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O Mary, You shine continuously on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves to You, Health of the Sick.
At the foot of the Cross, You participated in Jesus’ pain,
with steadfast faith.
You, Salvation of the Roman People, know what we need.
We are certain that You will provide,
so that, as You did at Cana of Galilee,
joy and feasting might return after this moment of trial.

– Prayer of Pope Francis

In these days, as the coronavirus spreads, the effects of it’s presence are being ever more keenly felt.

One such effect is that our perception of the world around us is changing to some degree – and we are looking differently at those things we perhaps take for granted. As time passes, we are told to consider self-isolation where that is appropriate; in some places, schools and colleges, shops and workplaces have already been closed; travel is affected; and even entire nations are in a state of ‘lockdown’.

It is entirely possible that in days to come, we may feel a very real effect upon our ability to publicly practice our Catholic faith.

There are already calls in some places for public acts of worship – and especially the Catholic Mass – to be suspended for a time, for fear that large gatherings of the public may prove to be an effective means of spreading the virus. Already in my own Diocese, the Holy Water fonts have been emptied, we can no longer receive from the Chalice, nor can we offer the Sign of Peace; and today, some previously-planned large scale Masses have been cancelled. All these things are, no doubt, only temporary measures – but they are disconcerting regardless of that.

So what does all this suggest to us?

 First of all, we should not panic. Rather, we should listen to, and follow, the advice given to us by the civic authorities.

 Secondly, remember that the illness will – for most people – be relatively simple and short-lived.

 Thirdly, remember that a time such as this offers us the opportunity to practice a number of the Works of Mercy – and we should most certainly do so.

 And fourthly, perhaps it will remind all of us to give thanks for what we already have – particularly the Church to which we belong, and the ability to practice our Faith.

But what of the practice of our Catholic Faith? It may be that for a while, our practice will change in terms of location and form.

The location may move from the parish Church to the ‘domestic Church’ – that is, our home.

And the form may change from liturgical gatherings and worship, to prayer practiced at home. Of course, we should already be practising prayer at home – our Faith does not exist and show itself only at Mass; and if it does, perhaps it is more habit than faith.

How, then, do we practice our faith at home? A small home altar may be the solution.

A simple home altar

In days past, it was almost expected that every Catholic home would have some form of devotional area, where the family would pray together. This area is where the prayers of the Rosary would be recited, or the Bible read together. The presence of such an altar said something about the people living there – their faith, their beliefs, their value system, their unity. It is certain that God, Who “looks with favour on the humble” smiles upon such small places where people gather together in His Name to offer their prayers to Him.

Today, the idea of such a place within our home may have fallen out of favour, such that it is no longer as common as it once was. And yet, the idea of a visual representation of our beliefs is not so different to keeping photographs of loved ones – looking at them, we are reminded of those we love, and from our hearts issue sentiments of love and tenderness, or longing, when those depicted are far from us or have already gone to their eternal reward.

It does not matter if the altar is small or large, ornate or simple. Indeed, simplicity is generally better here as it is in so many areas of life. Whether it is comprised of a shelf, a table, a corner of the dresser or the desk – it makes little difference.

What is important is that there is an area which is specifically set aside for prayer and devotion, a place dedicated to the Lord and which lifts our hearts and minds to Him, where we can be with Him in a particular way, and where the common distractions of life can be put to the side, even for just a little while. And in the context of the present situation, it will also be a special place where we can explicitly pray for all those affected by the coronavirus pandemic – those who have died, those who are ill, and all caring for them and sharing their suffering; as well as all those yet to be affected.

Perhaps the basics of such a home altar are these – a Crucifix, that central symbol of our faith, accompanied by an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whether a picture or a statue; the New Testament or Bible; a Rosary; and a candle. Together, these items can help to keep us focused on what really matters.

Ultimately, our goal in setting up a small home altar is to try to establish ourselves in the habit of prayer. But how do we make prayer a daily part of who we are and what we do? How do we cultivate the habit of prayer?

The first thing we need is the grace of God. We might think prayer is our move toward God – in reality, it is our response to God’s move toward us. It is a reaction, rather than an action; a response, rather than an initiative. The very desire to pray is a gift of the Lord, Who seeks us out. I think He is particularly generous with this grace – He calls so many souls to enter into a deeper conversation with Him, to listen quietly to His voice speaking in the silence of our hearts.

And this word ‘conversation’ is key here. Prayer is nothing more – and nothing less – than the conversation between two hearts, or ‘an intimate sharing between friends’, as the great St Teresa of Avila describes it. She also says this – ‘Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed.. all that is needed is the will to love’.

