|My precious friend on the steps of the Grotto|
The retreat center was so quiet. All the hums of modern life were muted or completely absent. The house sat far enough off the secondary road that even the passing of cars was not heard. When I woke up in the mornings the only, only, thing I could hear was a bird that sat right outside my window. This silence had weight and volume.
As we moved across the grounds we fell into this silence. We did not talk in whispers, but the volume of our voices was subdued. Gentle and easy.
Near the Prayer Labyrinth there was a structure: a grotto. I was intrigued. It was a building created of craggy, rough stones that were dirt gray, irregular shaped and pumice-like. No two stones were alike.
We walked up the steps and opened the door. Inside was a sanctuary. The structure was hollow and rose perhaps twenty-five feet at its center. I thought of the beehive huts of the monks on Skellig Michael* in Ireland. The deepest roots of me must have recognized this because I could have spent a long stretch of time in this rocky hive.
In the center was a small niche with a door. A metal door with an embossed communion cup on its surface. I am such a curious soul. I have to touch and look and peer into and at everything (this amuses my husband tremendously). This was no exception. I opened the door. My friend was taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere of the grotto just as I was, but there were very few words. Only the weighty silence.
I was not sure what I would find when I opened the door of the niche. My initial thought was that I would find communion: a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. Incongruent, but it was my thought. I think that is what I would have put there if this grotto had been in my backyard.
I opened the door and what I found was so unexpected. This was my first experience in a grotto. Perhaps this is what is always in a niche of a grotto, I don’t know. The niche was filled with paper. Prayers. Prayers written on ripped paper plates, crumpled napkins and torn sheets of notebook paper. Prayers written in Spanish and English. Paragraphs. Sentences. Words.
I turned away to study the rest of the interior of the grotto, but several times I returned to the prayer niche.
The foreshadowing of a revelation began to form while I stood in that hushed cool place. I could feel it on the edges of my spirit, on the perimeter of my spiritual awareness.
It wasn’t until later that I understood and the revelation became manifest to me. It wasn’t until we were in the local Wal-greens printing the photos that the foreshadowing began to have substance. And the image emerged.
When I previewed the photo of my friend standing on the steps of the grotto I understood.
Peter tells us in his first letter that as we come to him (Jesus), the Living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. *
The next day we walked the grounds one more time. I stopped in front of the grotto. In a far deeper and greater way I understood that we are stones, living stones, being placed into the Body of Christ—this spiritual house God is building. All through the ages from Adam and Eve onward, God has been building—laying foundations and then walls to build the Body of Christ. And at the center of this spiritual house, of this structure we call the Body, is prayer.
Prayer, this communion with the Father, is the secret, quiet and desperate place at the heart of this spiritual house. In houses of old the hearth was the center. The fire in the fireplace was essential for warmth, for light and for preparation of meals. And when the fire went out often people would go to the neighbors for live coals to restart their own fires.
This is prayer: lighting the fire for our neighbor.
The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples of Pentecost as tongues of fire. Through prayer we are united, through prayer we are connected both to each other and the Father. Through prayer we are made aware and brought awake, through prayer we are changed and through prayer we are transformed.
We are called to pray. As the Body of Christ, as living stones, we are called to be a royal priesthood. The priesthood stood before God on behalf of the people they represented. Collectively and individually we are called to prayer. We don’t understand what it means to be priests. We have often reduced this communion to duty, tradition and obligation. Our prayers become rote formulas instead of passionate intercession for others. We pray generically. We pray hesitantly. We pray passively. We pray awkwardly.
Because we are afraid we are going to get it wrong.
I looked at the prayers in the grotto niche. I saw them and I read the words. They did not get it wrong.
The prayers in the niche were sighings and longings cried in the dark. Cried in the prayer closet. The prayers were spiritual sacrifices. Our God said if we call on him and pray to him he will listen. We don’t have to get it right. The Spirit will do that for us. Peter said that these sacrifices will be acceptable through Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus they will be acceptable. And Jesus is the living Stone, the Cornerstone, of this spiritual house.
We are the grotto. And at the center of us is the niche. And the niche should be a place of fire.
2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV
I Peter 2:4-5