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.
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!