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Photo of my cellar prayer corner
Prayers from a dark cellar

Posted on 28 February 2012, 6:19

Last Wednesday, on the first day of Western Lent, I went down into the cellar of my house to clear out a small hidden recess. It’s round the corner from the steps down into the cellar and must be the darkest space in the house – and it was filled with kindling and bits of firewood. Many years ago, I used the recess as a prayer space, and there’s something in this year which is nudging me to pray there again.

Once I’d cleared out the wood, brushed down the flaking walls and swept the floor, I looked round the cellar for bits and pieces which would work as basic furniture for a would-be hermit. There was a chunky plank of wood by the electricity meter, so I cut it to length to make a low shelf, with two old paint pots (one at each end) to hold it up. I found a sawn-off block of tree trunk which was just begging to be sat on.

Then I brought down a candle, some sticks of incense, a Bible and a couple of prayer books, a hand-sized old Orthodox crucifix and a copy of an icon that has always meant a lot to me. And a box of matches, of course. Then I turned out the light and sat in the dark for about 15 minutes until my night vision started to pick up and I could make out a few fuzzy shapes. Although some dim, natural daylight filters down the stairs, this corner is plunged in near total darkness. So it was just me, God, and the occasional particle of light zipping through.

I first thought about creating a sacred space in the house when I read the journalist and theologian Margaret Hebblethwaite’s highly creative book Motherhood and God back in the 1980s. She made a place like this in a cupboard under her stairs, half underground.


When I sit in this little, low prayer place, facing the crucifix and the Shroud face, with the lighted candle below them and a narrow shaft of light from the grating slanting down from above, then I feel a great sense of spaciousness. Around may be the noises of the house… but I feel I am resting here in the centre of things, in the hidden centre of my home, in the secret centre of my soul, and that centre is a place of calm and light and space. Sometimes I stay less than a minute, sometimes more than half an hour. I am called away from it as often as I leave voluntarily. But I like to know it is there, even when I am not in it. Just to think of the place for a moment is a prayer.


Prompted by that, and by the Orthodox tradition of the icon corner, I’ve had a prayer space in my work room on the ground floor since the 1990s. But sitting in the dark of the cellar on Wednesday and lighting a candle, I immediately knew this would be the best place right now for the things that usually happen to me when I pray: feel God, feel nothing at all, get bored, get inspired, find peace, find turmoil – but most of all realise that just to sit here, putting myself where God can find me, is prayer itself.

And I like this symbolism. Prayer from underground, from the deepest part, in the rough foundations. Prayer from the inner workings – there is a labyrinth of old pipes above my head and a freezer behind me which quietly starts up and turns itself off every few minutes. Prayer in the dark, and from a place where you wouldn’t expect to find it. It’s nice to do something which might surprise even God.

I’m doing this because I’m not very good at prayer. But I’ve found over the years that the best thing I ever did about that was to set up my prayer corner, so that at odd moments I can go there to pray or simply to sit with God. And I’ve discovered, as Margaret Hebblethwaite did, that just to think of that place is prayer.

I’m hoping that having this more intense space in the dark, surrounded by the things which point me to God, will help me pray for friends who are going through truly hard times, and that it will bring a bit of fire to my weak faith.

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