Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Setting up a Home Altar

When we got married, one of the first things Tom insisted on was that we create a home altar.  I had seen such things at the homes of a few Catholic families we knew, but never really understood how they were "used," or why they had decided to dedicate a specific area of their house for one.  I resisted for a while, not wanting to sacrifice any space in our tiny little duplex towards something that I felt we would never actually use.  Tom won out in the end, though, and we set up a little altar.  I'm glad he insisted on it, because I've seen the graces that the altar has brought to our family and our prayer life.
So What is the Purpose of a Home Altar?

1. It provides a location for prayer in your home.  A gathering place for the family to come together.  The home can truly become the "Domestic Church."

2. It can serve as a focal point - or focusing point - in the house/room.  When you pass by, it's a subtle reminder that your home life is to be centered around God.  It calls your mind to prayer.
"As we have altars and shrines in our churches, so a Catholic family would do well to keep a simple but dignified shrine in the home.  It would be an appropriate symbol to all members that their lives belong to God; that religion and prayer are not merely a Sunday affair, and that the Christian home is a holy place."  (Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Year of the Lord in the Christian Home)

3. It a great place to live out the Liturgical year (especially if you remember to change some of the colors, images, etc. to correspond with the various seasons and feast of the Church).
"Thus the pulsing life of Christ's love and grace, radiating from the visual representation, will imbue our children with the sweet and solid spirit of piety based on the liturgy of the Church. There will be no need of elaborate explanations; for what the children see at the shrine will impress their hearts and minds more eloquently than a flood of words could do." (ibid.)
4. It can serve as a statement to all who enter your home as guests that your household is one that strives to have God at the center.

5. This one is objectively less important, but it's one of my favorite parts of our altar: it provides storage!  We keep many of our holy cards, medals, Rosaries, extra scapulars, and prayer books inside.  It is always easy to find what we need for our personal devotions, or to change the items we placed out on top as the liturgical season changes.

Creating a Home Altar

Your altar can really be as simple or elaborate as you like, as long as it is conducive to prayer.  The most basic requirements are just: a surface, and some sort of prayer aid(s) to place on it. 

Finding a good surface
We used to have an old-fashioned console-style record player (which didn't work anymore) as our altar.  When we moved into our current place, we replaced it with a nice $40 cabinet off Craigslist which has plenty of storage inside for all our "prayer stuff."  Other possible surfaces for your altar are almost endless.  Any sort of tabletop, a shelf, a mantle, a radiator cover....maybe just not on top of the television, as that doesn't seem to be very conducive to reflection and prayer!

What kinds of objects might go on an altar?
You probably have many things around your house already...a crucifix, images, icons, statues, candles, holy water, Rosaries, prayer cards, flowers, prayer books, incense, blessed objects, relics(!) ....anything that might lift your heart to God or help you to pray.  Many people like to put down an altar cloth or linen of some sort.  If you like, you could even find/make some in different colors, and switch them with the liturgical season, as they do at Mass.

Where should the altar be located in the home?
I'd say ideally in a common area such as a family room.  But you also want it to be functional, so it's best to be in a place where the family will actually be able to comfortably gather around for prayer.  This might end up being a bedroom or the dining room or some other part of the house.  (Bonus points if you can orient it on an eastern wall!)

Our Altar

Pretty simple.  I change out the cloth occasionally (I have a nice little stash of lace and embroidered cloths collected over the years from flea markets/thrift stores).  At this point, I really just switch them as a way to change things up, and allow me to wash the dust off the old one - I don't yet have cloths in the appropriate liturgical colors. Anytime I get fresh roses (which is not often enough!) I hang a few upside-down to dry, and replace the most discolored ones in the little brass vases.  St. Gerard is out on our altar now, since he is the patron of expectant mothers.  The painting above cost me $1 at a church flea market.  If your family has not yet enthroned the Sacred Heart in your home, I strongly recommend it!

And the cabinet below holds almost everything we need for family prayers.

When we have a special intention we'd like to pray for, we light one of the large votives seen on the right, and leave it burning for several days on the altar, carrying our intentions up to Heaven.

Some More Resources
How to Set up a Home Altar (Catholic icing)

Do you have a home altar? 
I'd love to hear what you place on it and how you use it!  (feel free to include links to pictures or posts if you have them)


  1. We set up our family altar in the dining room (which is tiny) so there's no room to pray around it. Definitely planning to rework that somehow when we move!

  2. I love it! And I'm looking at that same painting of Jesus right now as I'm typing this!

    And this reminds me that I need to clean off our altar and redecorate since it's still all decked out for Christmas!

  3. We've talked before about a home altar but somehow it keeps getting away from us. Good reminder about the Sacred Heart as well, we haven't done that yet either. There have been a couple times that priest friends have offered to offer the Mass in our home at certain gatherings. So far it hasn't worked out but if ever it were to it would be nice to have an appropriate place set up already.

    1. I never even thought about having a priest say Mass here, but that's another great idea!

  4. I love it! Fully loaded for every liturgical and familial season. Really clever. Ours is pretty much our fireplace mantel. I took the Nativity down this week. On the bookshelf we have a shoebox with holy cards, Lourdes water, and yes, broken scapulars. There is a basket for Rosaries and of course religious books. I really like how you have everything all in one place, there's always a frantic searching in the basement for our purple cloths come Passiontide.

    You should set up one of those linky party things for people to share their altars!

  5. I like that cabinet a lot--we use a little bookshelf for ours. Its not nearly that organized or complete. I agree with Mary, you should do a link up :-)

    (We also have several of those little boxes of incense around from Rosemary's wedding (which we didn't even attend lol))

  6. I instinctively did this when I first became Catholic - felt a little silly, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. I was really encouraged when I found out that other Catholic homes have altars, too!

  7. The Altar can also have a picture of the sacred heart. Normally the home is blessed and the picture of the sacred heart is enthroned on the altar. There is also a crucifix and two candle sticks for lighting candles when praying etc