From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Where do you go “inside” to pray? A few days ago, I was standing inside a line at a Safeway pharmacy, waiting my turn to pick up meds for a family member. The line was moving very slowly and I was in a hurry. Choice #1: get frustrated and impatient. Choice #2: observe people and pray. I decided #2 was more interesting, and so I spent the next 20 minutes “from inside” the line praying to the Lord my God, praying for people who walked by.
Every day, we find ourselves inside somewhere: inside a car heading somewhere, inside a room doing something, inside a string of thoughts wondering what to think next, inside a book imagining, inside a website searching, inside a conversation, inside a cup of coffee trying to wake up . . .
Life looks different from the inside looking out than it does from the outside looking in. Gothic cathedrals enlighten this simple truth. The inside is bigger and more beautiful than the outside. From the outside, a gothic cathedral is a marvel. But you are looking at the skeleton and the bones of the building and the great roses are dark and lifeless. But when we step inside, we stretch our neck towards to vaulted ceiling soaring above and we’re filled with wonder. We are looking at the soul of the space, and the great rose windows flood our lives with beauty and glory. This is a place designed for prayer, for praying inside.
Jonah’s prayer place is a bit more cramped than a gothic cathedral. I’m not claustrophobic, and have no problem crawling into a small closed place to pray. I knew a child once who created a prayer room out of her little closet. She’d go inside her closet to pray inside. The word “claustrophobia” comes from two ancient words: phobia—fear; claustrum—enclosure.
1500 years ago, St Benedict designed his prayer place with this second word in mind: an enclosure, a claustrum, or cloister. Most Benedictine monasteries have a cloister garden, an enclosed place of beauty designed for prayer on the inside. You cannot see these cloisters from the driveway. You have to go inside. There on the inside, around the cloister garden, is a covered walkway, most often square or rectangular in shape, with arches opening out onto the garden. This design allows a person to walk and pray inside while at the same time enjoy fresh air, looking out upon a beautiful garden. This is what happens when our souls pray: we go inside, close the door, and pray to our Father in secret (Matthew 6:6). In so doing, we open our hearts to look out with compassion upon the world, to care for others, and bring them before God’s loving presence.