“Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5, RSV)
At the start of this year I returned to the seminary after taking a one-year break in 2017 for pastoral experiences – what we call our regency year – and it had been a most fruitful and inspiring year spent at Assunta Hospital (Malaysia) and locally at the parish of St. Bernadette, St Patrick’s School and CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent. And as I start a new stage in my formation, I also made a slight change to my room layout: besides the sleeping and study areas, I added a simple prayer corner in my room. Nothing fanciful – just a small space that I reserve solely for prayer, with a simple icon of Christ the Pantocrator, a plastic crucifix that a cancer patient gave me, comfortable cushions, a Bible and my breviary.
Now someone might ask: you seminarians have the chapel conveniently located near your rooms, you have easy access to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament anytime – why set aside a part of your room for prayer? (And no, I am not turning Protestant, losing faith in the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus in the most Holy Eucharist.)
And isn’t God everywhere? Why demarcate a space for prayer?
We, human beings, are symbolic creatures – we use language, models and symbols to communicate with one another. And more than that, we attach meanings to places and objects which go beyond their natural, material properties. A wedding band is not just a metal ring – it symbolizes the enduring love between husband and wife; a gift from a close friend has a significance greater than the value of the object itself – it is a concrete expression of our friendship. Similarly, the location where we had our first kiss, the site where our war heroes are massacred, the places where we had encountered God.
The prayer corner in my room is a symbol that reminds me of the need to pray regularly, not just when I make my personal Holy Hour before the Lord or during the structured times of prayer in the seminary, but even amidst my studies and leisure in my room. This place for prayer signifies the Holy breaking into an ordinary space where I work and take my rest and it symbolically re-orientates me so that what I do should be directed towards serving the Lord and His people. This space set apart for God helps me to turn to Him – it is a fortress of silence built upon my past experiences of prayer and with God that shields me from the noise of my ego which asserts itself especially when I am tired or stressed, angry or broken and that invites and embraces me, like the arms of a mother. When I sit in my prayer corner, I find it easier to set aside the many things that demand my attention and focus on the one Person who matters – Jesus, my Lord and my Love.
This idea of a prayer corner is part of our Catholic tradition. Many of us might remember family altars, where we hang the crucifix and place images of our Blessed Mother and some favourite saints. But what are important are not the crucifix and sacred images – these and the space they occupy are helps to direct our attention to prayer. Indeed, if our family altars do not beckon us to prayer, they become little more than room decoration or, worse still, articles of superstition. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
For personal prayer, this [place favourable for prayer] can be a “prayer corner” with the sacred Scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family, this kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common. (CCC 2691)
And this is one important function of rituals – the sign of the cross, clasping of our hands, set formularies of prayers – they prepare us to have a disposition to encounter God, they foster prayer. A prayer corner is a ritual space that helps dispose us to pray, that reminds us to pray even when we are not at church or the adoration room, that beckons us to return to God through the joys and sorrows of the day. And it doesn’t need to be fanciful – a corner in a room, a part of our work desk set aside, even a mat or a prayer cross that we reserve for use in prayer when we don’t have the luxury of physical space. Let us bring this beautiful aspect of our Catholic tradition back into our homes, into our offices, into our schools. God is always inviting us to encounter Him – the question is: do we have the disposition to listen?
By Br Simon Ho