discover the side door already swinging open. Her heart sank. We do have occasional robberies, although since the candlesticks were taken we have little of value left to pinch. And besides the thieving, there is always the threat of vandalism. Windows are often being smashed, and our church hall was deliberately burned down a few years ago – by bored kids, I suspect, although the police have never arrested anyone. So the warden was right to be cautious as she stepped inside.

The first thing she noticed was that all the candles had been lit. And by all, I mean all. The main altar candles, the side altar candles, about 20 or so on the votive candle stand, the one in front of Our Lady, and so on. For a high church establishment such as ours, lighting all the candles is quite an undertaking. The place looked like a John Woo film set. And there, sitting a few pews up from the front, a solitary man sat still. He hadn’t broken in to rob or damage, he had broken in to pray. And judging by the amount of candle wax he burned, he had been there half the night.

They chatted. He apologised for the door. And then left. Later that evening, as the weekly congregation gathered at our properly designated evening prayer time – what some call “organised religion” – we agreed that there was much to admire in a man who had gone to such remarkable lengths simply to get into a church to pray. Call the police? Certainly not – would that more people were so keen to come to church.

“Was he, erm, OK… if you follow?” asked a friend on Twitter. That could have meant anything, of course. But I took her to be asking if he was a bit unstable, unhinged maybe. “Are any of us OK, if you follow?” I replied, deflecting the question. I’m certainly not “OK, if you follow”, and never have been. And maybe that’s why I also need to sit alone in church and pray.

Years ago, when I had the keys to St Paul’s Cathedral, I would frequently sit in there on my own at night. And I do the same now in my bombed-out 1960s community church. Of course you can do it elsewhere, but these are places set aside for it. Here the silence creeps into me, a bit like the cold. Not the silence of empty nothingness but the silence of sitting comfortably with a friend. And into that silence I bring all that is not OK with me.

The chemistry of prayer is the meeting of these two elements: that little surd of hidden desperation that some (most, all?) of us carry around with us, often without owning up to it, and that vast expanse of purposeful silence, the shorthand for which is God. In my experience, these two elements are drawn to each other. And the slow reaction between them is worth breaking into any church to find.

There are various accelerants to this chemical reaction – the repetition of liturgical formulas, even lighting candles. Like all organised religion, this is easy enough to sneer at. But key to the reaction is silence and time. For both of these eat away at our excuses, our false hopes, our lack of reality. Self-serving bullshit doesn’t easily survive the rigours of time and silence. And in this fantasy-busting environment I am lent the courage to open the most defended bits of me to the infinite love of God.

Sorry, this is probably far too religious a thing to say in a secular newspaper. And in a wider culture that has got so used to defending itself with irony and sarcasm. To say what one believes straight up is to break the omertà of collective insincerity – the punishment for which is a rather predictable ridicule.

But for those of us who are “not OK”, we have little choice but to accept this as a consequence. The need for God can be just too strong, overwhelming. And I totally get why someone might break into a church to find it. So, good on him. I hope he found what he was looking for.

Please post a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: