Tell me about your home altar

I’ve been steeping in Catholic social media for more than 20 years, seeing into the lives and homes of people who identify very strongly as Catholics. And yet somehow all that time, I’ve been able to resist the idea of putting together a home altar. It always felt like something that other people do, people with tidier home and more orderly lives.

It’s not that I’ve kept some kind of aggressively secularized home, goodness knows. I’ve always hung sacred images on my walls, and our bookshelves have been as festooned as anyone else’s with little headless and handless Catholic statuary, and I don’t even want to think about how many year’s worth of dried out palm leaves are secreted in various cabinets, fruitlessly waiting to be burned. Growing up, it affected me very much to live surrounded with the faces of saints and angels and the eyes of icons.

But for some reason, I’ve always resisted gathering everything together into a dedicated spot that has no other purpose than to be a sacred space. Possibly I’m afraid that, if we have religious images everywhere, we can just live with them more or less passively, according to our abilities; but if there’s one spot that’s for nothing other than prayer, it will become very obvious when we’re falling down on the job. Even more obvious than it already is. 

But for whatever reason, I recently finally pulled the trigger. I cleared off the top of the little piano and laid out a cloth. I bought a standing crucifix, arranged some robust potted plants around it, hung some icons and holy images on the wall behind it in a way that is visually balanced and also makes a sort of narrative spiritual sense to me, and put together the books we refer to for spiritual reading, and I guess . . . there it is.

Now what?

I am well past the notion that any kind of physical thing you can buy and set up in your house is going to magically, automatically make a meaningful difference in your spiritual life on its own. It just doesn’t work that way, and I know it. Still, I’d like to use this home altar, now that we’ve got it. Who’s got ideas for me?

We’ve done fairly well so far keeping it reserved just for sacred things, and we’re not letting random junk pile up on it (other than burnt-out matches and some dead leaves, but I’ll get to that!); but I’d like to put it to good use. I’m not really worried about doing it wrong, because I know it’s entirely optional; but I like it, and I’d like to do more.

I have a candle in a glass cup (which I bought when a priest friend said Mass in our home!), and when we manage to say our prayers at night, we light the candle in front of the crucifix first. On the anniversary of my parents’ death, I lit their yahrzeit candles there, as well. We do have little girls in the house, and when they bring in violets and dandelions and pretty rocks, I’ll encourage them to bring them to the altar.

What else? I know we can decorate it liturgically, as the year goes on. I would definitely like to emphasize more to my family how the year is anchored liturgically, and live less according to the retail seasons. This should help.

Tell me your home altar stories. Has it actually enriched your family’s spiritual life? If you’ve had a home altar for a while, have you changed your idea of what it should look like or what it’s for? Do you have rules about what belongs there, or do you let family members contribute whatever seems appropriate to them? I want to know!

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 16, 2022.


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6 thoughts on “Tell me about your home altar”

  1. Our home altar which I call a prayer table Or prayer space is in our dining room and since at the dining table we do much of our discussion about faith and at least our meal prayer it has become the heart of much of our liturgical living at home which has been amped up in the last couple years. I definitely recommend changing out the cloth with appropriate church season colored cloths and decoration. This is also where during lent we put a crown of thorns or cover the whole thing during the Passiontide, for Advent where we will put the Jesse tree or the advent wreath, for Easter fresh flowers, etc. Like you said making a space dedicated to the sacred doesn’t automatically make the family do holy things but I do think having a dedicated space and focal point during family prayer has made an impact little by little. I love how your girls add things like flowers. Little offerings. My son wanted to add a stone to remind us of the one rolled away at the tomb one Easter. Stuff like this is was sanctifies the day to day. Your space is lovely. 🙂

  2. A couple things:
    I have some things that are easily changed out for various feasts and seasons. I just feel better connected to the Church when I keep up with the colors, etc.

    My home altar is in a room without a television, and with some comfy furniture. I can light a votive and look at a beautiful image. It’s a peaceful place to pray.

    It’s a fairly passive nod, but I like to have a blessed candle burning on Sundays and holy days. Again with the connections. We started this with Mass at home during covid and it stuck.

  3. Until recently, our “home altar” has been a Divine Mercy image with a little picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Joseph on either side hanging on the wall by the TV. I didn’t feel up to trying to figure out where to put an actual altar in our tiny house.

    During COVID, I set up a home altar by putting a little coffee table on the table under our TV and put a bedsheet and a crucifix in a jar of beans on it on Sundays. We did a home Church thing where we read the day’s readings and on Easter Sunday we put a homemade paschal candle and a jar of wildflowers on it. It did help us keep some sense of the sacred while the churches were closed.

    For May, I put a white scrap of cloth over the top of the long-time vacant aquarium and put a statue of Mary on top. June rolled around, and I found green and purple squares of cloth at the dollar tree and hemmed them at home. The aquarium is sitting there with a green cloth and this year’s homemade paschal candle (too many small kids to try to make it to Easter vigil, so we do a mini one at home) on it now… haven’t gotten any further than that. The one on the wall has been a helpful focus for prayer for me, I’m thinking of using the new one just for liturgical season stuff.

  4. My first born son died suddenly when he was 3. We have a little table that is like an altar with pictures and candles. But I don’t pray there. I pray in the spot where he died. When I find something around the house that reminds me of him, I put it on the alter and leave it there for a bit.

    Over time we add images of people who died in our community. Mostly parents of friends.

    At Christmas we put our crèche under it. His birthday was in December.

    I like your idea of renewing it in rhythm with liturgical seasons.

  5. Hi, I have recently subscribed to your website and love reading what you’ve been up to! I need to put together an altar in our home and your post has inspired me. The Catholic Montessori my children attended encouraged a home altar. One of the good ideas for the altar was to first lay out a cloth in the corresponding liturgical color. Another was to have a beautiful table top bible stand with the Bible open and placed on the stand. This is where I’ll start and then layer on all the other good stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Ok, so this is not actually about a home altar. Well, I can say something about that in a minute…maybe.
    It is about a recent post that you wrote about visiting Ithaca NY. You posted some pictures of Immaculate Conception parish, which is where I was baptized and came into the Church as a 22 year old, starry-eyed young lady on the verge of getting married. My dear husband Pat and I were students at Cornell and were married at Immaculate Conception a year after my entry into the Church. Our first child, Mary, was baptized there. She just turned 21 yesterday, so this was all that many years ago! The RCIA catechesis lacked substance at the time, which I of course did not fully understand, but I have such fond memories of that place!
    I wanted to let you know because I feel a tangential connection to you. Your sister Devra used to lead my Opus Dei circle in Ann Arbor MI (before she left us!) and my Mary was good friends with her daughter Susanna. Golly, that feels like another lifetime. Anyway, I remember Devra always speaking so fondly of you. It was clear that she was proud of you.
    Ok, rambling is done. Thank you for your posts, columns, whatever they are called. They often make me laugh so hard I p..
    You are a treasure to moms like me! I have 9 kids, 21 to 4.
    Keep it up!
    With admiration,
    Sarah Schloss

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