It’s Sunday morning and I am on holiday. My family (wife plus four children aged 9, 7, 4, and 2) and I have just finished saying Mass in the oratory I have erected in the modestly sized study in the basement of our home. This experience got me thinking about the discipline of praying from home, specifically how difficult but also how important it is. So, without further ado, here are some assorted reflections on praying from home.
- Praying from home is difficult for many reasons that will differ from person to person. For some it is difficult to find the time and the energy, for others the motivation, for others the peace and quiet, for others still the words. Yet for all of these differences there is one difficulty that I believe we all have in common: home is a place of familiarity and vulnerability. We eat, sleep, make love, binge watch television, fight, and so on here. It is a place we long to return to if we’ve been away and to flee from if we’ve been there too long. If you live with children your home is frequently noisy and chaotic, but if you live alone your home may be a place of loneliness and isolation. For some, home is a place of respite; for others, it is a place of fear.
Do I really want to bring God here? He may, after all, disturb my peace or be disturbed by my mess. At church I can dress up nicely and put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine. But at home I may have just raised my voice at my children (hypothetically, of course…), or fought with my spouse over who forgot to turn on the dishwasher (again, purely hypothetically…), or I may be unable to cover up the anxiety growing in the pit of my stomach. In short, at home I am vulnerable and the flaws which I would ordinarily cover up for the sake of appearances are laid bare and more often than not magnified. And I’m still in my pajamas. How can I come before the Lord like this? Can I come before the Lord like this? Would the Lord welcome me like this?
One of the truly liberating joys of the Christian life is the ongoing discovery that, in fact, God is already present in our homes no more or less than he is present in our churches, and he is present in the bread of his people no more or less than he is present in the bread of the Eucharist. He knows us better than we know ourselves and demonstrates his love for us in that while were yet sinners, Christ died for us. If there is one person who can handle our sin and shame it is he.
- Praying from home is humbling. As a priest who takes himself too seriously, I want our praying-at-home experience to be reverential and awe-inspiring, like Moses on the mountaintop. I want my children to have a sense of the holiness of the space and time opened to us by Christ in prayer. When we offer the Eucharist and I elevate the host I want them kneeling in quiet adoration just like the pictures in those Roman Catholic catechetical booklets from the 1950s. But for some reason a 4-year-old boy has trouble with this. He’d rather wrestle with his siblings or try on Dad’s shoes or disappear and return with a granola bar as his younger brother announces often and to any who will listen that he is Captain America. And that’s just during the Sanctus. Turns out we’re more like Israel complaining at the foot of the mountain than Moses descending, face aglow.
Yet at precisely that moment (the one when the boys were wrestling as I elevated the chalice) the Lord gently planted a thought in my mind: Maybe that’s me? Maybe I’m the one who is constantly distracted in prayer despite the holiness of the moment? Maybe I’m the one fighting with my siblings even as I come into the presence of the Eucharist? Maybe the Lord is gazing longingly at me, wishing I would enter into his joy while I’m busy announcing often and to any who will listen how great I am? I’m reminded of something Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said when he was asked, “What shall we do with children in church? They interfere with our prayers.” He replied, “When you begin to pray, they will stop bothering you.” Lord, teach me to pray.
- Praying from home is worth doing badly. If you’re like me you may be tempted to think that if you’re bad at something it’s not worth doing. And that may be true for trivial things. Why bake a terrible loaf of artisanal sourdough when I can pop down the road to the baker and purchase one that looks and tastes much better? But as Chesterton once said, if something is worth doing it’s worth doing badly. I was speaking with someone the other day and she said that she had trouble with discipline, with forming good habits and sticking to them. Prayer is one of those habits that we might have trouble sticking to, therefore we might think it not worth doing. But if it’s worth doing, and it is, then it’s worth doing badly. I confess that I have been terribly inconsistent praying the Daily Office from home recently. I know it is important, I know it is valuable and beautiful, and yet I have been struggling. And when I do sit down to pray, I often feel like I am simply going through the motions or performing a duty. Never mind the constant flow of interruptions and toddlers requesting their 16th snack of the morning. Nevertheless, prayer is worth doing, so do it badly. Do it imperfectly. Do it inconsistently and half-heartedly.
- Praying from home is sanctifying. It makes your home holy. I once visited the home of a Christian family and as we sat down to eat the matriarch of the family informed me rather nonchalantly that they didn’t pray before meals. In light of what I’ve said above this might not be all that surprising. Then factor in our tendency to compartmentalize our lives. We go to church to do spiritual things and we go home to do more down-to-earth things. Yet as St. Chrysostom was so fond of saying, it is the duty of every Christian to make their home a little church.If you are a Christian it is your duty (and joy!) to fill your home with Christ. That takes intentionality. In our home we like to have a visual reminder of our faith in every room. Above the door in each of my children’s bedrooms hangs a ceramic cross made by members of L’Arche. Beside our kitchen table sits an icon of the Holy Family at home in Nazareth. On the shelves in our living room are prayer books and Bibles. We pause to pray before meals and at bedtime and in the car whenever sirens go zooming past. In all of these ways we try to cultivate an awareness of, and gratitude for, Christ’s presence with us.
Eugene Peterson says that the work of spirituality is to recognize grace where we are, in the particular circumstances of our lives: “Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and this suffering?” Times of intentional prayer sanctify our homes and lives not least because they open our eyes to recognize the grace of our Lord in the particular circumstances of my life in particular.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.