Any married Catholic with a family will have thought about how to live the faith at home during the week. We all know that the obligatory Sunday Mass attendance cannot be the whole of the practice of our faith, along with the rituals of Christmas and Easter. But sometimes it is hard to know where to begin in helping one’s children understand that learning to pray is not the same as “saying prayers.” Spiritual formation is a long-drawn-out and subtle process, caught as well as taught.
I have just been reading The Little Oratory: a Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler, published by Sophia Institute Press. It addresses this question, offering detailed, sympathetic and encouraging advice about how to make a “little oratory”, a corner of the home where the family learns to pray together on a daily basis.
One can immediately see the good things that can flow from this practice: the children watch their parents praying outside the formal Sunday liturgy; they learn that the supernatural is indeed part of daily life; the recognition there is indeed a small oasis of peace and prayer at the heart of a home can bring its own invisible harmony to bear on the stresses of family life.
Yet many practising Catholics are daunted at the thought of establishing a home oratory. Perhaps they are struggling with all the human problems that marriage and children can bring with them; perhaps they feel self-conscious about sharing a faith they themselves find hard to “explain.” Perhaps they have uncomfortable memories of over-devout households where prayer was a rule rather than a loving ritual.
As a child on holiday in southern Ireland and staying with my Irish grandparents at the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville, County Kerry, I recall watching with astonishment as the hotel’s staff knelt down in the servants’ quarters for daily prayers, led by the formidable matriarch who then ran the hotel. That was the culture in southern Ireland in the 1950s – another world from that in which Catholic parents inhabit today over here.
The authors of The Little Oratory take up the challenge of Catholic family life – the “domestic church” as St John Paul II described it. They write, “We want to encourage traditional and personal ways to make a lovely space in our home that is both a space set apart, church-like, and a space that apotheosises the beauty that we try to express in the rest of the home.” They provide ideas and ways to set up such an “oratory”: a table or corner on which are kept holy objects, like a crucifix or small statue, holy pictures and rosary beads, prayer books and candles, as well as fresh flowers and a linen cloth.
They stress that each family will find its own format and its own devotions. The point is not that there is one right way to set up an oratory but that individual family oratories should “communicate your own faith in Our Lord.” The authors also address the obstacles and excuses parents might raise: that their house is too small or cluttered, that their children are too restless, that only one parent is a practising Catholic. On this last point, they suggest that “If only the mother prays … she should have recourse to St Joseph … placing him in the position of spiritual director of her family.” Single-parent families are naturally included, too.
The book is not aimed, as struggling parents might fear, at “perfect” Catholic families, large, home-schooled and full of devotion, for there is no such thing. Families come in all shapes and sizes and Catholic families are no exception. However, it is the case that faith is learnt in the home rather than outside it and that most homes today, crammed with electronic distractions, are not always restful or prayerful places. That is where making a little oratory matters; like a mustard seed, its influence, once sown, will grow and have a positive effect on every other aspect of family life, especially in the relationships between the family members. It is meant as the title states, as a “beginner’s guide.”
At the end of the book the authors include several well-known icons that are meant for cutting out and framing, to decorate the oratory; they include Christ crucified, Our Lady and the Christ-child, King David and others. There are also black and white line drawings of traditional Biblical subjects throughout the book suitable for colouring in by keen young artists.
There used to be a traditional Catholic practice of dedicating one’s home to the Sacred Heart, and including a florid, popular depiction of this image, in all its graphic and sentimentalised glory, on the living room wall. I suspect this practice has long been dormant. The Little Oratory takes up this tradition in a new, energetic and more interactive way. Leaving aside the kitsch aspect of popular religious art, the Sacred Heart simply symbolises the love of God for every indidual. How better to grow in this love than in family prayer, helped by personal devotional images and objects? This book is an invaluable starting-point.
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