There’s a lightness and clarity that is so charming about the book, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, by Leila Maria Lawler and David Clayton. I read it all in one night, and I’ll be returning to it soon. The opening line explains this very straight-shooting book’s purpose: “This book is about making a little oratory — a little sacred space — in your home and praying there.” Well, when you put it that way, suddenly it seems nothing so simple should be so often left undone.
What Lawler and Clayton do in this book is introduce you to the thinking and the spirit behind this tradition, both Eastern and Western, of having a prayer corner or little table where sacred images, a crucifix, or even a censer stays. It becomes the part of your home that connects to the liturgy in your parish, a spot that lifts your mind to contemplate spiritual realities, a pretty thing that nudges you to make prayer a habit. The authors are very practical and not at all given to showy piety, but for them the little oratory evokes that odd-couple of emotions so common in the Christian life, grateful relief and wonder:
[A]t last, a place for those things that float around your house — the odd statue, the prayer cards, the icons, the rosaries. Gathering them into one place, you will find that they become more than the sum of their parts. They no longer are just things to look at (or, worse, to attract dust while we don’t look at them); they become a shrine.
And when I say that this book isn’t overly pious, I mean it. There is throughout it the tone familiar to readers of Leila’s own blog, which is just that of someone who is well-practiced in the common art of homemaking. There’s nothing perfectionist or even overly prescriptive about The Little Oratory. The authors bid readers to experiment with the physical project of putting together this space and with the spiritual project of establishing a routine of prayer, meditation, and saying the hours, or even chanting them.
And the invitation is enlivened by their conviction that worship, in the church and in the home, really can change the world. In a gracious nod to Fr. Z – he of blog fame – they have a chapter titled “Transform the Home, Transform the World.” They counsel readers early on:
Regardless of how humble you think your family is in comparison with the ideal family of faithful prayer in your mind, the truth remains that your family and your home are the basis of culture. If they are rooted in worship, the culture will be affected.…Our discovery is that what Christ told us is indeed true: His burden is light — and to a degree that we had not previously imagined possible.
In its physical form the book literally invites you to pull out reproductions of David Clayton’s sacred images for use in your own modest prayer corner. Have an old crucifix in a drawer? Maybe a couple of votives, too? With this book you now have the elements of your own little oratory. Many Catholics like myself, with no direction or formation in this art, almost instinctively make tiny spaces like these at our desks or on a dresser. This book helps to sharpen and direct those instincts.
What makes me so enthusiastic about The Little Oratory, both as a book and as a project for my own family, is the way it so neatly embodies the great mystery of our faith: God works with small and humble material to do great things. What we may experience in the life of prayer at home as barely detectable moments of consolation truly is the Kingdom of God breaking out in power on the world, redeeming it. These little, humble shrines in our homes, the ones with a few old funeral Mass cards and a flower that should have been removed two days ago, the ones under which the dogs sometimes lie and scratch themselves, these connect us and our children to the ongoing liturgy of the Church itself.
Originally published on August 1, 2014.