28 April 2015

Contents of a Lay Hermit's Prayer Space?

Brother Emmaus O'Herlihy, OSB (Glenstal)
Saint Romuald in Ecstasy Receiving the Gift of Tears

[[Dear Sister Laurel, What should a lay hermit have in their chapel?]]

Thanks for your question. I think the term chapel is a bit overblown and would consider not using it, especially not in the absence of reserved Eucharist or if the room is mainly used for other things besides prayer. I would use the term prayer space instead (oratory seems to have become the canonical equivalent of what is more commonly understood as a chapel so I am also avoiding it here). The answer is simply, "Whatever one needs to pray regularly and assiduously." My own space includes a comfortable chair for reading and some more occasional quiet prayer, a zafu and zabuton ( these replace my prayer bench for more formal periods of quiet prayer), a portable lectern or ambo (for singing Office) and a desk for journaling and study. There are book shelves, a large crucifix (which dominates the space and signals the cross is the center of my life), some art (Emmaus O'Herlihy, OSB, cf above, and Mickey McGrath, OSFS) and I use a Zen clock which can chime the hours to help mark parts of the day. My cowl hangs on the back of the door and is available any time I pray.

I think the space should be neat, simple, light, attractive and comfortable in terms of temperature. It should reflect the silence of solitude which is so key to a hermit's life. Because I am officially allowed to reserve Eucharist, my own space includes a tabernacle with ciborium, a sanctuary light, and a small monstrance (it fits inside the tabernacle and is usually left there). I keep a small bowl made by a potter friend nearby for 1" x 2" cards with prayer intentions and requests. This can obviously work for lay hermits as well even though the Eucharist is not present. If, for instance, you were to keep a sanctuary light burning near such a bowl, the symbolism of living presence and constant prayer in communion with others -- all in the heart of the Church -- would still be quite strong. Next to or near their prayer chair most people like to include a small table upon which they may have some fresh flowers, a live green plant, or an orchid, a candle, perhaps a small statue of Mary or a favorite Saint, and their Bible and Office book. One might also have a small CD player or iPod with small speakers there or on nearby shelves.

Remember, this is a functional as well as a sacred space; it is a place where the hermit's main work occurs which is how the space is sanctified. It is not a space which should call attention to itself  (there should be no "chapel" sign on the door!), but if this is possible, it should be a private space --- a space where guests do not ordinarily go. Most folks do not have enough space for a completely separate room as their prayer space, but a lay hermit (or anyone living on their own) should be able to section off part off their living or sleeping area as an entirely adequate and dedicated prayer space. (By dedicated I mean this space is not used for anything else; it is a prayer space, not a place where one reads novels or connects to the internet, etc.)

If your prayer space is a portion of a room also used for other purposes (sleeping, etc), you can use wooden  or shoji screens to separate the actual prayer space from the rest of the room. The latter especially are movable, relatively inexpensive, simple and attractive. They also allow light to fill the space. I have seen pictures of a variety of personal prayer spaces or "chapels" and the ones which do not appeal to me at all are the ones where with a myriad of statues, relics, holy cards, etc. Usually these cover a table or some other structure the person mistakenly refers to as "an altar." I feel uneasy the moment I see these busy, incredibly noisy spaces. They tend to strike me as "showy" and perhaps "pious" (if Catholic kitsch is pious) but they are distracting to me and hardly prayerful. Of course, that is my own taste, my own aesthetic; it may not be yours.

The basic question I think is, "What do you need to pray?" What do you need to quiet yourself, center, in and give yourself over to God acting within you? What do you need to do lectio, pray Office, do quiet prayer, or do the personal work spiritual direction requires? A corollary is, "What would distract you from your relationship with God or being present to and dependent upon God alone?" (This includes what might distract you from the demands of truly being alone with God. Sometimes it is a fine line between having what one needs -- books, a bit of art, liturgical music -- and having too much.) In other words, "What needs to be absent from a space dedicated to prayer?" I think only you can really answer these questions.