An Oratory At Home
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
What is an Oratory?
An oratory is, as the Latin word for prayer, “ora”, signifies — a place we dedicate for prayer and spiritual matters. Ideally we should think of the whole of our home dedicated to God and in this sense every member’s home is a church — a place where the Body of Christ is alive and thriving. However, setting aside a space, corner or even a room specifically for worship in its various forms, is a practice which has remained alive in the Church right up into our own era. It is true we see these less often now, but that is not to say the custom is not still widespread. We are, here and now, advocating that you, our reader, look favourably on this wonderful tradition and give thought to setting aside such a space in your home. Our intention, here, is to offer enough support to give you confidence to proceed, no matter what your Christian affiliation.
Note: These notes deal only with informal centres of devotion in one’s home and not in any way with official premises formally approved by appropriate ecclesiastical authority.
Why have an oratory?
If you live in a home with religious articles scattered literally “all over the place,” and this is accepted as part of the family culture, then setting up a specific place for such things may be entirely unnecessary. For example, many old traditional Catholic, and indeed Jewish homes, have articles and emblems in every room. In such cases a candlestick or two, plus a few other items used in regular household rituals may sit on the dining room mantelpiece and be placed on the table when the family gathers for prayer. The whole place is a beautiful sanctuary and a testimony to God’s Presence in that home. But even in these homes, there is often a particular spot where certain articles are given a place of honour and this is a reminder of the priority we ought to give God in our lives. Many of us have not grown up in such a culture. If we can redress the situation and establish that culture in our homes, well and good. These notes are to assist our members who live in different circumstances from what we have described, and who want to give physical expression to the traditions associated with the Biblical vision of life.
In support of a home oratory, some will offer as their reason the “nice feeling” aspect, or a place one can claim a bit of peace and quiet, and “leave the world outside”. These are understandable, but they are not why traditional Christians dedicate part of their home to be set aside for religious purposes. Nor is the reason to draw God “down” among us, since God already dwells in us. Traditional Christians understand that and hold dearly the Blessed Apostle Paul’s reminder to us: “Know you not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor. 6: 18 and 20). Our Tradition teaches us that Church sanctuaries are extensions of God’s sanctuary in Heaven. Likewise our little space at home dedicated to honouring God is an extension of the sanctuary at Church where we gather to worship — especially for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or the Mass, as many of us call it.
We establish an oratory in our homes, therefore to proclaim and celebrate God’s presence and His drawing us into His Divine Presence. No matter how simple, small or modest, our oratory is (or chapel if we wish to call it that) — it proclaims our belief and faith in Jesus Christ and our commitment to try and live in a manner which befits members of His household: those who have been baptised into His Body, the Church.
As background reading on this topic, we attach two appendices and one Internet link:
Is there any real advantage in having an oratory?
Traditional Catholics, (and no doubt other traditional Christian readers), find constantly that the modern world exerts unrelenting pressure on us, (and especially our young people), to “give it away” and “go with the flow”. This has the effect of an on-going undercurrent diverting us away from the basic fundamentals of the Christian Faith. It is hard to detect this, at times, and it is very difficult not to be influenced by some of the modern forms of atheism in our society, We are immersed daily in a strong tidal flow of materialistic influences — so let’s be realistic about how some are likely to cling to us, unnoticed, and quietly spread like a virus throughout our framework of religious beliefs and practice. In order to counter this unfortunate situation, it helps to put very deliberate disciplines in place. Frequent visits to one’s private oratory, and its use for regular daily prayer are two such disciplines which can have very real benefits.
What is the real purpose of a private oratory?
An oratory in the home provides us with a dedicated space wherein we can give visual, physical expression to our Faith and develop it as a centre of devotion. This can be a powerful antidote to the lack of Christian cultural expression which used to be more common in our communities. Here we can design, in a very personal way, a Christian cultural oasis where we can rise above the noise and distractions of the world. Carefully chosen Christian articles, whether photographs, statues, posters, icons, crucifixes, candlesticks and other meaningful symbols not only give dignity and prayerful atmosphere; they exert a strong emotional and inspiring influence. They help us to remember and to listen to our Lord Jesus Christ. These two words are vital in the maintenance of Christian culture and vision.
