IF, as a result of the vagaries of the academic timetable at the theological college, I am unable to cycle back to the priory in time to attend the daily Conventual Mass, I instead stroll down the few blocks that separate our university campus from St Patrick’s Cathedral and attend Mass there.
On certain days of the week, I am able to arrive early enough to pray the rosary before Mass begins, and join those members of the faithful scattered throughout the pews of the central nave who are kneeling in prayer.
Recently, on one such occasion, I observed something rather striking.
As the Cathedral is essentially closed to tourists during Mass, often the only people I encounter strolling across the marble tiles are people scurrying to take their seats before the introductory rites are intoned.
But if I arrive early enough, the last of the tour groups is still wandering between the carved columns and assessing, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy, the claim found in the guidebook; that they are perusing, “one of the finest examples of neo-gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere”.
Many of these tourists appear to originate from countries where Catholicism is a minority religion – possibly even a persecuted religion.
And this is reflected in their demeanour when they first enter the Cathedral; they stroll around “with an independent air” as though there were in a place no different from the Bois de Boulogne to which the popular music hall song refers.
Yet, over time, the atmosphere of prayerful silence has its own effect; they lower their voices or cease speaking all together.
On this particular occasion, there was a young Chinese man among the tour group; he seemed about my age, which I suppose makes him young-ish.
Having concluded my rosary shortly beforehand I was simply kneeling in the pew – observing the passing parade – and I had occasion to notice this young man in particular over the course of his peregrination around the Cathedral.
Entering through the side door he passed before the sanctuary without so much as a thought or glance, before continuing on his exploration of that vaulted edifice to nineteenth-century piety.
Yet his circuit of the Cathedral seemed to induce some change in him.
He walked around the nave and saw the scattered faithful kneeling in their pews; all intently focused upon the sanctuary, or at least facing in that direction with faces expressive of attentive awareness.
He noticed other people genuflect or bow before the tabernacle or altar before joining the growing crowd of people saying a few prayers in the pews before Mass.
He observed the silence of the gathering assembly; they were not slapping each other on the back or making loud enquiries about the latest horse race at Caulfield.
The effect of all these various manifestations of prayer was made apparent when he was obliged to walk past the sanctuary a second time.
He paused before he had to cross before the sacred space, glanced at all the kneeling people who were facing his direction, and made a concerted effort to shrink himself as he quickly passed before the altar – his head was evidently bowed as he meekly paced from one side of the nave to the other.
When compared with his first crossing of the same space, the transformation was remarkable.
And all the more so because no one had told him to do it.
He had simply been made aware by the attitude of the Catholic parishioners in the cathedral that the space in which he was moving was a place of intense, prayerful focus; that he was walking on “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
He may even have been struck with the notion that the world is indeed, “charged with the grandeur of God” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote.
That transformation in the manner and – hopefully – thought of a single, young-ish Chinese tourist is worthy of our reflection.
After all, the entire event is beautifully expressive of a hallmark of Christian life; our prayer should draw others to prayer and to God.
I know of a cloistered Discalced Carmelite nun in the Carmel at Ormiston who recounts a similar story regarding her own vocation.
When this venerable lady was a young woman in her twenties she used to work in the central business district in Brisbane.
After finishing at the office for the day, she would often visit the perpetual adoration chapel at Villa Maria.
On one such occasion, she was struck by something that she had not seen before.
Upon opening the doors and entering into the chapel, she saw before her three friars, kneeling in the pews, praying silently before the Blessed Sacrament.
All she could see was the back of their heads and their habits; but their attitude of prayer was so attentive, so immersed, that she could not help but be moved by it.
In fact, she was so taken by the sight that she was drawn to ponder what God’s call upon her life might be.
That is what all prayer should do.
All our prayer, whether kneeling in silence before the Blessed Sacrament or before the beginning of Mass, whether reciting the rosary or chanting the Divine Office, whether genuflecting during the stations of the cross or meditating in the pews, should be so evocative of the deepest truths of our faith that those who see us or hear us in prayer are arrested in their steps and drawn to contemplation of things divine.
Our attitude at prayer ought to exude our profound, Catholic, incarnational intuition of the spiritual reality that is overwhelmingly present.
Our intense awareness of the ineffable is something that ought to be visibly manifest, not simply in our attitude at prayer, but in our whole lives.
It is this that will perhaps draw those people to the idea of God who would otherwise resist mention of the topic.
Our prayerful attitude throughout our whole lives, in everything we do, might help people to realise – as it apparently helped our young-ish Chinese friend and our venerable Discalced sister – that Dante Alighieri wrote true when he penned the Paradiso.
That with us all – supporting us in the palm of His hand – is “the Love which moves the sun and all the other stars”.