When archaeologists uncover the remains of a building, they will often rely on peculiarities of its design to tell them who built it and what it was used for. Church buildings are no different. Even those of the same time and place can differ depending on which religious order or congregation built them. There are many Oratories dotted around Italy now, but there are even more buildings that once belonged to Oratorian communities that no longer exist. They can be recognised by the distinctive layout of their buildings. The typical Oratorian site has three elements: a church, a house and a little oratory.
Despite its name, the little oratory is the place where some of the most important work of the Oratory happens — that’s why it has a dedicated space. It is where, historically, the daily sermons were preached and the Fathers gathered in prayer with all those who wished to join them. It is named after that first place of prayer where St Philip taught his spiritual children how to pray.
The closest thing we have to a little oratory in Oxford is the Guild Room. It’s where the Fathers gather for prayer each evening, and where many of our groups spend a portion of their meetings praying together. But it was not always so.
The Guild Room started life as an extra classroom, built when what is now the parish centre was a school, before the parish school moved to new premises further along the Woodstock Road in the 1970s. When the school left, the room became the place where parish guilds met for their regular meetings, and the name stuck. Over time, the guilds got smaller, and more of the space was given over to storage. By the early 1990s, it was storing so many items that it couldn’t be used for anything else. The space was cleared out and transformed so that it could be used for meetings, talks and catechesis once again. But items in storage began to build up once more, and the room needed another good clear out a few years ago. It was also treated to a major redecoration, and an altar was constructed so that Mass could be said there. If you watched our livestream during the first lockdown, then you have seen Mass being said at this altar.
Now you may well be wondering why a detailed history of the Guild Room has replaced the weekly reflection. It hasn’t. The history of this room is a paradigm of the spiritual life:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Matt. 12:43–45)
Rooms that aren’t kept clean and tidy accumulate junk. And if they are left empty — if they are not given a purpose — then the last state can easily become worse than the first.
In the Guild Room and in our lives, junk gets in the way of prayer. If we don’t keep on top of things, it’s possible for the junk to accumulate to such a degree that prayer becomes impossible. From time to time we might need to have a major clear out, but we can avoid that if we keep things clean and tidy before the junk gets a chance to build up. Most importantly, we can’t leave these spaces empty and purposeless. Putting an altar into the Guild Room has guaranteed its use as a place of prayer. Our Lord warns his listeners that it is not enough to have their demons cast out and their sins forgiven: they need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Their souls need to become places of prayer.
Our Guild Room is closer to being a little oratory than it has been in the past. But it only takes a quick Google image search to show you that it’s not there yet. No matter. This too is like the spiritual life. This is what St Philip called the ‘human’ degree of spirituality — where we are doing that constant maintenance, fighting off sin by building up virtue, until we reach the kind of effortless sanctity we see in the lives of the saints. It’s certainly a step up from the animal life, where we are controlled by temptations and passions, but still one below the perfection of the angelic life. ‘Of these three degrees it is well to persevere in the second, because the Lord will grant the third in his own good time,’ St Philip said, ‘The Lord grants in a moment what we may have been unable to obtain in dozens of years.’
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