When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:6)
The obvious answer to the question is: anywhere and everywhere, “walking in public or strolling alone...seated in your shop...while buying or selling...or even while cooking” (St. John Chrysostom). There are no limits.
When I was teaching high school, I used to work out at a local fitness center that many of the students used. They would see me running on the treadmill at night, praying my rosary. Often students asked me, “Does praying on the treadmill count?”
I think there is a special place in purgatory for the person that originated the notion that some places count more than others do. Did this individual ever consider what this implies about the God who longs for us? Imagine God saying, “I’m not listening, Gary, because you are on the treadmill.” That is certainly not the God of Jesus Christ. The Father always hears us, whenever and wherever we cry out to him.
Just to be clear, one of my favorite places in the world to pray is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (I prefer sitting in the left-hand corner if you’re facing the tabernacle). The trouble is, I do not live in Rome, and I am rarely there. When Jesus tells his followers to go their rooms to pray, he is speaking about our capacity for interiority. He is not referencing a specific location. While designated places of prayer are invaluable, not everyone has regular access to them. What each of us can do, however, is fashion a prayer space of our own. Many martyrs of the Church turned their prison cells into great oratories where they poured out their souls to Christ. Many horrific, inhuman spaces have been consecrated by the women and men that used them as a place to commune with God. I think of Maximilian Kolbe singing God’s praises in solitary confinement while dying. I also think about all the lives saved because faithful members of Christ’s body prayed outside or across the street from abortion clinics.
It would be great if every day when we go off by ourselves to pray we could do that in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. This is unrealistic, and not even what the Church commands. For this reason, when we do have occasion to be alone with God in the presence of his Eucharistic Son, we should be grateful. Nevertheless, most of us will spend the majority of our alone time in our homes (or perhaps for commuters, in our cars, on public transportation, or walking). It is important that the space we use, like the time we spend, be the same. Our familiarity with designating a particular space for prayer will help move us into meditative, reflective conversation.
I have set aside a corner of my bedroom. I use the chair I sit in to pray only for that purpose. I place nothing on it, nor do I sit in it to tie my shoes or talk on the phone. I use it only for prayer, and the little stand that is next to it holds only my prayer book (and a statue of the Little Flower and a picture of Mother Teresa and a chaplet to the Blood of Christ). When I enter into this precious little space, I know I am doing so to be in the presence of God.
The choice of location is extremely important. Ideally, the chosen place should not be the center of commotion and activity. A quiet place that is comfortable, soothing, and familiar lends itself to what we are about, namely a retreat into the interiority of our hearts. We should be physically comfortable and as free from all external distractions as possible. A cramped awkward space next to noisy appliances, loud neighbors, and other intrusive noise is not necessarily helpful, especially when starting out. If you chose to make a prayer space outside, on a stoop, a patio, or a balcony, keep in mind the same parameters.
Should you choose a space favorited by your dog or cat, they need to learn you are not there to give them attention. They will learn over time and will even pray themselves. I had a cat that would join me each morning in the chapel in the house I lived in at the time. She would come in and sit calmly next to me the entire time I was at prayer. I know she was blessing the Lord just as dolphins and all water creatures do. My iguanas, snake, and parrots, on the other hand, never blessed the Lord in the chapel. Where I live now, a beaver that lives on the river where I fly-fish likes to sit next to me while I say Morning Prayer. As the sun crests over the mountains, we sit side by side (about fifteen yards apart) and together bless the Lord. That beaver is extremely devout.
Wherever I have lived, I have created a place that I use only for conversation with the Lord. I have found this to lend itself well to the task. I know this may appear to be difficult for those with young children at home, so a little creativity may be helpful. Tell your children what you are doing and why. This can be a great teaching tool. For those that are married, work together on identifying the right space.
If in identifying a regular time you decide that the commute to work offers the best opportunity, then make certain your car is properly equipped (e.g., a clean interior). What also may be helpful is a holy card afixed to the dash, a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror (if legal), and a bottle of holy water that can be used to bless the interior before you begin your drive. The Missionaries of Charity always pray when driving from point A to point B, even if only driving a block. I rarely have passengers in my car and am not in the habit of listening to the radio, so I constantly talk to the Lord while driving. You will be surprised at how quickly you will look forward to and become accustomed to the drive because it means you are alone with the Lord.
In truth, we can consecrate any space to the Lord, but we should give special attention to ensure that our prayer is not competing with whatever else may regularly be going on in the space (for instance, the bathroom). For many, the bathroom may be the only place to grab a quick few moments alone, which is fine, but it should not become the go-to place for substantive time with the Lord. This is not to suggest that the demands of the body are bad (the Jewish people have a prayer that is said after having attended to the needs of the body); it is simply that everything about the space can be an obvious hurdle to overcome. I pray in my bathroom every morning. While I shower, I renew my baptismal promises as the water falls over me. It proves to be a concrete way of reminding myself that I do reject Satan, his works and empty promises. I also affirm what I believe because of the person I have become.
Insofar as we all experience many natural distractions, it is important that the place we choose in being alone with God does not have too many built-in or customary distractions. Having said this, if you find that the only place in your home available to steal away and be with God is the bathroom (the tub, shower, etc.), then have at it. Be sure, however, to do something similar to what I mentioned about the car. Sprinkle some holy water and physically make the room a place for prayer. Do not simply do this in your mind. It must be a physical, overt act.