Modern practitioners may not know it, but a home altar is considered a staple feature of every Catholic home. As a central place for family prayer and a quiet space for meditation, the home altar is arranged in an easily accessible location where family members can engage in prayer together or separately.
Some Catholics choose to have small altars in every bedroom, but central family shrines or altars are most common. They can be elaborate with large statues, expensive linens and holy incense or simple affairs with small crucifixes and prayer cards. Whatever their size or location, the altars share one purpose: Prayerful worship together or alone that fosters closeness with God.
Why have a family shrine?
A centralized place dedicated to prayer and meditation promotes the idea that spirituality is a priority. When we promote group prayer and hymns into our busy lives, the activities centralize our worship and emphasize togetherness and faith. Individual prayer and meditation, with quiet moments of deep breathing, self-reflection and mindfulness, are key parts of worship not only for Catholics but also for practitioners of many religious traditions worldwide.
Many family altars include photographs of loved ones who have passed away, along with their funeral prayer cards and perhaps their rosaries. In some cultures, family shrines have tall candles burning day and night before large photographs of the dead.
The family altar ensures our belief in the continuity of life. We can visit quietly with Jesus and know that He listens to our prayers; we are reassured in the knowledge that we will see our late relatives and friends once again when we, too, pass away. Our altar is a testimony to eternal life.
What is included
Pinterest images offer many different ideas for home altars. They can be color-coordinated to the room they’re in, or tailored for children with easy-to-read prayers and child-friendly statues, such as those picturing the Good Shepherd. They can incorporate heirloom linens and be transformed throughout the year according to the liturgical season.
Basics of a family altar include:
- A Catholic Bible (free versions are available online and they are available for purchase on many websites)
- Prayer books and prayer cards
- A rosary or multiple rosaries
Fancier shrines can feature more expensive items, such as special incense, blessed salt and holy water; metal or enamel statues of saints or members of the Holy Family; and original Catholic artwork or icons. Many items can be found at ChurchSupplyWarehouse.com and other online sources, Catholic bookstores, or even in trendy shops popular with meditation practitioners.
How to use the family altar
In “The Little Oratory,” authors David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler provide ideas for incorporating the altar into family life, thus welcoming peace to your home and integrating the Church’s feast days and seasons into your lives.
To help Catholic families more fully live the liturgical life of the Church, the book includes advice on how to incorporate Catholic devotions into every room of the home, why the Liturgy of the Hours is important, how to pray the rosary with your children and how to overcome the idea that you are too busy to pray.
Traditionally, Catholic homes often have holy water fonts prominently located near the front door and crucifixes in every room. Crucifixes above the doorway indicate that the family home belongs first to Christ and that Jesus is welcome.
As the central gathering place for prayer, the home altar is the focal point for family religious activity. It is a space reserved for spirituality, where prayers are recited, offerings and sacrifices made and spiritual occasions celebrated. It is where we make petitions to God and prayers of intercession to the saints.
Making it personal
When my mother and I went through Dad’s closet and bureau after he passed away, we discovered prayer books dating back to his childhood and medals of St. Christopher he had worn at various times in his life. I used an antique wooden box we found to house his rosaries and the other religious items until I could incorporate them into my own spiritual life.
In writing this column I’ve discovered the perfect place to locate a home altar. One of our TV trays is covered with a linen tablecloth embroidered by my great-grandmother. On it I’ve placed a votive candle, a decorated pillar candle and one of Dad’s prayer books. I added my paternal grandmother’s rosary – the one she used to hold as she drifted off to sleep while in prayer. I added a medal of mine that pictures St. Catherine of Siena and one of Dad’s St. Christopher lavalieres.
I look forward to meditating in solitude before the lighted candles. I will treasure those quiet moments, inserted into my frantic schedule. In doing so I will feel close to Dad – and reassured by my Catholic faith.