The Prayer of the Hearth

The Prayer of the Hearth August 20, 2010

So the book on my bedside table (if I had one…I should actually say: the book on the floor) is The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther de Waal. (This is where I give a shout out to my friend Kristen for the recommendation.) I’m four chapters in and in love with this book. Esther de Waal is a laywoman and mother of four who writes and lectures on Benedictine and Celtic Christian spirituality. In short, she’s my new favorite.

Though at four chapters in I can’t give you a clear summary, I can tell you that de Waal is writing about the power and vibrancy of the Celtic tradition of Christianity. When Christianity (mostly monasticism) entered Celtic life, the people’s prayers and way of praying grew out of an already existing canon of songs and poetry. Celtic Christianity embodies the physical world in a way I’ve rarely seen and the prayers that de Waal discusses in this book are beautiful not simply because their poetry is lovely but because they’re based around the very mundane parts of regular life. Just what this SAHM needs. (I’m hoping there’s a prayer for funky diapers somewhere in this book.)

The spiritual world was made physical for these believers because they gave themselves constant reminders of the Trinity’s presence in their lives. For example, the day would begin with three splashes of water on the face as a kind of prayer, a physical reminder of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (47). I keep thinking how beautiful it would be for me to begin to incorporate such reminders into my life: Tapping my toothbrush three times, stirring my oatmeal three times, snuggling my son three times…

One of the prayers I keep coming back to is the prayer of the hearth.  Each night before bed, the woman of the home had the task of smooring the fire of the hearth. This was a kind of ceremony on behalf of her home, a time of prayer to ask protection over her husband and children. Here’s how Esther de Waal describes the process:

The embers were spread evenly on the hearth in the middle of the floor and formed into a circle with a small boss, or raised heap, left in the middle. This circle was then divided into three equal sections with a peat laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, with was called the Hearth of the Three which formed the common center. The first peat was laid down in the name of the God of Life, the second the God of Peace, and the third the God of Grace. The circle would then be covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not extinguish the flame in the name of the Three of Light. Then the woman would close her eyes, stretch out her hand, and softly intone the following prayer, which opens:

The sacred Three
To save
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.
Amen (47-48).

I love the simplicity of this prayer. It’s not asking much. In fact it’s more a reminder that the Trinity is already surrounding, shielding and saving the home. It makes sense to me that it’s the mother who is praying this prayer of protection: She’s the one with the giant list of worries; she knows what could happen on any given night if her home is not kept safe.

I love that a prayer was so beautifully incorporated into the necessary act of smothering the fire at the center of the home: where food is cooked, where warmth is found, where the family gathers. And I love the idea of nighttime being the moment when I stand before God on behalf of my husband and son and ask for protection on “This night, / And every night / Each single night.”

So this is my question for all of you (non mothers, please share as well!). What is your “Prayer of the Hearth”? What reminds you to pray for your family and when does it usually happen? Do you have a “hearth,” a center of your home that could serve as an altar of sorts on behalf of your family?

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