To remember is to re-mind: to regain presence of mind i.e. the state of calmness in which all the powers of the mind are on alert and ready for action. This is like a “spiritual shower”, to clean-up after being engaged in all manner of activities which are part of contemporary life. This freshens the body as well as the soul and prepares us to regain our spiritual composure and return to a consciously chosen focus on the things of God.
To listen, for the Christian, is to obey the commandments of God (Genesis 12: 1 — 8 and Luke 9: 28 — 36). In Luke 9: 35, in the midst of the Cloud of God’s presence, God the Father declares: “This is my beloved Son; Listen to Him“. The Christian needs to take every step necessary to ensure that they listen to their beloved Shepherd, and carry out what He requires of them.
A private oratory provides for the human necessity of taking spiritual rest in order to be refreshed and strengthened for the Lord’s service. Jesus said to His followers, “Come to Me all you who labour and are burdened, and I will refresh you; I will give you rest”. (Matthew 11: 29)
No doubt you will have noted that we have not talked of retreating from the world just to escape the noise and the hustle and bustle, etc. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do and enjoy. However, the principal purpose behind going to one’s oratory is not so much “to escape” or” do nothing” but to be re-freshed, to re-gain presence of mind and a state of calmness in which all of the powers of the mind and soul enable us to turn our whole focus on God. We need the counter-balance an oratory can provide, to help us see and hear inwardly at a higher spiritual level, for which, after all, we were given the faculties to enjoy. It is then that we undertake appropriate devotions to give honour and glory to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is how we respond to our loving Lord who desires us to be with Him.
Appendix 3, The Transfiguration of Jesus, emphasises the importance of listening to Jesus Christ — of obeying God’s command to us: “Listen to Him“. This great event, this climax in the revelation of Jesus Christ, as the embodiment of God’s teaching throughout the ages is an important key to the valuing of our heritage above all else, and defending it against all the powers of darkness which will gather more persistently against Him as the time of His Return approaches. We encourage you to ponder this account of Christ’s Transfiguration from time to time and let its profound message help strengthen your personal relationship with Him. (See Appendix 3 — The Transfiguration of Jesus)
You may find two of our articles helpful in reflecting upon the holiness of time and space:
• Sabbath Time
• Boldly Declaring The Boundaries
Where is an oratory best located?
Under the second heading, “Why Have an Oratory”, we acknowledged the ideal situation in which the whole of one’s home is a place of celebrating openly our living Faith, and letting it give witness to our love of God and the desire to honour Him worthily. If that is not realistic or practical for us, then perhaps setting up a modest oratory may help give witness to God’s love and presence. In fact, even if our whole home reflects strongly our Faith and love of God, there are still reasons why an oratory can help us be effective ambassadors for our Lord. Jesus Christ: can help us strengthen our convictions, sharpen our focus to go forth and share the light of Christ with those around us.
The positioning of our oratory, as well as all of the decisions regarding it, are choices for each person to make according to one’s circumstances, needs and personal preferences. Our clergy and religious can give advice on many aspects, and consulting them will always bring its own rewards. Some of us will opt for a corner in the lounge / sitting room, or at the end of the hallway. Some will be somewhat restricted in what they do and may need to be discreet. Others may have a spare room or a space which can be set aside in a basement. Don’t forget, the first Christians in Rome met in caves or catacombs for their worship. Our suggestion is to take some time to think through where you feel you want this very special place to be located. Do take the time — it is a very important first step. Talking of the first Roman Christians, it is helpful to remember that the catacombs were the safest places to establish their oratories. From the beginning these were decorated with striking images of our Lord to help them in their worship and Christian education. So let’s take a moment to reflect on how appropriate it might be to incorporate religious images in our oratory.
Where does the practice of using religious images in Christian Worship come from?
Note: Some of the ideas in this section were taken from,
by Paul and Christine Hodgkinson. 1991.
The word “image” is used in the Bible in the first chapter of the first book, Genesis 1:27. “God created man in his own image: in the divine image he created him, male and female he created them.” So all human beings are in some mysterious way, icons of the living God. This reaches its perfection in Jesus, the Son, who proclaimed that be was the full revelation of the Godhead, “To see me is to see the Father” (John 14: 10). St Paul reinforces this; “Jesus is the image of the unseen God.” (Colossians 1: 15). So God has taken the initiative by revealing himself in visible, material form.
