How to build a prayer corner—and bring the communion of saints home

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If you're building a prayer corner from scratch and don't have any icons on hand, you can make your own—and involve others in the household. Art: Cora, Adriel and Liviya Driver; Photo: Daniel Driver

One evening, during the second week of March, in the Time of the Virus, I shut my computer quickly, after gulping down some of the latest international news. I was reading a few stories about the surge of the sick into Italy’s hospital system, one of them accompanied by a photo that has now made the rounds of the internet: a young nurse slumped over her desk, eyes closed, fallen asleep mid-task. As I stood up, I felt that tight, shuttered feeling in my chest that comes when anxiety onsets; my throat became sore. My husband was out, and it was that time of the night when all is too quiet. My mind started to project images behind my eyes: exhausted doctors, teary-eyed nurses, fear and fatigue in the eyes of patients occupying rows and rows of hospital beds. I ached for comfort.

Kate Crane. Photo: Matthew Townsend

I drew near to my prayer and icon corner. Christ, the Pantocrator, arrested my desperate, searching gaze. I made the sign of the cross and greeted the small company of Christ that occupies the lower places on my icon wall: St. Luke the Evangelist, barefoot with a scroll; St. Juan Diego, his cloak imprinted with an image of Mary, Mother of God; and first apostle, St. Mary Magdalene, holding a seashell in her delicate hand. I touched their hands and feet, my head swimming with various prayers and petitions: Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…. Thy will be done…. Please, take away these trials and sufferings…. I opened my small prayer book and turned to the pages with prayers in time of sickness and death.

Beneath the icons, small, potted succulents surround the base of the two-shelf bookcase, which holds our prayer materials. They remind me of Jesus’s homeland. Potted ivy fills the corner and reaches out over the space in a protective way. During my prayers that night, I wept a little, raised my hands, made bows and the sign of the cross—going through the various movements belonging to all Christians, the physicality of prayer helping to expel my grief and fear. At the end of my prayer, I sat quietly on the floor, looking up at Christ and His Glorious Company, illuminated by a candle. The candle’s dance dispels random thoughts and promotes silent rest under His gaze; I felt mind, body and spirit restored within the truth and love of the Triune God. Ready again to meet the day’s tasks, I set off for the kitchen to wash the dishes.

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A prayer corner. Photo: Matthew Townsend

Icon corners are prevalent among many Christan households, most notably among our Eastern Orthodox brethren. They are set up in a corner of the household where the family may gather for prayer, usually facing east. Each family’s prayer corner is unique but shares common elements. In our corner, we keep our prayer books, plants, prayer beads, journals, candles and four icons (Christ, the Pantocrator is actually a colour print-out taped to the wall).

In the Guide for the Domestic Church—first produced in the 1980s by the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, a Massachusetts-based, hybrid Catholic-Orthodox diocese—the author encourages families to bring their events and happenings, joys and sorrows to their prayer corners: “Making a practice of announcing good news or even bad news there can be a meaningful way of proclaiming that the Lord is present and working in all the circumstances of our life.”

When the various vectors of our lives—working, personal, domestic—are now contained and constrained within the four walls of our homes for untold millions across the globe, our mental and emotional states can and will spill out everywhere; we swim in a concentrated soup of anxiety, stress, fear and fatigue. How do we avoid drowning in this soup? When John the Baptist immersed Jesus into the waters of the River Jordan, his body soaked up the sins of those previously baptised. The water was made clean by His body. That is how I feel when I go to my prayer corner: I bring my tears and worries, and Christ soaks them up. I leave unburdened, carrying the blessings I receive there into the corners of my house where I must try to meet, daily, my responsibilities to my husband, family, friends and work colleagues.

In the time of COVID-19, when our physical churches are closed to us, bringing the church into the home creates a direct link to our places of worship; our eastern-facing corner is a little satellite church tuned into the ongoing liturgies within the entire Body of Christ. The past two Sundays I placed my laptop on the bookshelf and tuned into a Facebook Live broadcast of a Sunday service. In this way, our prayer corner is a place dedicated to expression and experience of faith, and nothing but—it is not the couch or the dining table.

Do you yet gather as a family in your home to pray and worship? If not, I offer here some suggestions and starting points:

Location

Choose a spot. Typically, one prays in the direction of the rising sun, oriented toward the birthplace of Christ. If the perfect place is currently occupied by a bulky piece of furniture or something else immobile, make a slow tour of your home. Which spot might fit a small bookshelf or table and a few small stools or floor pillows, according to the size of your family? Or pray like our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters: standing. Then there’s no need to relocate dining chairs to the prayer corner a couple of times a day.

Iconography

St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Theresa, and St. Catherine of Siena—by Liviya, Adriel and Cora Driver, respectively. Photo: Daniel Driver

Icons might prove difficult to come by; even during normal times, they are hard to source outside of major North American cities. This is what I suggest: Make your own! They may not be the “real deal,” but any representations of the lives of the saints will keep us company during these times, when we need reminders to be brave and faithful. My friend, Adriel Driver, and her daughters Liviya (12) and Cora (9) answered my call for some homemade icons, and they turned out beautifully. (Bea, 5, decided instead to paint a cupcake, not pictured.)  The girls really enjoyed learning about the saints and their attributes—the items and symbols that usually accompany a saint.

If you lack confidence in your artistic powers, you might put up photographs of art or nature. Perhaps you have a coffee table book on the Louvre or the Uffizi gathering dust in your bookshelves—cut out the religious paintings and tape them to your wall! I think these times warrant such behaviour.

While you can purchase icons online, we’ve decided against placing non-essential mail orders to reduce stress on postal services. You might consider the same.

Scripture & Liturgy

Gather all of your Bibles, prayer books and other religious literature to have at hand when you visit your corner. Need some of these, too? There are lots of free websites and apps. Bible Gateway includes dozens of versions of the Bible. You may want to put your smartphone in airplane mode while praying, to ensure no auditory or visual interruptions.

Here are a few online resources:

Light & Smells

An improvised arrangement of candles. Photo: Kate Crane

Use any candles you have, provided they’re used safely. Perhaps you only have birthday cake candles? Pour some sugar, salt or sand into a pretty bowl and stick them in. Remember to blow them out when you’re finished. LED and wickless candles will work just fine, too.

Incense is always welcome, if you have it (and if your home is suitable and burning is safe). If you do not have incense or cannot burn it, there are plenty of creative ways you can scent your corner with essential oils. No essential oils? Put some whole clove into an orange—just like at Christmas!

Here are some links to ideas for diffusing scent without incense or incense holders:

Uses

The prayer corner could be a good place to talk with your children about COVID-19; to focus on prayers for sick and hospitalized loved ones; to start each day—which in isolation may feel undifferentiated or relentless—renewed and refreshed in the truth and love of the Lord, as I felt on that low-spirited night.

Timing & Discipline

Pick a time and stick to it. Commit to gathering as a family for morning prayer, evening prayer, or both. Go there and say an “Our Father” during your breaks from work. Visit often, even just to contemplate the divine images. Over time, your feet will lead you there without your knowing it. Answer the call.

Kate Crane lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and is currently enduring self-isolation with her spouse, Matthew Townsend (editor of the Anglican Journal). She is a master’s degree student in social anthropology at Dalhousie University and parishioner at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Halifax. She has contributed pieces to The Living Church and other publications.

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