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Simple shelf or humble minivan serve as sanctuaries for parents

When a prestigious architectural magazine publishes a slideshow of private home chapels, one mom learns that sacred spaces don't need to be big, quiet, or even entirely private.

Patrick Pleul/picture alliance/dpa/AP/FILE
A labryinth in Brandenburg, Germany.

Architectural Digest usually showcases the most earthly of digs – rambling country villas, multilevel Manhattan penthouses and such. But recently, the magazine ran an online photo series that looked – if not heaven sent – then close to it. It presented private – that is, home – chapels. Some lavishly adorned, some ascetic, some little more than a stunningly designed chair and a roof, each of them is inspirational.

Of course, as with other spaces featured in the magazine, it’s the rare mortal who will be spending much time in these chapels, at prayer or otherwise. More commonly, the private chapel, if there is one, tends to be wherever a believer can retreat for a moment. More than likely, it’s the car, the bathroom, or a closet. And that’s especially true for parents of young children.

But there may well be something in between. Mabeth Hudson, spiritual director, retreat leader and co-founder of the ecumenical spiritual center Well for the Journey, in Towson, Maryland, sees an uptick in – if not outright home chapels – then designated home spaces for prayer.

“There is a growing movement of people making home altars – little prayer spaces in their homes – where they can escape to remind themselves that God is there,” she observed. They may not qualify for the glossy layout, but for their creators, they’re just as sacred, the space marked, as it tends to be, with intimately personal symbols and reminders of God’s presence.

Ms. Hudson’s is typical, she explains – upstairs, tucked into a corner of her bedroom, with a chair, candle and journaling material. There is a picture with a well-known quotation from St. Benedict given to her by a Benedictine sister, which reads “listen with the ear of your heart.” Someone else’s home altar may have a piece of art, a Bible, or a stone, or rosary or prayer beads. “It’s helpful to touch something while you’re praying,” she says.

Downstairs, Hudson also has her spot, which the family calls her “God shelf.”  It’s just off the kitchen, and it contains objects signifying concerns of the moment. There’s a Kleenex, which a friend gave her along with a Scripture passage, “God shall wipe every tear from their eyes” Revelation 21:4 (NIV), as a reminder of divine providence during a difficult time. There’s a prayer book from another friend. There are two hand labyrinths. Concrete symbols of her prayers are not lost on her three children. Even if they don’t ask directly, they glance at the shelf when passing by it to see “what else is up there.  What did you ask God for this week?” their mother observes.

In recent decades, of course, many of these devotions and symbols have cross-pollinated, migrating from one religion or denomination to others, where they’ve found homes in the prayer lives of different believers. That’s no accident, says Hudson. Technology, science, world travel, and cross-cultural exchange so accelerate the transmission of experience that altars, prayer beads, chants, street-corner ashes, meditation and such tend to go, if not viral, then well outside their earlier confines to the devout few. Hudson sees this as evidence of the Spirit active and at work in the world.

While she’s aware of the potential pitfalls of a world where people craft their own, individual beliefs by picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of options, choice can actually affirm the faith of origin, she says. “The more deeply I go into my Christian tradition, the more I realize it’s deeply connected to other religions… It’s like a deep well – we’re all connected at the bottom.” 

The public chapel is as important as the private one, she says. “You always need your individual time to pray, and you always need your community. We cannot make a solo journey.” For many, the faith community comes from a church. At other times, it comes from a small group or even the spirituality of a 12-step program. Just as there are the prayers of the heart made privately, there is a connectedness to be had from praying together, she believes.  Consider the power of the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm.  “These were prayers said by my ancestors before me and they’re going to be said after me.” 

Coming across someone’s expression of private faith – and the hope and humanity it signifies – can feel quite poignant. There’s the cross hanging from a car’s rear view mirror, the stones placed together in an intentional way marking them clearly as a place of prayer, the yarn tied to a tree, boosting a prayer heavenward. There’s the hint of the prayers in content left behind at the place where they were prayed – a note, a photo, a special glass or blanket or piece of jewelry.  It’s hard not to want to participate in the prayer, even if the personal story remains unknown.    

At home, what begins as a parent’s private devotion sometimes becomes a place for family prayer, says Hudson.  She likes the “God box” in which people write down their prayer and place it in the box, thus literally handing their concerns over to God. The gesture at once reflects faith and reinforces it. “Ritual like this really helps bring meaning to what’s going on inside us,” says Hudson.  

She describes how petitionary prayer can take interesting forms and be made in unusual places. One mother, her concerns for her son private, nevertheless found a way to physically turn them over to God by writing them on pieces of paper and tucking them under her son’s mattress. In his home, as he sleeps, Hudson, says, “He is truly being held by God.” 

Surely an image worthy of Architectural Digest.

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