The Bible also reveals how we are to relate to images. In the Old Testament we read that to worship a graven image as a god is forbidden by the first commandment: “You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, your God, the Lord Almighty, am a jealous * God ….. ” (Exodus 20: 4).
* jealous God — To bow down and serve other gods is to belong to them.
God is zealous for us to remain His loving and
loyal children and thus to rejoice in belonging to Him.
We need to understand this direction in context. The commandment is not saying that the making of graven images as such is forbidden, but the adoration of these is forbidden. How do we know? Moses who gave these commandments from God, goes on to describe the design God gave him for the tabernacle and the ark (Exodus 25).
Exodus 25 — 30 records God’s instructions to Moses regarding the construction of the Tabernacle of His Presence in the desert. The holiest part of the Tabernacle was the Ark to contain the tablets of stone later in Exodus inscribed with the Commandments. These were especially sacred in that they represented the Word of God residing in the midst of His people.
Moses subsequently built this ark, as commanded by God, which had the images of two gold cherubim on the top (Ex. 25: 18 – 21; 37: 8 – 9) and arranged for the weaving of the curtains with the embroidered cherubim for inside the tabernacle (Ex. 36: 35). He later made the bronze serpent at God’s direction, to heal the people in the desert. Buildings were adorned with images throughout Jewish history (Solomon’s temple is one example). It seems it was only after the conquest by Greece and Rome that images were banned from Israel’s life. Jesus was challenged one day and asked for the coin of tribute. It bore the image of Caesar. He said, “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22: 19 – 21). Jesus reinforces the truth that we are made in the divine image and, as such, we all belong to God. Images are created, but are never to be adored.
Paintings, frescos, statues and icons when associated with worship are not idols to receive our worship. Their purpose, on the contrary, is to give us a message. The message is always one of the relationship of man with God through God’s revelation of himself to man. Of course anything can become an idol when we use it incorrectly. Christians who cannot, or will not, grasp this truth carry an unnecessary burden. They need not prohibit themselves from responding to beauty and allowing this experience to bring them closer to God. Did not God, at creation, surround Adam and Eve with a vast array of beautiful objects, animate and inanimate, to heighten their sense of His Presence, and their relationship to him? Surely we would not stop admiring or using a tree just because Satan appeared in one to tempt our first parents. The same applies in our spiritual life. To deny the place of images in our worship or demonstration of respect towards God just because, in some religions, people worship statues, etc, is therefore entirely unbiblical.
How does one set up an oratory?
Oratories vary from the simplest of settings in a little corner, with perhaps just a crucifix and / or statue, to much larger and grander examples. They also vary according to one’s culture and local traditions. We therefore lay down no prescriptions but seek instead to offer a few possibilities to help you “get started”. It is your place to set up how you want it, and to love it and look after it.
Reflect again on the purpose for which we set up an oratory. In essence it is:
- a place where we are re-freshed and where every aspect of our being is
re-vitalised so that we become recollected and totally open to God’s
presence in order to give Him our whole and undivided attention in
- a place to be still and to remember and listen to Jesus Christ our
Lord, our Torah: our Word of God.
Think about where such a blessed space would be best situated as to who would use it (numbers and age range). Consider the possibility of situating it so that it faces East, and reminds you at every moment that you belong to a people preparing for, and waiting upon the Lord for His glorious Return. (See Appendix 4 — Facing East)
Consider now the scale of what you wish to set up: a tiny corner with a few articles (or whatever) for one person — or a place which can hold the family and / or a few friends. This will enable you to think about the type of atmosphere you wish to promote and how you would like to enhance it. At this point you may have some ideas about how you would like to arrange the setting.
Choose your favourite furnishings and devotional items which are going to constitute the area and define its special character. We have attached an appendix to this paper listing some of the items you may wish to include with a few notes about some of them. It is a good idea not to overload the space all at once; but rather to add items as you get the feel for it and become aware of what is needed. (See Appendix 5 — Setting Up An Oratory)
Dedicate your chosen space to God’s glory so that it is forthwith recognised for what it is — a holy place. If you have access to a priest or any member of a religious order who is willing to help, invite him to visit with a view to, making suggestions as well as arranging a formal blessing of your oratory. An attached appendix offers a simple provisional dedication of one’s private oratory whilst awaiting a formal blessing. (See Appendix 6 — Asking God’s Blessing.)