[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
Would you spend 30 days here at this retreat centre in South Dakota or in Assisi, Italy? This is a question for me in the future, when I make a 30-day retreat in silence and prayer. The decisive factor is not which would I like more, but which would help me pray better.
The question for us today is: Do we know where the best place is for us to pray? Is it this church, another one, our chapel, or at home? Where we pray can help or hurt our prayer. Some places are noisy and distracting; others make us aware of God’s presence and speak to our souls because of their comfort, beauty, or because of the Eucharist. There are certain sacred places where we encounter Jesus in a real way.
Today’s entrance antiphon is from Psalm 84: “One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (v. 11). The context of this psalm is a pilgrimage of people going to the one Temple in Jerusalem. Here’s a picture of it and you can see the courts to which the psalm is referring.
Upon arriving there, the pilgrims were enthusiastic and realized that a short time there was better for them than anywhere else! And what dwelt in these courts? The presence of God!
St. Jerome, commenting on this psalm, says, “I long, O Lord, for your eternal dwelling places; my soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord; I long for some place to dwell, a nest for my soul and my body” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Psalms 51-150, 151). During this Sabbath Summer, God is reminding us of our need for earthly rest for the ‘soul’ and ‘body’ but, more importantly, of our need for ‘eternal dwelling places.’
How do we find the best place? There are two criteria to consider: What is subjectively best for us? What is objectively best?
1) When we say subjectively best, we mean what helps us encounter God in a way that’s suited to us. The retreat center in South Dakota is a better place for me than Assisi. Though I enjoyed every time I went to Assisi and there are so many holy places where St. Francis lived and served, South Dakota is where I enter into focused time with Jesus, in the multiple chapels, and in the outdoors which is peaceful for meditative walks. Just to be clear: I don’t always have good feelings when I pray there, but the environment helps me be aware of God and focus on Him.
Some of us find God in His creation. Fr. Pierre, for example, needs at times to pray outside. He brings his deluxe camping chair to the river or under a tree, and then starts reading and praying.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus would go to the Mount of Olives “as was his custom” (Lk 22:39). There’s something very powerful about this. Scott Hahn points out that the Bible looks at creation as a huge temple dedicated to God, where He dwells and where man offers sacrifice (A Father Who Keeps His Promises, 51). Believe it or not, Genesis describes creation as a temple, with images like a foundation, roof, doors, windows, etc. So, creation is a macro-Temple. And what’s the Temple in Jerusalem? It’s a microcosm of creation!
How good would it be if we, who find God in nature, deliberately spent more time in prayer outside? How renewed would we be if we scheduled vacations around beautiful places and made sure we prayed there daily?
2) But some places are objectively holier than others. The First Reading says, “And the foreigners… I will bring to my holy mountain [which is Jerusalem], and make them joyful in my house of prayer [the Temple]… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:5-6). Because we’re humans, have bodies, and have a need for physical intimacy, we need physical closeness to God! We need houses of prayer.
That’s why Jesus gave Himself to us in the Eucharist. He is not physically present everywhere—is that clear? Nature reflects His goodness and beauty, and He sustains everything in existence, but He’s not physically there. But He is physically present in the Eucharist and in churches, which is why every saint who loved the outdoors, like St. John Paul II and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, also spent hours in front of the tabernacle.
Some places are objectively holier than others. That’s why billions of Christians have gone to the Holy Land where Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again. It’s sacred to be where His body was, where He walked on those paths, and drank from those waters. Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, for example, are places where Mary appeared and because of that, many miracles still happen today. And in the Church’s older blessings of homes, we ask that angels watch over those who dwell there (Roman Ritual, p. 257).
It’s not a question of either-or, but of both-and. God wants us to encounter Him everywhere. Sometimes He wants us to ponder His dwelling in our souls. Other times He wants us to ponder His grandeur. One time, at a youth retreat, we set up adoration on a dock next to the retreat center where we were staying, where we could adore Jesus in the background of what He created, and Sr. Gabriella pointed out that when we contemplate beauty in creation we should be led to the Creator. Even many Catholics will say they don’t need to go to churches because they find God in nature, but they haven’t reflected enough on Who made it.
Solomon every week goes for a run, and runs uphill to Sts. Peter and Paul Church, then collapses on the ground and prays what’s called Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours outside the church door—that’s the best of both worlds!
Again, the question for us today is: Do we know where the best place is for us to pray?
I’d like to make you a proposal that I think would help you to become more sensitive to environments and will also help you to pray at home: Would you think about creating what’s called an oratory in your home? Oratory literally means a place of prayer. Here are some examples of what people in our parish family have done in their homes, changing patios and walk-in closets into little chapels.
This is the famous example of Miss Clara’s prayer closet in the movie The War Room where she fights in prayer for people and puts up all the intentions and prayer strategies on the wall.
I was inspired to change a room in my rectory to something like these:
The simplest way to do this is to set up a table with various sacred images. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which for most people is abstract, makes this practical suggestion: “This can be a ‘prayer corner’ with the Sacred Scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family, this kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common” (2691).
How about giving ourselves a year to do this? We talk to our family about what space could be used. Wouldn’t it be great if it could be a place where everyone could pray together and where we keep silence! This is also very helpful given the pandemic. And it’s a great excuse to clean one room in the house this year, and go shopping for various icons and religious paintings at our three local Catholic bookstores: Marian, St. Andrew’s, and Holy Family.
That’s my question for the online chat today and when I see you after Mass: Where do you pray best? Get out of your comfort zone and laziness and go to that place often! The Devil will always try to prevent you from going there, with excuses like, “I’m tired. I’m busy,” etc. Don’t give in.
This is Blessed Augusto Czartoryski, born in 1858 to a royal family from Poland and Spain.
He was supposed to live a life of royalty like his parents but felt a call to the priesthood. When he was 20, he wrote to his father, “I confess to you that I am tired [of all the parties]; they are superficial entertainments that cause me anguish and I feel myself ‘forced’ to make acquaintances with others at these banquets”. When he was 34, he was finally ordained a priest and lived only one year afterwards. But that short time was better than all of his previous years. And what did he write on the holy card that commemorated his ordination? “One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. They are happy, who dwell in your house, forever singing your praise”. This could be your motto for making a change in your prayer life. “One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”