‘Stay awake with me’

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Many elements of the two small rooms are the same. The freshly cut flowers, lit candles, religious artwork and the sound of silence. The altars, one of dark wood, the other a bright white and gold, each hold a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament exposed. Both have statues of angels on either side of the monstrance, as if reverently guarding the host. And in the perpetual adoration chapels at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester and St. Agnes Church in Arlington, there are men and women constantly praying in front of the Eucharist.

Late on a Tuesday night, six adorers are in the St. Agnes chapel. Some kneel, meditating with rosaries or reading spiritual books; others sit with their eyes closed and heads bowed.

Theresa Lowell, a parishioner of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, began coming to adoration last year, in part to help her decide which graduate school to attend.

Rochelle Marsh used to hand out sandwiches to the homeless, but now her illness keeps her from the streets. Instead, the Our Lady, Queen of Peace parishioner uses that time to pray for the sick and poor at Adoration.

Tony Bennett, a new seminarian for the diocese, visits the chapel on trips home from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. As he spent time in adoration over the past three years, Bennett said he heard the Lord saying to him, "Spend time with me, waste time with me."

Though a cherished ministry for the four churches with perpetual adoration in the diocese - St. Agnes, Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge and St. Michael Church in Annandale - finding adorers around the clock is no easy task. At both Sacred Heart and St. Agnes, the hours after midnight are the most difficult to fill. In the 20 years he's been an adorer at Sacred Heart, Virginia State Police officer Jeff Zirkle said there have been times when he feared they wouldn't be able to keep it perpetual.

"I think it's a reflection of the times, a hectic pace (that has increased) over the years," he said.

Zirkle enjoys the solitude. "It's a very intimate relationship with no one else to watch, and you can speak your heart out loud if you want," he said. "I originally signed up at a tough hour (2 a.m. on Wednesdays) because I wanted to make it difficult to come and see Jesus; I felt as though that was a special thing that I could give to Him. And then what I got was this great gift of being alone with Him, to be able to have that relationship, just Him and I."

Greg King, the adoration coordinator at St. Agnes who works in network security for the government, takes a shift at 3 a.m. on Sunday mornings to help him prepare for the Sunday liturgy.

"Jesus waits for us 24/7 so it's a very sweet duty to be able to sit with Him and adore," he said. "I often say that the hardest part is hearing the alarm go off, but then once I'm there and on my knees, it's the happiest time of my life."

The first moment of adoration is when the priest lifts the host and says the words of consecration at Mass, explained King. The adoration that begins at Mass continues when the consecrated host is exposed in a monstrance for people to adore.

"We realize that heaven meets earth at that moment, and then that very special moment is still available to us in the chapel," King said.

Those who have been adorers late at night for many years understand best the beauty of the chapel being open at all hours of the day. "I can't tell you the number of times that I've gotten a call (in the middle of the night) from someone who wants to get in the chapel," said King. "Months or years later you find out, 'Yeah, that night you let me in the chapel was the night I returned to the church.' Or you come to the chapel in the middle of the night, and you find someone kneeling and crying their heart out. They find comfort in those moments of despair," he said.

Pat O'Boyle, a music teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Winchester and one of the two adoration coordinators at Sacred Heart of Jesus, spent many years taking the late night shift at the chapel. "One of my most memorable times in the chapel was when a young couple came in with a newborn baby," she said. The couple knelt down, and then the man took his jacket off and laid it on the floor between the kneelers. The couple then prayed while the baby slept soundly on the jacket, she said. The tenderness of that moment was amazing, said O'Boyle. "I'll never forget it."

Both St. Agnes and Sacred Heart are able to maintain perpetual adoration through the dedication of permanent adorers who take the same time slot every week. A group of substitutes fill in the gaps. At St. Agnes, adorers can sign up by calling King, or by using the website, which lists the hours they need filled.

At Sacred Heart of Jesus, open hours are listed in the bulletin, and adorers keep in touch with the coordinators through phone calls and emails, said Sue Fleming, another coordinator at Sacred Heart of Jesus. Fleming takes the late night adoration shift knowing her insomnia will most likely wake her up anyway, something she describes as "making lemonade out of lemons in the chapel."

For each of the adorers, making late-night trips to the chapel has changed their lives. Fleming said adoration has helped her talk more about the faith to others, especially non-Catholics. O'Boyle spoke of how adoration has helped center her life on the Eucharist. King said, "When I got married I made a commitment that I would adore so that I could be a better husband for my wife. The grace that I get from adoration flows back out into my life."

The most rewarding part of facilitating adoration, said King, is seeing the chapel filled with people. "Now, mind you, they didn't sign up for a particular hour, they didn't necessarily make my job any easier," he said, laughing. "But the fact that I do what I can to make sure Jesus is never left alone is rewarding to me. Sometimes it's hard, but it has drawn me closer to Jesus in all aspects of my life."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015