The second chapter of Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Places and Times.” In it he begins by pointing out that
the human being consists of soul and body, and since the latter is tied up with space and time, human prayer in fact always occurs in space and time also. Choosing a suitable place and setting aside the most appropriate hours of the day or night are therefore by no means inessential prerequisites for what the Fathers call “true prayer”. (51)
He then proposes to follow Origen in considering the importance of “place”, “orientation” and “time” in a life of prayer.
The section dealing with place in prayer is entitled “Go into your room.” Noting that for many Christians today prayer has come to be identified with public prayer, or has been displaced by various forms of meditation, Father Gabriel points to the practice of prayer in the life of Jesus, who not only participated in public prayer but also withdrew to pray in solitude. This was a practice that He passed on to His disciples as we see in the example of the apostle Peter withdrawing to pray at the sixth hour. (Acts 10:9)
The Fathers taught that, while Christians can pray anywhere, it is particularly helpful to dedicate a particular space to prayer. Indeed, the first Christians often reserved a particular room in their houses for prayer when they were able to do so.
This emphasis on withdrawing to pray and praying in secret was partly a warning against the danger of hypocrisy and vainglory. It was also recommended in order to avoid distraction in prayer. But there was also a more profound reason. For, in prayer
things occur between the Creator and creature that by their very nature are not meant for the eyes and ears of others.
A brother went to the cell of Abba Arsenios at Scetis. He looked through the window and then saw the elder as if completely on fire. The brother, though, was worthy of seeing this. And when he knocked, the elder came out and saw the brother quite alarmed and said to him: “Have you been knocking for long? Have you perhaps seen something here?” And he replied, “No.” And after speaking with him, he sent him away.
This mysterious “incandescent prayer” is known to us from other Fathers also; Evagrius speaks of it, as does John Cassian. The time for it is principally at night, when the visible world withdraws into darkness; the place for it is the barren “desert”, the high “mountain” that separates us from everything, and when these are not accessible, then the hidden “room”. (56-57)