For most Americans, home improvement means a remodeled bathroom or an updated kitchen. But for some Oregon Catholics, a more important spot to spruce up is prayer space, where they bathe in Jesus's presence, or are nourished by the scriptures.
For millennia, believers have placed holy symbols in their houses. The wealthy built chapels and the poor constructed personal altars in the corners of their cottages. Many Catholics who came of age around mid-century recall home altars with a picture of the Sacred Heart, or Marian statues, with candles burning alongside. Latino Catholics in Oregon still erect altars in the homes to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe and Filipinos honor the Santo Nino in the same way.
Along with the trend toward meditation and contemplation in the past 50 years, other Catholics have prayer rooms that are austere, with only a few stark symbols and a view of the outdoors.
"Having a prayer space, whatever it's like, delineates a place to have a relationship with God and enjoy God's company," says Patricia Flynn, a spiritual director at The Grotto in Portland. Flynn explains that such a place makes it more likely that people will carry gospel peace and truth into the world.
She suggests a comfortable chair, a blanket, a Bible, other favored books about the spiritual life and perhaps a prayer journal. The area should have what's needed, but not too much. She uses candles, a crucifix and icons.
Flynn, who holds a degree in landscape architecture, says outdoor prayer refuges are helpful, too. She notes that some people have had success with prayer gardens or labyrinths, which mirror the spiritual journey inward. As for flora, she says purple and pink evoke peace and green tends to lower blood pressure. In addition to shade, a canopy can give an arched, cathedral-like feeling, Flynn says.
In a century-old house in the Hawthorne District of Southeast Portland, Judy Litchfield has turned one wall of her upstairs bedroom into spiritual cavalcade. Between a rustic ceramic cross from Weston Priory on one end and a colorful image of children in Mississippi on the other, crosses, rosaries, statues, rocks and boxes form a procession. Every item has profound spiritual meaning for Litchfield, a member of St. Ignatius Parish who works for Providence Health Plans.
A 500 million year-old trilobite fossil from her days as a college student signifies the ancient nature of God's creativity. A tiny metal Madonna from the Korean shrine of martyrs reminds her to pray for those who have given their lives for faith. A metal pix — empty except when she uses it to make sick calls — keeps her mindful of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Litchfield's home tends to be a gathering place for family. A seven-year-old granddaughter, in particular, likes to sit before the wall and ask questions about the objects.
Litchfield says her prayer wall is not an escape. Instead, it's an outward expression of inner faith as well as self-encouragement.
"It's like a community," she says, pointing to the wall, just a few feet from her bed. "I wake up to it. I go to sleep to it."
"What we have now days is not the same as our parents put on the walls," says Sue Graves, a spiritual director and member of St. Monica Parish in Coos Bay.
Graves, who has given workshops on home altars, suggests that devotees use religious items, for sure, but ones that are personally meaningful. Many items have sacred meaning — bells, butterflies and even peacocks, a Christian symbol of resurrection.
"Bring God into your everyday using symbols," Graves says of creating a prayer space in the home.
Essentials are a table, scripture set on a stand, candles and then a few holy images. Some people place photos of loved ones who have died. Other items Graves has seen and likes: rosaries, icons and lovely stones found on journeys.
A family prayer area might have a small bulletin board where names or articles indicating a need for prayer can get posted.
To keep the prayer space from becoming invisible it should change once in awhile, even if slightly, Graves suggests. She carries this off with fresh flowers.
More than a personal place, the prayer area is a way to witness belief, Graves says.
"It allows us to express to others the treasure of our faith," she explains.
Bill Zuelke, dean of students at Marylhurst University, dedicates a former guest room to prayer at his Northeast Portland house. He and his wife, Val Hornburg, rise early and pray together.
The room includes an icon of St. Ignatius and a painting of the Madonna and child. On a table is a tray with candles, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and several prayer books. Just now, there is a memento of Zuelke's friend, who has cancer. Recognizing the never-ending significance of the Incarnation, a Nativity scene is up year-round. Soon, there will be an icon the family commissioned to remember favorite patron saints.
"All these things are reminders of what matters," says Zuelke. "Without them, we would live life on the surface and live life in reaction to the forces around us."
Sister Barbara Jean Laughlin, former superior general of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, has set aside an area in her Beaverton living room. It includes a Bible and candles. She changes the decor with the seasons, pulling out red for St. Valentine's Day and lavender during Lent, for example. A few small wooden statues stand on a mantel, including one of the woman at the well. A prayer journal is at the ready.
"As you come into the space, it automatically makes you stop and think," says Sister Barbara Jean.
Michelle Ritchie, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, has assembled two prayer spaces. Her personal spot is a small spare room overlooking the woods. In a corner stands a sacred symbol from the past, a foot-tall statue of the Sacred Heart that belonged to her grandmother and then her mother.
Her mother, who died in November, is the focus of the other prayer site. It's located in a niche of the large family room, a place family and guests frequent. On a mantel sit a photo of the beloved woman, a pair of her glasses, the program from the funeral, candles and an image of the Blessed Virgin. Here, Ritchie prays for souls in purgatory.
"Without the holy spaces, I felt less whole, less complete," says Ritchie, a librarian who often attends programs at Our Lady of Peace Retreat House. "But with them, I'm practicing the presence of Jesus all the time, not just in church or at prayer in the morning. It's about constantly having the reminders, about having the connection."
Sheila Schaeffer, a chaplain at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, sets off a small sunroom of her Northwest Portland house for prayer. Next to her living room, the little haven has large windows that look into the yard.
The furnishings are simple — a few plants, a window seat and a small prayer meditation bench.
"I reserved the room for this activity as a way of being more intentional in my desire and practice to begin and end each day with prayer," Schaeffer says. "Having this area in my home reminds me of how the sacred is woven into the daily activities and experiences of life — not separate from. It also serves as a reminder of the daily need to be quiet, to slow down in order to be open to God’s love and to hear God’s wisdom as I move through my day."