By Michelle Francl-Donnay

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? – Ps. 24:3

A few weeks ago I was multi-tasking away in the kitchen: sorting through school forms, responding to student email, organizing the week’s dinners, drilling Latin vocabulary, all while a pot of chicken stock simmered on the stove.

For a moment, I felt like Tommy, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” pulling levers and snapping flippers, while lights flashed and bells rang and glittering silver balls danced around the machine. I’m just racking up points. Four for figuring out a tough Latin cognate, two for dinners using up leftovers. How do you think she does it?

The game is seductive. How many points can I collect before a ball misses its mark and it all ends with an obnoxious honk and a flashing “Game Over?” I end up bouncing tasks off a multitude of bumpers, each item dispatches with a neat quick flick of my pen, though no lights flash or bells ring to advertise the win. It’s definitely all in the wrist.

As crazed and demanding as the ongoing pinball game of my life is at times, it’s hard to ignore the comfort that conquering a well circumscribed set of tasks and clear goals brings. It gets tempting to shortchange my prayer time in favor of getting one last task completed or catching a few extra minutes of sleep, the better to tackle the list tomorrow.

But being productive in prayer, as Father Henri Nouwen points out, requires the commitment of unproductive time: “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.” It takes more than a bit of discipline, humility and courage to spend time with God, and God alone. Without multi-tasking.

In his reflection “The Answer of Silence,” Jesuit Father Karl Rahner sounds a similarly bold call to abandon what seems to be most urgent, and seek God: “Have the courage to be alone.” This is practical advice he is offering, no mere rhetorical device: seek out a quiet path or a lonely church; find a room where you can be alone; wherever you go, he says, go!

Once there, wait. Silently. Don’t talk to yourself, or even to God. Just wait. Just listen. Patiently. Without expectations. And courageously. For this takes courage beyond measure.

What might we see, alone with our God, standing in His holy places? Ourselves – and each other – as we truly are, cracked and broken and glorious and beloved of God? God, mysterium tremendum et fascinans? God within us, and without?

And most frighteningly of all, what if we hear nothing? In Colum McCann’s novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” the monk Corrigan tells his brother that his prayer has been reduced to the point where there are no words on either part, his or God’s. He is sure only of this: “God listens back.”

I’m still learning to be unproductive in prayer, still practicing how to listen patiently in stillness and solitude. No lights blink, no buzzers sound, there are no points to be counted. Success lies only in going – faithfully, quietly and alone – to stand in His holy place. The place where God listens with me.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
– John O’Donohue, from “For One Who is Exhausted

Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: