By Michelle Francl-Donnay
My soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord.
– Ps. 84:2a
My sister-in-law has a marvelous eye for space and color. Her tiny house nestled in the hills of California simultaneously manages to look both lived in and like something out of a magazine spread. I, alas, have no such talent. In my house, the guiding principle of interior decoration is “less is more:” fewer socks on the floor, fewer dishes on the counter, fewer school papers on the stairs. I aspire to house organized, not house beautiful.
At least until this summer. It began when I read Sara Maitland’s “Book of Silence” in which she chronicles her search for her ideal home – an isolated hermitage. Everywhere I drive now – the hills of California, the coast of Maine, even the PA turnpike – I watch the scenery with an eye to where I would plant a hermitage.
I dream of a small adobe house, tucked into the fold of a hill, olive trees and vineyards spilling down the slope. Or a clapboard house on a island in Penobscot Bay in the midst of an apple orchard. In my imagination there is always a tiny chapel with warm frescoes, candles burning in front of a carved wooden crucifix and one small but exquisite stained glass rose window piercing the western wall. I’m starting to covet, not my neighbor’s house, but a house without neighbors.
Of course, each time I pull into the driveway, reality rapidly reasserts itself. As I dodge the bikes in the driveway and pick my way past the backpacks abandoned in the sunroom, I’m reminded that hermitages are not a practical residence for someone with teens, cat, fish and a husband. Still, the vision of light streaming through the stained glass at the end of the day and spilling onto the floor of the silent chapel remains tantalizing.
The psalmist, too, has dreams of a place in the courts of the Lord – with warm springs and abundant rainfall. St. Jerome, in reflecting on this psalm, urges us to take the psalmist at face value, to hear in this song our own desires for a real spot where we can have an altar, a place to sing to God. Not eventually, not in the life to come, but now.
Perhaps it is not envy of the solitude that feeds my dreams, but an eminently reasonable desire to make more space for God. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” sounds a similar theme: “The choice of a favorable place for prayer is truly not a matter of indifference” . I certainly can (and do) pray on the back stoop, but is that the best place? The Catechism encourages us to set aside a dedicated place for prayer.
In “Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer” Benedictine monk – and hermit – Gabriel Bunge offers a wealth of practical advice on creating a place of prayer. It should be secluded and peaceful, lit gently by candles or a lamp. Face east, face Christ on the cross. Add an icon of Mary, and one of a favorite saint. And have your tools for prayer close at hand: Sacred Scripture, a Psalter, a rosary, a book or two, perhaps a journal. Make a sacred space, even if it has to be tucked into a basket by the chair in your room.
I still don’t have the chapel of my dreams in the back yard, but I did organize myself an oratory. Tucked into what was once a cluttered closet in my study is an “orationis angulus,” a prayer corner. Beeswax candles from a local farm offer gentle illumination, a crucifix orients the space and, in place of the rose window, a mosaic of deep blue and gold spills light across the floor.
My oratory has not the graceful lines, nor the beauty of my parish church. It is perhaps only remarkable in my house for the lack of socks on the floor. But like the psalmist’s sparrows, I’ve built myself a nest within the walls of God’s temple, a hermitage within my house.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
The whole world is Your temple, shaped to resound with Your name.
Yet you also allow us to dedicate to Your service places designed for Your worship.
– From the preface for the dedication of a church