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.

 

Yes, you should have a crucifix on your wall

A friend told me that a friend of her, a priest who was an exorcist, had cleansed a house of demons not long ago. The priest noticed and remarked that there were no crucifixes hung anywhere on the walls, even though the family was Catholic.

No crosses, no icons, no devotional pictures, no holy cards, no tin Sacred Hearts, no dried-up palm branches stuffed behind a family photo. No Bible, decorative or otherwise. But especially, no crucifix.

I only heard his comment second-hand, so I’m not sure if there was any follow-up, or how much importance he attached to it. Still, he thought it was worth remarking on, and so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Why should we hang crucifixes in our house, if not to ward off demons?

Well, warding off demons isn’t actually a bad motivation. The cross, and specifically the crucifix, does have a certain amount of power just because of what it is, and (just purely speculating as a layman), I can imagine an unclean spirit at very least feeling uncomfortable around it, and less willing to settle in.

But of course, the crucifix isn’t a magic charm or a lucky horseshoe. What I can more easily imagine is an unclean spirit feeling uncomfortable in the kind of house where a crucifix is not only hung, but noticed and revered.

But let’s say you hung up a crucifix, and that was the end of it. You did it because you always had one growing up, or because you wanted to make your grandmother happy, or because it just looks pretty. You don’t especially revere it or even notice it after a while. Is it still worthwhile?

I think so. Simply hanging a crucifix on the wall where everyone can see it will likely feel like an act of courage and loyalty in this aggressively secular, post-Christian time. It’s not easy to buck the culture.

But if your house has no crucifix or other holy images on display, and especially if you’re resistant to the idea of making that happen, you could ask yourself why. If your reason is purely aesthetic, that’s an easy problem to solve.

No matter how carefully curated the decor of your house, there is a crucifix for your tastes. In the course of two thousand years old, Christianity has reached every culture and continent, and that means there are crucifixes rendered in every conceivable style. That’s kind of a feature of the cross: It’s never going to be irrelevant, anywhere or at any time.

But that’s just aesthetics. Maybe your antipathy goes a little deeper, and you’re afraid people will think you’re some kind of fanatic — or worse, they’ll see you as some kind of pervert or enabler. Maybe you don’t hang a crucifix because you don’t want to be associated with the ugliness that is so often the face of the Catholic Church today.

 
Well, that is actually the point of the cross. It is ugly. It is shameful. It is painfully public.
 

It shows innocence betrayed, and it shows someone suffering for crimes he did not commit. It shows humanity’s darkest hour. It is therefore especially appropriate to display when the corporate Church has let its flock down so horribly.

I’ll just say it: Refusing to hang a crucifix because you don’t want to be associated with thing like that is dangerously close to rejecting Jesus. 

If you can’t be publicly Catholic when being Catholic looks bad, then what’s the point? The way Jesus found himself on the cross in the first place is because he decided to hang around with the likes of us. He chose to associate himself with a whole race of perverts, enablers, cowards, narcissists, predators, liars, cheats, and thugs, and this is where it got him.
 

This is where it got us: A few breaths away from the Beatific Vision, by way of the cross.

And that’s really the main issue. Putting a crucifix on the wall of your home is not primarily for the benefit of any visitors who might see it. It’s for yourself. It’s so you can look at it in peace and prosperity and remember how ephemeral worldly peace and prosperity are.

And it’s so you can look at it in terrible, painful times and see that pain is never empty and meaningless because is full of the company of Christ. And it’s so you can remember that the cross, that instrument of torture, is occupied — not by you, but by the one who took your place for no good reason at all except that he loves you.

The crucifix isn’t a lucky charm that chases away bogeymen. It’s something much stranger: It’s the disrupter of every fakery, and the answer that makes a mockery out of every foolish question. But it hangs so quietly, willing to be ignored.

Let’s not.

 

 

 

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A version of this essay was first published in the Catholic Weekly in 2019.

Meaningful Christmas traditions and how to wrangle them

I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.

I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away for no reason at all. AT CHRISTMAS.

So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions . . . 

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Never mind the baby, here’s Advent?

(Because it’s totally appropriate to riff on a Sex Pistols song title when meditating on the Christ Child. Moving along!)

