Once upon a time, after some brief spiritual direction and a Confession, the penance given to me was to “build an altar in your house.” I have always had a difficult time explaining the purpose of an altar in our house to Soldier Boy, but I have tried my best to ensure I have a corner that I use in every house since.
I have been to some houses where the entire room is adorned in apparent religious things – pictures of Jesus, Rosaries, pictures of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), a Cross or a Crucifix, pictures of Saints and/or Angels or small statues, prayer cards, you name it. I don’t have enough of those kinds of devotions to fill a room. Nor, do I really have a desire to fill an entire room. Each altar in a house is an individual representation and expression of one’s faith, and should thus be a reflection of that individual’s style.
When I was in elementary school, I was going to be a nun. My altar was erected under the house stairs. I would spend hours a day, after school, in prayer. I had a kneeler (also known as a wooden saw horse graciously donated by my parents to indulge this desire of mine), a picture of Jesus, and my Rosary. And, I would spend countless hours there, praying fervently, for whatever needs I had at the time – I distinctly recall many prayers being said for my older brother, whom I was certain was going to hell because he said a curse word, or he threw an “evil eye” toward me, or he said a string of curse words, or he threatened (or followed through with said threat) to hurt me. Did I mention I prayed for him because he cursed? I prayed a lot for my brother’s immortal soul under those stairs. That said, the older I got, and the more involved I became in living a less-religious life, the more I drifted from my altar.
So, when tasked with building an altar, the chaplain advised it didn’t have to be fancy or take up a lot of room, but is a small sanctuary to go and pray. He was hoping to help re-inspire me to begin having an active prayer life again. Does one have to pray in church? No! Does one have to pray at an altar? No! But, if you are in need of a focused place of prayer, church and/or an altar in your home is a place to help you focus. Thinking back on it, I think he told me I should have a candle, a Bible, and some sort of visual aid (i.e. a Cross, a Crucifix, a picture) to help me be able to focus on what I was doing at that altar.
Now that I am trying to live a more prayerful life, one in which I spend a bit of time in spontaneous prayer – sometimes, I will admit, the prayer is a “keep me sane as my child drives me crazy!” – I find myself frequenting my altar less. However, it is set up, in my home.
What does my altar look like? It’s simple, and most people wouldn’t recognize it as an altar. It is strategically placed inside the front door of my home. Purposefully put there, in hopes that it would immediately let visitors to my house know that I am Christian, and try to instill Christian values in my household.
As you can tell, my altar has an Angel that says, “God Bless our Men and Women in Uniform,” Michael the Archangel, and a statue of Mary crushing the serpent Satan. The statue of Mary was 7 dollars at a Ross; the other 2 statues were gifts from family for various occasions. There is also a tray that says “Amen,” on it, a gift from a friend, that now holds my Rosaries – before I received the tray, I had the Rosaries placed on the table. I have the palm fronds from Palm Sunday this past year, because I never try to fold my palms in time before they dry out, and the Crucifixes in my house don’t like to hold the palms the way I’ve seen in other Catholic homes. I also have a few gifts for people I plan to send, the closer it comes to Christmas. “A Prayer of Surrender,” is also available for the days I need to remind myself to give my worries and fears over to God, as well as a small gift that reminds me to surrender to His will and, “Lead me, Lord.” I strategically placed a picture of an eagle, flying with the American flag, and the words, “These colors never run,” above the altar, as a reminder to pray for our country and our troops. There are also two small candles, of which I will explain the significance in another blog post.
The Michael the Archangel statue had to be strategically placed in his position, because if you aren’t careful, it looks like Mary will get sliced as he fights off Satan and the devil’s evil spirits. I didn’t want Michael to stab Mary, or look like the angle of his sword could stab Mary!
Why is there no Cross or Crucifix? Because the Crucifix was strategically placed above a light switch, which is visible from the doorway before the door is fully opened. To see the altar, I have to fully open the door, or let you in my house; to see the crucifix, all I have to do is open the door a couple inches. So, even the Mormon missionaries that came to visit about this time last year got to see the Crucifix, even though the door wasn’t opened far enough during their visit to see the entirety of the altar – had Soldier Boy not been deployed, I would have invited them in for a cup of hot chocolate or something warm, since it was a late fall, dark, and chilly the night they were making their rounds. They would have certainly seen the entire altar had they come in the house!
I also don’t keep books on the altar, to include a Bible. My Bibles (yes, plural) are in constant use between Bible studies in which I participate. So, there is one on my bookshelf in a room to the left of the altar, there is one in my “go bag” for the Bible studies, and there is one on my kitchen table. I feel as though having it on the altar in this current home would not allow me to really use it, and would keep it in direct line of sight of Man Cub, who has not yet mastered the art of handling thin pages of a Bible carefully.
Each home we live in brings new challenges to an altar. In our house in Hawaii, we had a random nook in our hallway that only fit 2 of the statues. They comprised my altar until I could create another table, and even then, that table frequently changed what was on it, depending on Man Cub’s mobility and the season (it got cleared off for our Nativity) at Advent and Christmas each year. I didn’t have a candle on any of those altars because honestly, there wasn’t room.
I have heard of many non-Catholics having a “prayer corner” in their homes, or an area where the mom usually likes to sit and read her Bible. The altar in a Catholic home provides that centrality and the same purpose.
Do you have an altar in your home? Or, a prayer corner? What do you like to keep in your special prayer area? Do you have special tokens that remind you of a particular memory? Or, do you use whatever you have on hand? If you don’t have an altar in your home, or a prayer corner, have you considered setting one up? What would yours look like?