And so this is the next thing we need – desire, or the will to pray, and to continue praying. Our will opens the door to God’s grace – and it can close that door just as easily. God will never force us; He will always respect our ‘yes’ or our ‘no’.

Assuming, then, that we are responding to God’s grace in having the desire to pray, how do we actually develop prayer into a habit?

Habits are formed by repetition. By doing the same thing at the same time or in the same place, we might develop a habit. And so when it comes to prayer, the same principles apply; we need to make a time and find a place.

To strengthen and support our prayer life, that small and special home altar which we associate with – and set aside for – the habit of prayer, is very beneficial. In the same way that we associate one place with eating, or another with sleeping, perhaps there is a place somewhere at home which we can use specifically for prayer, where we have the devotional objects to assist us in this task, as suggested above. Writers often have a favourite desk at which to write; Saints often have a favourite little corner where they like to pray. Perhaps we can follow their example.

As far as possible, this time and this place should be free of distractions, particularly if (especially in the early days) our mind is likely to wander.

At least to begin with, perhaps it is sensible to keep our goals attainable. It is better to commit to five minutes of prayer and to do this consistently and well, than to promise we will pray for an hour and quickly give up altogether because we don’t manage it. Perhaps begin simply, with an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be; after all, what matters more is the quality of the prayer, not the quantity. You may well find that as the habit of prayer develops, your heart yearns to pray more – this, too, is the grace of God at work.

Cultivating the habit of prayer becomes something of a discipline. Most of us lead busy lives and it can seem difficult to make time for prayer, but make it we must, if we are to succeed – otherwise, we will probably find that we quickly lose the habit and our efforts come to nothing.

For some, first thing in the morning may suit best for praying; while for others, the evening may be better, after the work of the day is done and our minds can begin to quieten a little. Whichever time of day suits you best, try to pray at the same time each and every day – this develops the habit of prayer more easily and more concretely, and it gives us a fighting chance to succeed.

For me, I pray the Rosary late each evening, when the cares of the day are already passing and I can concentrate better on my prayers, particularly as it is much quieter at that time; evening prayer also allows me to go over my intentions of the day, which have increased as the day has gone on.

And this leads on nicely to the next point – what are we praying for?

Our first reason for praying is to give praise to God, Who deserves our praise and our adoration. He also deserves our thanks for all the blessings He grants us each and every day – beginning with the fact that we are alive, and then becoming more specific as we look at our lives and all they contain, including the people with whom we interact each day.

As human beings, we all have needs – and that might be the next focus of our prayers. We may pray for our own personal needs, whatever they are, as well as the needs of others – they have needs, too. After all, if we stop at ourselves, we have missed the point of acquiring and developing the habit of prayer. As much as the Scriptures tell us to pray, they also tell us to pray for each other – remember, the Lord gave us the Our Father, not the My Father. Prayer is communal; we lift up each other in prayer, and prayer gains even greater power when we pray in company. If we feel we are short of ‘intentions’ for which to pray, try to listen carefully to every person we meet in the course of the day; if our heart is attuned, we will very quickly find more than enough intentions to keep us busy in prayer.

Pope Francis tells us that “prayer is all powerful” and he goes on to say that “miracles happen – but prayer is needed; prayer that is courageous, struggling and persevering, not prayer that is a mere formality”. In other words, our prayers – whatever form they may take – should come deeply from the heart, and they should cost us something of ourselves.

St John Paul also spoke often about prayer, as on this occasion – “often the most powerful prayers are the unspoken acts of mercy we choose as intercession for a specific person, intention, or global need .. prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history”.

He went on to say that his favourite prayer is that of the Rosary, which he called “a storehouse of countless blessings”. He said – “the Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christ-centered prayer.  It has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety.  It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, Her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in Her virginal womb”.

Perhaps, then, this is a further crucial element we need in order to acquire, develop and maintain the habit of prayer – a model in prayer.

We have so many holy models to choose from and to imitate – they are called Saints, each with a particular slant on prayer, it’s form and it’s type. The Church has placed these people before us precisely for this reason – that we, like them and following in their footsteps, might seek to become holy; and we cannot achieve this at all if we do not pray.

There are many who will tell us what prayer is, of what it consists, and recommend various ways of doing it – and that is all well and good. In the end, though, the important thing is not really that we know about prayer, but that we actually pray.

The model above all others is surely that of the Mother of God, the Woman of prayer of the Gospels, Who “kept all these things and pondered them in Her Heart”.

And that, surely, helps to describe the habit of prayer.

In this time of present coronavirus pandemic, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has specially written a prayer which beautifully captures the feelings which will be in many hearts; perhaps this prayer is a good and timeous one with which we can begin –