Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book Review: The Little Oratory

I was very happy to receive a copy from Sophia Institute Press of a new book, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, by Leila Marie Lawler and NLM’s own David Clayton, with illustrations by Deirdre Folley. As I read through it, I became more and more excited.

To put it simply, this is a must-have book for parents trying to build up a genuine Catholic culture in their homes. As a father and husband, I have had the experience of picking up books of this genre (“how to make your home more Christian/Catholic”) and putting them down with some impatience as I realize how idealistic or ambitious or remote or dated or abstract they were. What I love about The Little Oratory is that it never loses the reader in abstractions or unrealistic expectations. The whole concept of the book is that one builds up a household of prayer step by step, always with simple steps; you find what works and you build on that. Actually, I could compare the book to a cookbook that is designed for busy people who are not ready to spend two hours on a multi-course French gourmet dinner that requires shopping at a special market. They want to know how to make a decent home-cooked meal using affordable ingredients at hand, and in the time available. The Little Oratory is like a book of recipes for Catholicizing the home and permeating it with a Christian atmosphere.

The bedrock concept is that it is Eucharistic worship, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” that needs to be extended into the household, into the family circle. The Mass needs to spill over into daily life, so that we are reminded of our Lord, prepared for Him, living from Him. How do we do this? By a simple and concrete (one might say incarnational) step: make a “little oratory,” a prayer table, an icon corner, that serves as a focus for the home, and then use this as a point of reference for the liturgical year and as a gathering place for prayer—whether that be parts of the Liturgy of the Hours (for this, chapter 5, “On Learning to Pray with a Breviary” is nicely limned), or any other family devotions such as the Rosary (for this, chapter 8, “Praying the Rosary,” and Appendix A, “Devotion to Mary” are a godsend: far more nitty-gritty than most treatments, and yet taking the time to explain the deeper reasons why Catholics do what they do). The authors are taking their cue from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says:
The church, the house of God, is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The choice of a favorable place is not a matter of indifference for true prayer.
          For personal prayer, this 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)
The authors are to be complimented especially for the magnificent sections on the liturgy and how it grounds and illuminates the Christian life. In spite of the urgent request of Vatican II to offer liturgical formation to the faithful, the past 40 years have been marked rather by an abysmal lack of understanding of the liturgy and a corresponding lack of the spiritual nourishment it provides. It’s as if Vatican II said: “Make sure you have a very nice Christmas tree so that you can hang lots of ornaments on it,” and the response was: “Banish and burn all Christmas trees—the pagan superstitition of it all!” This book takes the advice of the Church at face value and assumes that the role of the liturgy is to permeate all aspects of our life, in big and small ways; it provides unity for an otherwise scattered, overbusy life.

The Little Oratory combines this vision of the liturgy as organizing principle of the Catholic’s life with an absolute conviction of the centrality of the family and of the home as the place where the faith is incarnated in daily life, where the Church takes root, spreads her branches and bears fruit. And there is a welcome emphasis on the role of beauty and thoughtful organization: “holy decorating,” how you can select and arrange religious art, crucifixes, and living spaces so that (for example) the living room is not centered on the television, as if this were the family shrine. In a way, the title of chapter 11 says it all: “Transform the Home, Transform the World.” The unstated alternative is grim: the world will transform our homes into itself, if we do not take due responsibility and initiative.

As one who contributed a series of articles this past Lent encouraging lectio divina, I was delighted to see chapter 6 devoted to “Getting Closer to God’s Word.” Chapter 7, “Devotion,” contains a nice overview of traditional Catholic associations of weekdays and months with particular devotional emphases. Other chapters take up questions like how the routine at home can interface with the local parish and how families can help the clergy to revitalize parish devotions. One appendix even suggests ways in which business operations can be shaped by the Catholic principles outlined in the rest of the book, while another describes how a group of Catholics can take Vespers to a local hospital. As a musician, Appendix G, “Even You Can Sing,” hugely appealed to me. It’s a kind of primer in sacred song, the common patrimony of all Catholics.

The book also contains 12 lovely line drawings and, at the end, 8 full-color icons that can be removed from their perforated bindings and used in the icon corner (see below for examples).

It’s hard to convey in a short review all the riches found in this book, and the utterly practical, down-to-earth way in which the authors unfold their ideas. The humble, reasonable, and flexible tone fills the reader with a sense of eagerness and hope. The practical details extend to how exactly to set up the icon corner or prayer corner—what kind of images to put there, the cloth to use, candles, books, flowers on special occasions, etc. My wife and I set up a prayer table years ago, but we had to stumble along and figure out by trial and error a bunch of the things that Clayton and Lawler cover succinctly and persuasively here. If you are new to this enterprise, or even if you’re more experienced, the book is just chock-full of great ideas. Chapter 10, “Difficulties You May Have,” is abundant proof that the authors did not write this during a sabbatical in an ivory tower.

For me, the most heartening and inspiring aspect of the book from beginning to end is its strong and serene liturgical anchoring. Clayton and Lawler see the liturgy as giving meaning and shape to our whole life, which is exactly what the classic Liturgical Movement felt and desired, and what the New Liturgical Movement seeks today. I have often felt that most Catholics have been simply abandoned when it comes to living the liturgy. I don’t mean superficial activism at the local church; we have plenty of that, far too much of it, in fact. I mean: What do the Mass, the liturgical year, the great feasts and fasts, the divine office—what have they to do with us? How do they intersect and penetrate with my daily life? Given that the Popes have said that we are to drink in the indispensable Christian spirit from the sacred liturgy, it is a sight for sore eyes to find a book that actually lays out a rich banquet of ways in which we can do precisely that.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: