Michelle Francl-Donnay

Michelle Francl-Donnay

“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you’” (Mark 1:35-37).

Next week, they are tearing down the wall of the building 20 feet away from my office. Last month they were using jackhammers to remove the terrace underneath my window. It’s been a bit noisy in my office, to say the least, and likely to get noisier. So, in the absence of students and classes to teach, I have fled to the hills, literally.

I’m writing this from my temporary office in the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vatican — now housed in the papal gardens in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. My desk is tucked up under the eaves of what was once a cloistered convent for Basilian nuns, renovated for the Specola’s quarters in 2009 when the nuns moved next door.

The quiet here is almost as deafening as the jackhammers at home. I can hear the papal roosters crowing, the burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, and the traffic brushing past the walls that separate the Holy See from Italy, but no one is knocking on my door asking if I know when they will tear out the classroom down the hall or if I’ve thought about curriculum planning for the spring yet. I can work in peace.

Working at Specola is, to use C.S. Lewis’ image, much like praying on a train: “[T]here is just the right amount of distraction.” Not so quiet that my to-do list dances in my head, not so noisy that I can’t hear what creation and the Creator have to share this morning.

I often long for the perfect spot to pray, to go off like Jesus walking long before dawn into the hills to be with his Father in silence and solitude. But perhaps what I need more than the occasional retreat is to learn to find the spots where I can pray with “just the right amount of distraction.”

Even Jesus did not remain hidden away, but returned with Simon and his disciples to tend to the needs of others. So, too, I need to catch the moments between meetings to look toward God, to take a few minutes to sit in the piazza’s late afternoon buzz and pray.

In finding these pockets of space and time, I’m practicing tuning my ears to the murmur of God at work in all things and at all times, even when the walls are falling around me.

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To read: Try C.S. Lewis’ “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.” Malcolm is fictional, but Lewis’ letters are delightfully wise and witty, with much to say about prayer in the midst of daily life.

To pray: From John O’Donohue’s “Blessing for one who is exhausted”

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.

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Michelle Francl-Donnay is a parishioner at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory.