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A “Little Oratory” Can Build a Big Habit of Prayer

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Any small shelf or corner can become a spiritual retreat for the family

There are two seasons each year that work very well for a new start in the life of prayer, and one of them is practically upon us.

A basic tool to give an extra push to that “new start” is a prayer corner in the home.

So says Leila Lawler, who, with David Clayton, have published a book that serves as a guide for establishing a prayer corner, or as they call it, a “little oratory.”

Establishing a little oratory in the home will lead to a deeper participation in prayer and in the liturgy, Clayton says.

But who has the space, or the time, for a little oratory?

The authors claim we all do. They spoke with Aleteia via e-mail about the why and the how of establishing a little oratory in your house and doing it today—or at least before Nov. 29 (the first Sunday of Advent). Here are excerpts from what they told us:

Why have a prayer spot in the home? Isn’t kneeling beside your bed enough?

Clayton: The ideal is prayer that engages the whole person which means both the spiritual and material aspects. This is why the Church has always encouraged the appropriate use of images, music, incense and consideration of bodily posture (i.e., do we stand, kneel, bow and so on) as well as the directing of our thoughts to God. In fact when the externals are right, they lead the interior disposition into a deeper participation in the liturgy and in prayer.

With images, this not only engages our sight as we pray, but also helps to form the imagination of prayer, so to speak. So that if we are habitually praying with visual imagery then even when we pray with our eyes closed, the imagination is more likely to supply good images that support it.

An additional point is that when we pray in a way that harmonizes the material and the spiritual, if provides a template for making everything that we do in our dally lives in harmony with the forms of the liturgy. This has been lost for many people in today’s world, even Catholics, I think; and so it is why we find it so difficult to evangelize the culture.

Many might say, “I don’t have space for a prayer corner.” How do you answer that concern?

Lawler: The term “prayer corner” might unintentionally impose limits. And here you have a glimpse at what led us to name the book “The Little Oratory”: “oratory” meaning place of prayer, and “little” meaning “little”—so the person wishing to have a physical locus for prayer in the home understands that it may take the form of a prayer table, an icon corner or a spot on the mantelpiece. … In the book we purposely included many small line drawings that suggest simple places for an oratory. Even in a tiny apartment one could have a small tray on the kitchen table that has a candle, a crucifix, and a statue of Our Lady—and that would be the “little oratory” for that home. It might even be a five-inch icon on someone’s desk at the office.

So we really encourage everyone to pray about finding just the right spot wherever they happen to be.

Could I create a prayer corner today? Or does it take a lot of time?

Lawler: I suppose the answer to this question depends on whether you happen to have any religious art at hand—or whether you have bought the book, because at the back of the book are eight beautifully printed icons painted by David, all ready for inexpensive standard frames and a place in your icon corner. You could say the book is a kind of kit for making a prayer place!

I always say that if you have a candle and a crucifix you can get started now. Most people do have a few items that, grouped together on a corner shelf, mantelpiece or small table will make a lovely start to their home altar (as people have called it in the past). Why not just start? Simple and humble are lovely.

Is there a right and wrong way to make a prayer corner? 

Clayton: The short answer is that whatever supports good prayer and worship is right, while anything that undermines it is wrong. While there are no hard and fast rules, there are traditions that have been handed on to us because experience over generations has shown that certain layouts and images seem to help most people.

So in accordance with this, you would have three core images. First at the center would be the suffering Christ.  Then on the left an image of Our Lady. On the right an image of the glorified Christ—this Christ in heavenly glory, so this can be a Christ in Majesty, or face of the risen Christ as we might see in a traditional image called the Mandylion.

In regard to the style of imagery: this is very personal for the home. It is what seems to support your prayer. However, according to Benedict XVI, the styles that are most appropriate for the liturgy are the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque, so I would go for prints or originals in these styles.

What tips do you have for someone hoping to give a boost to their prayer lives this Advent?

Lawler: There are two seasons that work very well for a new start in the life of prayer—Advent and Lent. Advent is almost upon us, and I have always found that I am ready to “do more,” and children are very much open to preparing for the coming of Jesus with an intentional commitment to prayer. Along with a few very simple traditions such as the Advent calendar (preferably one with simple old-fashioned pictures and Scripture verses, culminating in a nativity scene) and the Advent wreath (with the children taking turns lighting the candles and singing a verse from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), Advent is a most opportune time to begin gathering at the little oratory for vespers (evening prayer) or Compline (Night prayer)—or even a shortened version of either of those hours if the children are small. Making an effort to get to daily Mass or at least pray the readings from it will add a lot to our faith during this season and help us prepare for the feast of the Nativity.

The liturgy—the Mass and the Divine Office—is how the Church imparts the life of Christ to the faithful. Advent is the perfect starting point for anyone who desires a deeper union with God, offering a natural “new beginning” as the Church lovingly recapitulates the whole story of salvation during this season in her liturgical prayer.

Multiple examples of little oratories may be viewed here, on Leila Lawler’s blog, Like Mother, Like Daughter.

David Clayton’s new book, The Way of Beauty, gives more detail on recognizing the styles of prayer imagery mentioned above.

 

Kathleen Hattrup is senior editor here at Aleteia.

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