I recently moved from Boston to Providence into a one-bedroom apartment. It gave me the chance to renew and use my new space more intentionally than when I shared with housemates. The use of space can have a great effect on one’s spiritual life. The Georgetown University Center for Liturgy had a project called EnVisionChurch, which helped churches discern liturgical architecture, the use of art and space, and put them in touch with professionals who could help in design and renovation. It’s kind of like feng shui for churches.
My goal was to create a personal prayer space in my living room that I would use regularly. It had to be attractive and comfortable enough, and help facilitate my prayer and awareness of God’s presence. In my former time as a Jesuit, an extra chair was standard issue with any Jesuit room, so forming a prayer space around that was pretty easy. Typically there was a lamp next to it and many Jesuits put religious art on their walls. These were things I wanted to incorporate into the prayer space of my new flat. But I also wanted simplicity.
When I lived in Washington, D.C. I remember loving the intentional simplicity of the architecture of the Chapel of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which was attached to Holy Trinity Church. The chapel had been renovated in 2007, and I recall it was bright and open with soft white walls and pillared candles spaced throughout. What made it so prayerful for me, when I attended daily Mass there, was its simplicity. Its unclutteredness left room for God, yet some religious art reminded you that you were in a chapel.
The designers of the chapel also wanted to be sensitive to the church’s needs and to local residents. I wanted to ensure I had a simple prayer space I could use but that could also be an area used for hosting guests. Given that it would be in my living room made this easy. But there was one other necessity for me: music. Music for me is often prayer, and I felt I didn’t listen to enough of it — that is, I didn’t just sit and listen as opposed to using music as background music while doing other things. So I bought a pair of good headphones to motivate regular prayerful music listening.
My prayer space was complete: A simple white Ikea chair, a wooden table for a candle and Bible, some religious art on the wall, and my headphones and iPad. One morning before work I prayed over the daily readings and that same evening I came back, plugged in my headphones, pulled up my NPR Music app, and enjoyed 20 minutes of beautiful music before going to bed. Most importantly, I spent time with God, and that’s what prayer is.
It can happen with or without a “designed” prayer space. But intentional use of space and art channels God-made spiritual energy — which is everywhere and in all things — into something that becomes prayer. When care and attention is taken with prayer, it becomes more natural. When you pray you should be comfortable and not distracted. These considerations should be factored in to personal and public prayer and worship spaces.
Consider the next time you’re in a worship space. Does the art on the walls distract you or does it bring you closer to God? Are the colors and lighting subtle and gentle on your eyes? How about the orientation of the furniture? Theology and aesthetics have been studied side by side for centuries. Beauty and art (and even empty space) give meaning and lets us tap into the “physical” dimension of God. No wonder such care is taken with liturgical space and ritual. For Catholics, the “physicality” of God in the beauty around us goes hand in hand with sacramentality — that the “stuff” of this world points to God and that God sustains these things.
I hope my prayer space will give new life to my spiritual life and encourage me to use it well for the very purpose of coming to know God and myself more deeply.