It has come to my attention that I’ve now put up two posts (here and here) encouraging Christians to place themselves in the presence of Baby Jesus while we’re still waiting for Him to be born. Why would I do such a thing?

I can see how it might be irritating. Advent is the season of anticipation and preparation. It just is. We have a perfectly good liturgical year, and there’s no need to go rearranging it on a whim. It’s like the weather in New Hampshire: If you don’t like it, just wait a minute. Christmas (or Lent, or whatever) will be here before you know it, so let it be what it is.

Well, a couple of things. First, we may be a little too impressed with our current understanding of what is liturgically proper and essential, especially within the domestic church. What we consider essential and incontrovertible warn’t always necessarily so. For instance,

In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the “Advent images”, two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest.

I wonder what Facebook would think about that! Sadface Angryface, at very least.

The truth is, the no one really knows when Catholics started to observe Advent as a season of solemn penitence. These things aren’t carved in stone, and they’re not moral issues, especially when you’re talking about issues like which hymn to play and whether or not to take a statue out of storage a month earlier than usual. So there’s certainly nothing immoral, or dangerous, or illicit, about putting the baby front and center before Christmas Day actually arrives, either in the physical church or in your spiritual life.

Second, I probably would have been irritated, myself, if I had heard all this premature “baby, baby, it’s about the baby!” stuff many Advents ago.

What changed my attitude? I had a premature baby myself, eight years ago.

She was only just barely premature, at 36 weeks, and she had only transient health problems, thank God. But I thought I had a whole other month to prepare! I wasn’t ready, at all.  No baby clothes washed and sorted, no hospital bag packed, no babysitting lined up, cradle still in storage. I hadn’t even done much nesting yet, and we were still working on names.

But there she was, small and sleepy but very much arrived. She came home wearing clothes and a blanket the hospital had donated, because I had no idea I’d be leaving with a baby that day. Did she care? No, she did not. She cared about her empty belly and her wet diaper, and her need to be held. The due date circled on the calendar meant precisely nothing.

And that was when I learned that being ready is great, but it is by no means required.

What is required is rising to the task at hand, ready or not — or, as I keep harping on, tending to the person at hand, ready or not. It would have been no good to protest that I couldn’t possibly take care of a baby for at least another two weeks, according to the plan. She was here, and she needed to be fed and cared for without delay. And that was how I worked out my salvation that particular year — with excruciating visits to the lactation consultant with six other kids in tow; with painful, round-the-clock pumping and a bewildering assortment of silicone tubing and bitsy little membranes that needed to be sterilized and not lost track of. It was hard, physically and emotionally. But I learned so much more about myself and about love and sacrifice than I would have if I had had that extra month to “prepare.”

So, yes, DO THE LOVE THING NOW is a big part of my spirituality in general, at least for now. For me, “Oh, hang on, I’m still preparing” is just an excuse, and I’m really just goofing off and hoping I look busy. All too often, I’ll try to put my responsibilities off indefinitely, calling it “preparation,” but halfway hoping I’ll get let off the hook, and, when the acceptable hour arrives, I won’t have to do it at all.

Or else, if I do throw myself into preparations, I feel so obnoxiously proud of myself that I become completely insufferable, and give myself way more credit than I deserve. Well, bringing home that dark-haired little baby without even a bag of diapers to our name, I felt God poke me and say, “Hey. If this works out, you’ll know it wasn’t because of you.” Got it!

But that’s just me and my issues. If approaching Advent this way doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Everyone has a different lesson to learn, different bad habits to correct for, different defects to fill out — and different kinds of encouragement and sustenance that God wants to give you, too. Whatever it is that you need, Advent can help. Or if not, the next liturgical part of the year can. Cycles are great that way.

Now where’s my ha’penny? I was promised a ha’penny.

 

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Photo by Sanjasy via Pixabay

Epiphany, you’re on your own.

“Keep that tree up until Epiphany!” they keep saying. “It’s still Christmas, you know! Don’t take down that tree yet!” they keep saying. They are imagining something like this:

AS0000101FB16 Christmas, babies, children and family

(Photo Credit Anthea Sieveking , Wellcome Images)

O, Holy Night!

Whereas what hulks in our living room is more along these lines:

photo (6)

Oh, holy crap.

Epiphany, you’re on your own.