Praying silently in a quiet church can be a deeply rewarding experience of prayer. However, it is not always possible to find silence in a church. Depending on the plans and needs of others, there may be people walking in and out, sight-seeing, having conversations right outside the door, preparing for a wedding or baptism they are planning for later in the day, or just unfamiliar with the silence expected by others in a church when Mass is not in progress.
This post is a collection of thoughts on how to pray silently in a noisy church:
1. Accept distracted prayer as God's will for the present moment. Keep in mind the words of Abbot John Chapman, that we should "wish for exactly the state God wishes me to be in, whether it means distractions, or discouragements, or sleepiness, or merely emptiness. Nothing matters but God's Will; and we do not want simply God's Will, if we are really dissatisfied with what we get from Him." (Abbot John Chapman, Spiritual Letters). When God gives us distracted prayer, it is best to pray the prayer that God has given rather than be further distracted by wishing the distractions would stop or wondering whether to complain.
2. Be careful about posture in order to avoid the additional distractions that poor posture can create. A good prayer posture is one that takes one's attention off of the body to make it easier to concentrate on prayer. A straight back, hands in your lap palms up or palms down, both feet on the floor, can all reduce the distractions that we impose on ourselves.
3. Relaxation exercises for a few moments can also calm our bodies amid distractions and prepare us to relax. See the exercises for preparing to pray from pray-as-you-go.org for some suggestions.
4. Recognize that if you can bond with a friend and listen to a friend in a noisy place, then you can bond with God and listen to God despite noise. You may not find the same depth in prayer as you had hoped for, but that does not mean the time is wasted. It may become a time to imagine Christ as present beside you and to speak to Him as to a friend.
5. Plan for other unexpected distractions that may come to mind, especially when there is difficulty concentrating. Keep a pen and paper near at hand. If thoughts come to mind of things you need to do at home, write them down quickly, and set the paper aside. That may keep the same thought from returning again.
6. Plan for those disruptions that you know will happen so that they will be no more disruptive than necessary. For example, if you know that you have to leave to go do something else at a specific time, check your mobile phone settings to see whether it is possible to set a minimally distracting alert (such as one short beep at a very low volume level or a flashing light without sound) at a specific time, while still silencing any telephone calls. If so, you can plan ahead for the reminder for when it is time to end your prayer instead of looking at your watch.
7. Recognize that others may benefit from watching you pray. Think of times in your past when you have noticed someone by simply the way they knelt in a pew or the way they held a rosary, and realize that such small things may be a consolation to others as well. Remember the story told by the Curé d'Ars about the impression made by the sight of a peasant who regularly prayed before the Blessed Sacrament in a church ("Oh! how I loved to see that! I asked him once what he said to Our Lord during the long visits he made Him. Do you know what he told me? 'Eh, Monsieur le Curé, I say nothing to Him, I look at Him and He looks at me!' How beautiful, my children, how beautiful!").
8. Pray for those who attract your attention during that time. There is no need to look up. The sound of another person's feet or voice may tell you they are in a hurry, stressed, depressed, elderly, or sick. Even if you do not know their needs, God does. Let them become a part of your prayer instead of a distraction from it.
9. Be prepared with a thought or Scripture for meditation. If the church becomes noisy, you can go to that meditation, thinking about the day's Gospel reading for Mass or a specific work of art in the church, and then when the church grows silent again, return to a less cerebral form of being in the presence of God, listening. If the church grows noisy again, go back to your meditation. If you have planned for it in advance, it will seem less disruptive.
10. Remember that the distraction is only for now. There will be silence later.