By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
The Little Oratory, by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler (Sophia Institute Press: Manchester, NH 2014), 186 pp. $19.95. Available through www.SophiaInstitute.com; 1-800-888-9344.
While everyone knows the difference between a house and a home, not everyone recognizes the difference between a home and a “domestic church.” Because the Christian faith affects all of life and needs to be lived at home and at work as well as on Sundays in church, the life of Catholic faith grows through a special place in the home the authors define as a “little oratory” or sacred space — a prayer table resembling a home altar adorned with icons, pictures of saints, holy cards, Bible, prayer book, candles, and beautiful tablecloth to provide a daily reminder of God’s ever-present reality, love, familiarity, and nearness.
Families, designed for the nourishing and communicating of love to all their members and visitors, resemble “a lamp lit, quietly proclaiming the presence of the hidden sacrament of love to its inhabitants and to others.” The little oratory of the home compares to this lamp that illumines God’s love for each person and that radiates the love of neighbor nurtured in the heart and in the home to welcome visitors with hospitality. This sacred space makes God’s love as intimate as the bond between family members, the divine life of the Trinity reflected in the mutual giving and receiving of love in the family.
The book inspires the heart and moves the will to add this dimension to the home by capturing the element of beauty which this touch adds to human life. With simple, practical suggestions, the authors show the way to enrich daily life by adorning the home in ways that the Church, the Bride of Christ, also makes herself a place of holiness.
However small, humble, or modest, a home can reflect beauty and attract with the addition of a home altar. With the art of “holy decorating” versed in the elements of beauty (proportion, neatness, symmetry), the oratory requires simple furnishings: a table or shelf, an attractive tablecloth that can alter with the seasons, a crucifix, a picture of the Sacred Heart, a painting of the Holy Mother, an icon, candles, a Bible, a prayer book, a prayer-intention journal, a rosary, and a vase of flowers suffice to create this holy space. Like the Church, the little oratory too varies its colors and adornments with the liturgical and natural seasons.
The book also encourages praying the Liturgy of the Hours as another aspect of enriching the spiritual life of the home “to sanctify the whole range of human activity.” Even in its shortened version, praying the Divine Office — the prayer of the universal Church — elevates prayer beyond the petitions for everyday needs and frees it from “self-centered” preoccupation “during which we watch ourselves to discover any effects,” and it “helps us to cease thinking about ourselves at all.”
Again the book gives prudent advice on how to incorporate some of the Liturgy of the Hours into a busy active life. Like the little oratory, the Divine Office nurtures the spiritual life and enriches the soul. In the words of The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, “The purpose of the liturgy of the hours is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” It is a way of honoring the First Commandment of loving God first.
Praying continually, regardless of one’s vocation, is not a matter of words only as the authors explain but a matter of “divine orientation” that begins, ends, and centers each day “in the moral attitude of our soul and in the virtuous actions that extend throughout our life.”
With these simple aids of a little oratory and the habit of praying the Liturgy of the Hours in some shortened or modified form if necessary, the faithful Christian acquires the habits of the morning offering, examination of conscience at night, devotions during the week to the Trinity (Sunday), the Holy Spirit (Monday), the angels (Tuesday), or Christ’s Passion (Friday) and practices monthly devotions to the Holy Name of Jesus (January), the Holy Family (February), St. Joseph (March), or the Sacred Heart (June).
In other words, the mind is centered on God throughout the day, week, and month so that the “first things” of the moral life are not confused with secondary things of the world that distract and divert attention.
The oriented Christian remembers that “only one thing is necessary” and prays with the heart: “By striving for the ideal of praying with our whole person, continuously, and uniting this prayer to our whole way of life, we can perhaps begin to say that our heart is in it for God.”
How does someone find time for the Liturgy of Hours in addition to the daily rosary and attendance at daily or Sunday Mass? The authors provide prudent advice and practical answers that address the difficulties devoted Catholics experience in living a holy and devout life.
First, they encourage and give guidelines based on real experience, always sensitive about not burdening busy lives with more rules or demands or evoking the slightest guilt. The authors simply transmit the riches of the faith in the spirit of sharing the wisdom of the past: “These traditions are just ways of doing that have the blessing of being time-tested….”
The authors call to mind the self-evident truths about human nature that inform the oratory and the liturgy: Human beings as bodily creatures with five senses need visual images to understand spiritual realities, the invisible things of God known by the visible as St. Paul teaches. The beautiful always leads to the good and the true and lifts the mind to contemplation.
Furthermore, religion cannot be limited to Sundays only. Man is ordered to worship God and grow in union with Him. Those who are centered in Christ and abide with Him on a daily basis naturally communicate God’s love to others and transform the world. In short, “The little oratory contributes to the building of the culture.”
The book is both inspired by a beautiful vision of the Christian life according to its highest ideals and informed by a human wisdom that adapts the ideal to the real with the art of the possible. For anyone moved to incorporate these practices to grow in sanctity and Christian perfection, it is filled with ideas, suggestions, and good advice (see the appendixes at the end) that are too good to resist.