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Creating A Home Altar

[This is a guest post by Maureen Marchetti-Martin for our on-going series on Growing in Virtue. Enjoy!]

Did you know that you live in a church? You do! A domestic church! That’s what the Catholic Church calls our homes: domestic churches. We can look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to give us greater insight: “The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason, the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity” (No. 1666).

Sounds wonderful, right? However, as we look at our families, we realize we often fall short in living this ideal. But amid all the difficulties, sorrows, and distress that sometime characterize our families, we are still “a little church.“

Families are the first school of faith, where children first encounter Jesus. As parents, we want to take our responsibilities seriously, but often we don’t know how. How can we honor God and celebrate our faith in our homes?

One simple way is to create a home altar or sacred space where we live. The Catholic Church calls these spaces “little oratories.” “For personal prayer, this can be a ‘prayer corner’ with the Sacred Scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family, this kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.” (No. 2691)

Setting up a prayer corner or shelf or table does not need to be complicated. And from my experience, children love this! Include your children in all planning for your little oratory. Include them in deciding where your sacred space will be. It can be anywhere the family will feel comfortable gathering to pray. Will it be a shelf or a corner or small table? Will it be in the living room or dining room or a corner of a hallway?

Now that you have your space, decide what will be included in your little oratory. You want it to be holy and lovely. And you want anything that you include to have meaning to your family. This is when you make you sacred space truly your own.

There is no right way or wrong way to create this space. Whatever your family decides to include should help to raise your minds and hearts to God. You can start simply and add more as time goes on. Selecting what to include is part of the great joy for families when setting up their spaces.

But what do you include? There are a number of common elements in sacred spaces, whether in churches, monasteries, or homes. One common item is a cloth covering for the space. You probably notice on altars in church that there is usually a lovely white linen cloth covering the altar, often called a fair linen. In my family, we are blessed to have a white linen from a dear priest who retired. It was his altar cloth. Then on top of this white cloth, we add smaller rectangles of colored cloth, based on the liturgical season of the church: violet for Lent and Advent, white for the Christmas and Easter seasons, and green for Ordinary Time. But this is a matter of preference. Some families just use a white covering all year and some just use colored cloths, based on the season of the church year.

Other common elements to sacred spaces would be a Bible and a crucifix. Ancient tradition puts the crucifix as the center of the little oratory. This can be on a wall or a free-standing crucifix.

Sacred images also adorn churches and little oratories. Statues, pictures of patron saints or guardian angels, icons, and paintings are all options for families to consider. If we look again to ancient tradition, usually to the right of the crucifix is an image of our Lord and to the left is an image of the Blessed Virgin. But this is also based on personal preference. Children really enjoy selecting images to place in the sacred space. The only real consideration is whether it inspires and raises your hearts and minds to God.

The sacred images may change seasonally. For Advent and Christmas, perhaps pieces from a nativity set could be arranged in the little oratory. During March, the month dedicated to St. Joseph, perhaps an image of the foster father of Jesus could be added. In some families, children take turns by month in selecting items for the sacred space.

Candles are also often included. Children love candles! Although there are battery operated candles that may be safer with small children, real candles add something very special to prayer. Perhaps ask your priest if he could save the stubs of blessed altar candles for your family to use in your little oratory. If that is not an option, you can buy candles and ask your priest to bless them.

Holy water is also very common in sacred spaces! Blessing ourselves reminds us of our baptism, and making the sign of the cross is a prayer to the Blessed Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holy water fonts can be purchased from any number of online stores, and encouraging your children to develop a habit of blessing themselves morning and evening is a good and praiseworthy habit to instill. You can bring a bottle to church and fill it with holy water. Most churches have large holy water containers easily accessible to people. If you don’t know where the holy water container is in your church, ask your priest. He will be glad to show you!

Some families also incorporate incense in their prayer time. Sampling different incense blends is often enjoyable for families. There are a number of different options for incense and censors available online. You can also purchase incense sticks to use. That’s what I use most of the time. My favorites are frankincense and myrrh incense sticks. The scent is heavenly!

Rosaries, prayer books, a journal for prayer intentions, and vases with flowers are all lovely additions to a prayer space. Whatever your family decides to use, whether it is very simple or more complex, keep in mind that you want your little oratory to reflect what will be most meaningful to your family.

The more sensory we can make the faith- touching (holy water and rosary beads), hearing (prayers and sacred music), smelling (incense), seeing (all the lovely items on the altar!)- the more real it becomes. We want our children so soaked in the faith that it becomes part of the very air they breathe. Making a little oratory will help create a holy and beautiful space to inspire prayer and worship God in your own domestic church.

Maureen lives in Farmington and considers herself a dual-citizen of St. Joseph Parish in Farmington and St. Rose of Lima in Jay.She has previously worked as Faith Formation Coordinator for these parishes.Currently, she is Co-Chair of the Liturgy and Devotions Commission and Coordinator of Eucharistic Adoration for both parishes, and lead sacristan at St. Joseph’s.She loves living the liturgical life and sharing the customs and traditions of the Catholic faith with others.

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