The new release from Sophia Institute Press, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home is not at all what I had expected – but you will definitely want to keep reading to find out how you can enter for a chance to win a free copy. Written by David Clayton and Leila Lawler, with illustrations by Mr. Clayton and Deirdre Folley, this volume is certainly a work of Christian spirituality, but one geared very much toward practicality. If you are in need of a guide on how to bring devotional spaces and practices into your home and daily life, this is very much written for you.
Mr. Clayton and Mrs. Lawler use as the focal point for their book the idea of the “oratory” in the Christian home: a physical place set apart for prayer, and containing visual reminders of our relationship to God. Beginning with the Early Church, they make a compelling historical and aesthetic argument for having a dedicated area in the house, no matter how large or small it may be, made over for religious use. Over the course of the book, one begins to understand how doing this can help integrate one’s faith into one’s environment, so that spiritual life grows beyond attending Church on Sunday, into something for every day of the week.
As it happens, I have a cabinet in my own home which I always refer to as my oratory. It stands about six and a half feet tall, with shelves making up the top 2/3 of the piece, and drawers on the bottom third. Spread out symmetrically across the shelves are devotional works of art, family photographs, and little items reminding me of important people and events in my life. The largest of the shelves is just at the perfect height where I can kneel in prayer, and rest my hands on its ledge; the last shelf contains my Bibles, prayer books, and those spiritual books I return to most frequently.
One could also call this piece of furniture a shrine, although as the book points out we need to be careful about how we define that term in the home. “The shrine we speak of,” the authors write, “is meant to be simply a place of beauty, directing our gaze through carefully chosen representative objects toward the transcendent.” In my case, the cabinet certainly does that, since it’s the first thing one sees when entering the room. In addition, because the wall sconce hanging above it shines light down directly onto an image of Christ Pantocrator, His gaze is the first I meet when I enter the room.
In this context, although we Catholics say so all the time, it deserves repeating that we do NOT worship such images. “The Christian veneration of images,” as the authors of the book note, “is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols…the honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone.” Having a framed picture of a revered or beloved dead relative standing atop the piano in the living room, for example, does not mean you are worshiping them as a god, nor do such objects substitute for the person themselves. Rather, they are simply visual reminders of them.
Once we can understand the importance of having this space an these cues set apart for prayer, the authors argue, we can then go on to try to incorporate those devotional practices of the Church which we may know about, but find difficult to integrate into day-to-day life. The huge list of possible prayer practices, from the Liturgy of the Hours to the Rosary, litanies, novenas, examinations of conscience, and so on, may be too overwhelming to try to take on all at once. Instead, the authors present the practical plan of starting with the space first, and then gradually building from there, as circumstances permit.
Key throughout the book is the authors’ repeated emphasis that the Christian home, and the relationships we enjoy there, must not be maintained separately from the spiritual life. Rather, the home should be united to faith, in imitation of Christ’s own life. “God came to live among us as one of us,” they point out, “also being born in a family and growing up in a particular place, in order to make evident to us the importance, not only of these human relationships, but of the divine relationship which is the Trinity – three persons in a relationship in the one Godhead.”
Particularly for families, this book can serve as an instructional manual on how to get the kids to develop a deeper prayer life in the home, working with you rather than against you in order to make that happen. The micro-site for the book even has a number of beautiful coloring pages that you can download and print out for the kids. For singles, there is plenty for you here, as well – and not only the set of beautiful icon prints that one can can detach from the back of the book to help set up your own little oratory. The authors take pains to point out how the single person, who is able to more deeply reflect on his own faith in his own space with fewer distractions, can be used to aid others, particularly families, in creating a more prayerful, spiritual home life. Just as in the monastic houses, all are Brothers and Sisters, becoming someone’s spiritual aunt or uncle, brother or sister, can also be a way to help grow in faith, including by helping them to establish a prayerful space in their own home.
There really is something for everyone in this book, not only in terms of looking at spirituality, but also regarding how to actually go about employing that desire for spiritual growth in real terms. If I’ve piqued your interest, you can enter for a chance to win a free copy of “The Little Oratory” from this blog, courtesy of Sophia Institute Press. One entry per reader, please, and I’ll announce the winner this Friday, June 13th. And of course if you can’t wait, then visit the Sophia Institute Press website, and order a copy directly from them. I’ll think you find, as I have, a wealth of knowledge and ideas in these pages, which you can draw upon for many years to come.