Home Altars Put God in His Place (of Honor)

“Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” ―Joseph de Maistre

A family altar in Burma
A family altar in Burma (photo: Angelo Stagnaro)

I was introduced to a magnificent custom when I was in Poland. The faithful there place an icon or crucifix in every room and they get their house blessed like clockwork.

House blessings accomplish several things: First, they help to protect your home and family from evil influences. Second, they remind your family of the importance of God in their daily lives. And third, your parish priest can at least be assured of a good meal. (After all, you can’t expect the man to schlep all the way to your house without feeding him.)

In Italy, people will put micro-chapels into the street-level corner of the outside of their houses as a reminder to passersby, “God is here. Abide with him but for a moment.”

In Lithuania, it’s not uncommon to see fairly large statues of Our Lady in niches well above the street giving all who gaze upon her the assurance that they are, in turn, under her maternal and benevolent gaze. Are there any Mexican restaurants in America that don’t have an enormous altars dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe predominantly displayed? All the ones I go to have lovely and loving depictions of Mary.

In Vietnam, family altars are enormous affairs often taking up entire walls. In Burma, Catholics have simply christened the standard built-in Buddhist family altar and refer to them as bar yar kyoung saung (Burmese: ဘုရားကျောင်းဆောင်) which literarily means “God’s House.” In Austria and other understated European countries, a family altar can be a simple collection of religious images.

A friend in New York City had an actual prie-dieu — a kneeler — in front of an icon of St. Nicholas equipped with a hanging votive vigil oil lamp and enough candles to be seen from orbit. It was magnificent and envy-inducing. That’s why I reproduced his family altar in my own home.

A home/family altar is a small shrine kept by Catholics around the world. In Japan, both Christians and Shintos use a kamidan or “God Shelf.” It’s a place of solemnity and sanctity in which your family and guests might find repose, healing and inspiration.

In some places, traditionally, a crucifix is displayed on the eastern wall of the home in imitation of the placement of an altar in church. The first mention of family altars was in the second century. The direction is derived from Christ forewarned that “the sign of the Son of Man” would appear in the eastern heavens on his return (Matthew 24:30). Hipparchus painted a cross on the eastern wall of his house, toward which he and his family would prostrate themselves and prayer seven times every day.

Before the construction of the Temple, the ancient Israelites built 17 private altars — and rebuilt two Temple altars — to thank and petition God. Practically every prominent person in the Old Testament built an altar to God:

  1. Noah (Genesis 8:20)
  2. Abraham (Genesis 12:7-8, 13:18, 22:9-14)
  3. Isaac (Genesis 26:25)
  4. Jacob (Genesis 33:20, 35:1-7)
  5. Moses (Exodus 17:15, 24:4)
  6. Balaam/Balak (Numbers 23:1, 4, 14, 29)
  7. Joshua (Joshua 8:30-31)
  8. Reubenites/Gadites/Manasseh Tribe (Joshua 22:10-11, 16, 26-27, 34)
  9. Gideon (Judges 6:26-27)
  10. Manoah (Judges 13:19-20)
  11. The Israelites (Judges 21:4)
  12. Samuel (1 Samuel 7:17)
  13. Saul (1 Samuel 14:35)
  14. David (2 Samuel 24:18-25, 1 Chronicles 21:18-26)
  15. Solomon (1 Kings 6:20-21, 7:48, 9:25)
  16. King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:16 — restored a destroyed altar)
  17. King Asa (2 Chronicles 15:8 — restored a destroyed altar)
  18. Elijah (1 Kings 18:30-39)
  19. Jeshua/Zerubabbel (Ezra 3:2-3)

In creating your own family altar, you don’t necessarily need a mandate from God. All you need is relative isolation to assure privacy. Your family altar becomes a sacred place by first asking a priest to bless your home in general and your family altar in particular.

This singular spot is dedicated to binding your heart to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Making your own dedicated family altar can be as simple as clearing a shelf and collecting flowers, votive candles, a bible, prayer cards, icons and statues that can serve as a focus for prayer. This is the physical spot in your homes dedicated to being resolute. It’s where a spiritual battle will be prepared yourself. You will find that there are many excuses for not having devotions.

The most important thing about your family altar is treating it with respect. The tabletop or shelf top isn’t meant for knickknacks, bric-a-brac, curios or other distractions. The space should be treated with reverence as befitting any reserved space for Christ.

No chitchat. No phones. No texting. Admittedly, I use iBreviary — a Franciscan app — on my tablet when I pray the Divine Office but I don’t allow electronics to distract me so I will turn off my wifi connection. After all, time must be set aside specifically to God and, as he reminds us, we can’t serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

The family altar is important. It’s symbolizes your and your family’s commitment to God and his holy Church. It also symbolizes your hope to pray without ceasing (Thessalonians 5:17). It’s also a symbol of the fact that we are not alone in this world. Sometimes, we all need to temporarily step away from family and work and take time to reconnect with God. Gather together with your family and, when appropriate, your guests also.

Remember not to put God on the shelf. He is the source of our rest and the source of love, wisdom and healing. Your family altar means our lives revolve around God. Nothing else must come before us and our God (Romans 8:31-39). Your family altar is a symbol of your relationship with God. It is a symbol of the gifts God offers us. It is a symbol of our acceptance of God and his reaching out to humanity that those who believe in him, will not perish and, instead, have eternal life (John 3:16).

In our current world with ever the present socialistic encroachments targeting family, faith and freedom, the family altar serves as a means by which to charge your batteries for battle. Like good nutrition and exercise, it’s not required to maintain healthy and strength, but it certain is highly recommended.