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Home > Support > Teaching the Faith > I have heard a lot about a family altar......
Question: I have heard a lot about a family altar, not only here at CHC but also from another Catholic group I belong to. Could you please explain in detail what the altar entails (i.e. where it goes, how it is put together, etc.). I am a cradle Catholic and have not heard of the Family Altar before. Thank you.

Dear Mom,

Thank you for taking the time from your busy family life to ask this question on this forum. I appreciate your interest in that your question will prayerfully spark other families to explore the quiet and reverent simplicity of establishing a place of honor within their homes. I too am a cradle Catholic (I love the sound of the phrase) and did not understand the need for a family altar until much later in my married life. However my mom always had one or two statues on display in her bedroom, usually those depicting the Blessed Mother. As a child I can remember going into her bedroom and seeing the porcelain figurine of the Blessed Mother holding the Baby Jesus and finding in that image a great deal of comfort. In fact there were those times when I would be upset and would be drawn to the statue if only to gaze upon the peaceful countenance of the Blessed Mother and find consolation through prayer.

A family altar is in its most simple form a place in your home that allows for a focal point which honors the Lord. The altar can be as elaborate as the personal taste of the individual family. For our family the altar is a gathering place for us during our morning and evening prayers. I have placed a cedar chest against one wall in the front room of our house. Above the cedar chest hangs two pictures (the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary) and I positioned a small shelf directly under the pictures. On this shelf is a small electric candle that remains on night and day. The shelf has small hooks attached to the underside and it is here that we hang our rosaries. On the cedar chest I have placed a small blanket in order to protect the finish on the chest although it is understood that the chest is not a place to rest your feet, your books, the dog's leash, your hat, your swimsuit etc., etc., etc. (I bet you know exactly what I am talking about.) On top of the cedar chest is a hurricane lamp with a white unscented candle. This we light during prayers. The candle is a physical reminder that God is with us.

Depending upon the season in the liturgical year the surface of the cedar chest (our altar) changes. For example there may be a purple cloth over the blanket to denote Lent. At Easter there is usually a vase of Easter lilies. During the Christmas season our creche is displayed.This is important to the rhythm of our home. The Catholic church in her wisdom knows that humans are temporal by nature and will naturally find comfort in the constant and sure movement of our lives to reflect the Gospels. Seeing this progression throughout the year brings us a bit closer to those times in our history when the 'village' moved to the rhythm of the Lord's life by celebrating together as a family.

If one of the children wins an award then this award is displayed upon the altar for a short time as a way to thank the Lord for His great care of our needs and His empowerment in those endeavors that we offer up for His glory. If one of the children away at college is having a particularly difficult time with exams, etc. then their picture is displayed upon the altar. Again a physical reminder to keep that sibling close in prayer. Once we had a very large unexpected debt to handle. One of the vans needed over 300 dollars worth of work. We wrote the amount on a slip of paper and placed the paper on our altar. Each evening when we prayed together as a family we offered up this intention.The Lord in His great mercy and care for our needs helped us to think creatively with regards to the debt. We had a yard sale and made enough to pay the bill with a small bit left over to give to church.

I live in a small rural town. Our Catholic church does not offer daily Mass (we have only the Sunday Mass). This poses a sorrow for me. I long to bring my children to the beauty and comfort of the Eucharist. I find the Eucharist to be the food for our daily journey. However our little altar in the home, is a Domestic Church symbol and in its own way brings us comfort. We are able to gather there for prayer and in that we have, in some tiny way, the same feeling of coming to our parish church. In any given day we are constantly passing the altar and giving a quick glance towards this symbol of peace and reverence. Our home is hectic and busy. The girls are on the go and the rhythm of our life can be fast paced. There have been those times when I have been so pushed for time that I contemplate just sending everyone to bed without praying the rosary. It will invariably be one of the children that will say, "Do you want me to light the candle for prayers?" I imagine that this ritual is comforting to them as well. We light the candle, dim the lights and begin the rosary. I can not adequately express the feeling of security and peace that floods my troubled spirit. It is as though for that 20 minutes I have tucked each one of the children in the safest of places...Our Lord's Sacred Heart. We pray for one another and for those intentions that are close to our hearts.

Moms are sojourners by nature. We work to bring the fullness of the Catholic faith to our dear children. We offer up our hearts, our spirits, our works, our energy to the Lord and in return we ask the Lord to help us through His mercy to understand the Blessed Mother's words, "Do as He tells you." We many times find that the quiet moments in our life are those between the dark of night and dawn. When I awake in the night, I believe that my Guardian Angel has awakened me in order that I might pray in the quiet for another mom or for myself. I go to the altar. I sit on the couch, wrapped in a blanket and gaze upon the face of the Lord in the image of the Sacred Heart. I am a child. His child. I tell Him all that troubles me and I know with all my heart that He listens and empowers me in that instant to 'do as He tells me'. The small candle illuminates the room and its soft glow comforts me. It would be impossible for me to go to the church and pray at that time. However here in my front room I can find peace through prayer.

Think about your family. Think about what your faith means to you. Start small in your efforts. Small changes are better accepted than drastic ones. Recruit the children's help and as you do explain the importance of the altar to you. Children are so loving and desirous of pleasing their parents. You will find in your dear children the most fervent of sojourners. When one of our sons went off to college he was overwhelmed with the demands of study and college life. He called home one evening and spoke with his dad. 'Dad, I think that I am finally figuring out college. I had a hard time calming my thoughts at night when I wanted to go to sleep. I was so restless. Then I remembered the peace I always felt when we prayed together at night in front of the altar. I decided to say the rosary in my bed, with my eyes closed. I can picture all of you at home praying in front of the altar. It helps me a lot.'

Find an area that will suit your needs and establish a family altar. Perhaps a small table that was discarded in the garage can be resurrected, painted and made your own family's altar. Look through the pictures and artworks that you already have to find a couple of pictures to hang on the wall over your altar. One dear mom that I met lamented that her little children would surely not leave an altar alone. She resolved to have an altar nonetheless. She hung a shelf on the wall and established her family altar there.

I admire you very much. You are a woman of faith and one who has a heart for children. What a great blessing your family has in your presence. Please pray for me and be assured of my prayers for you as well. I am certain that when you get ready to establish a family altar in your home you will do so with great zeal. The Lord is good and He longs to rest in our homes.

Let's pray together a Hail Mary for the intentions of all families on this day. Lord, we ask that all families place You in a position of honor in their hearts so as to be living witnesses of Your great love for all. Amen.

Sending out a prayer,

Rita Munn

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