Though many aren’t familiar with it in modern America, a home altar has for a very long time been considered a staple feature in a Catholic home. The home altar is meant to serve as a central place for prayer and religious practice in a Catholic household. Most of us have designated places to eat, sleep, work, exercise, and play at home – why not have a designated, special spot to pray, both individually and together as a family?
Here’s an easy how-to for helping you set up your own home altar or prayer space:
1. Choose a place and surface. Find a spot in the home for your prayer space or altar, easily accessible to everyone. Ours is in the family room, in between a bookshelf containing a number of adult and children’s spiritual books, holy water and rosaries (right in picture), and a “prayer chair” below our icon collection (left). (You can also consider having smaller altars and spaces in each of the bedrooms, especially for the kids, which they can design uniquely for themselves.) As far as surfaces go, you can use a shelf, desk, end table, mantle, nook…pretty much anything. We used a medium-sized square end table.
2. (Optional step): Get some linens. I like the idea of having linens on the altar to dress up the table and to coordinate with the liturgical year. (I took pictures of our altar during Lent, so we have a plain white table cloth underneath a purple strip of cloth that I had cut for less than a dollar at a fabric store. I also have a green and a red cloth strip.) This is an optional step because if you are using a shelf or mantle, you may find it preferable to decorate without the linens.
3. Adorn the altar. Collect religious items from around your home to put on the altar. You may also want to consider investing in some of these items if you don’t have them; they make great family gifts on special feast days! You can make the altar as simple or as elaborate as you prefer (we opted for simple with young kiddos). Here are some things you can put in your prayer space or on your altar:
- Bible (with or without a stand)
- Prayer books, prayer cards, a missal, or a Catholic book of blessings and prayers
- Catholic icons and/or art (of Jesus, Mary and the saints; on or above the altar)
- Holy Water
- Blessed salt
- Incense burner
- Seasonal items like pictures of the Stations of the Cross during Lent, Advent wreath or Advent candles, a manger scene during Christmas, a Paschal candle or lamb during Easter, Baptismal candles, palm branches from Palm Sunday, pictures of saints on their feast days, etc.
4. Have your home and altar or prayer space blessed. If you haven’t had your house blessed, have a deacon or priest come bless the whole home, including the altar or prayer space. At least take your crucifix from your altar to Mass with you one Sunday and have that blessed.
5. Pray around your home altar! Take time during the day (we like to gather as a family after dinner) to pray around the home altar. This is a great time to light candles, read from the Bible, offer prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, pray a decade of the Rosary or a chaplet, learn about a saint or a feast day you are celebrating, or sign a hymn. Try and take little moments throughout the day to look at the altar or prayer space and offer a quick prayer and turn your mind and heart to Jesus. Just don’t let that special spot go unnoticed and unused!
For some home altar inspiration and ideas beside my own pictures here, check out Pinterest and these prayer space pictures from CatholicMom. Having a home altar or prayer space is a great way to make your home more of a domestic church!
One last thing…Recently, during Ordinary Time, I added a small altar/prayer table to my toddler son’s room so he has a special place in his own room where he (and we together) could pray when he gets up in the morning, before nap/rest time, and before bed time. (Obviously a good habit for your children to form even if you don’t put a prayer table in their room!) Anyway, he loves it! I kept it pretty simple, and his favorite element is the statue of the Good Shepherd. I added a prayer card with a simple Scripture verse next to it, which he memorizes, that I will rotate every month. I’m enjoying the mini altar in his room as much as he is!