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 surfaceWe 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!)
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
The Domestic Church: The Catholic Home (Fisheaters)
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)