The family room of my teenage years used to be a Buddhist temple. A previous owner of the house was a doctor who immigrated from another country, and I’m guessing small town Missouri offered few opportunities for Buddhist devotion, so one of the rooms was set up as a shrine. I never saw it when it was a temple space, but others mentioned guests needed to take their shoes off when going in there. It was set aside as a different type of room, for meditation or prayer only. I remember, with our lack of knowledge of other cultures, being a little spooked by the idea when we first moved in there.
My main memory of being in that room was opening Christmas presents, but otherwise the room was only for when we had guests, and the memories of it being a sacred space for another religion were forgotten. I thought of it this week, though, when I read chapter 52 of the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict suggests the Oratory of the monastery be a place for prayer only. “Let nothing else be done there or kept there,” he says. When the monastery’s time of prayer is over, all are to leave unless one wants to go there to pray “with tears and fervor of heart.” What Benedict says is this room is to be a place dedicated only to prayer and for nothing else.
Protestant Christians, who I count myself among, are weaker with sacred spaces. We build new churches with multi-purpose rooms that serve as places of worship, eating, meetings, and basketball games. I understand it’s financial need that drives this; most churches can’t afford separate big rooms for all their different needs. Many church worship spaces are built now looking more like secular theaters, and any sacred symbols or churchy furnishings are left out. I understand all the reasoning behind these decisions; I really do. I just think, though, too, that Benedict was right in saying we need some places that are for worship and prayer only.
No place is holier than another because God is in all places. God isn’t in the monastery church any more than God is in your living room while you watch a reality TV show. Setting aside a room for worship and prayer doesn’t make it more sacred than any other. We need these places of prayer, though, where chit-chat and joking are left at the door and we are called to worship and prayer just by being in the space. I’ve never, entering a monastery church, wanted to check my phone or yuck it up with the person sitting next to me. My only thought is, “It’s time to pray,” and we need places that bring us to that point.
I know culture isn’t as serious these days, and I’m a lone swimmer trying to go against the tide here, but I’m with Benedict that we need places for prayer. It could be only a smaller chapel or side room in a church, or even a room (as it was for the Buddhist doctor who previously owned our family’s house) or corner of the house where it’s a place only for prayer. Benedict is right in saying we need a place that’s a place of prayer and nothing else.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict