How to Make a Family Altar
Whether you are Roman Catholic or Methodist, Anglican or Quaker, non-denominational or Orthodox, or anything in between, having a designated sacred space in your home (or workplace) can be a valuable and enriching part of your spiritual practice. I have compiled a list of things that you may choose to include in the construction of your own sacred space. This list is by no means exhaustive, but my hope is that it is relevant to people from all forms of the Christian tradition. So feel free to pick and choose the things that jibe with your background or personal preferences.
1) a cross or crucifix – the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. It is a tool to draw our focus back to the radically nonviolent and self-sacrificing, nature of Christ.
2) an icon, picture and/or statue – for many people images are helpful means by which to enter into a place of worship. Depending on your faith tradition, you may want to use images or statues of saints who inspire you, or pictures of loved ones to pray for.
3) a vigil candle – each evening at vespers, or evening prayer, this candle can be lit to remind you of the Light of the world (see this blog post). We have a coloured novena style glass and we buy long-burning replacement inserts from a local church supply store.
4) an incense burner – incense can be an excellent sensory aid in reminding us that our prayers are like “sweet smelling incense” to GOD. There are all kinds of incense, and burners out there, so you may need to shop around a bit to find something that you like. Incense may not be right for you if you have allergies, or sensitivities to scents.
5) a bowl of fresh water – water acts primarily as a reminder of our baptism. However, there are many other things that water symbolizes, including: creation (Genesis 1), being led by still waters (Psalm 23), Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4) and the crystal sea in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21). Since my family does not come from the Roman Catholic tradition, we don’t use holy water per se, but no matter what your background, if you use water, it should be respectfully refreshed and cleaned frequently.
6) a Bible, a Book of Common Prayer and a hymnal – these are tools to draw you into the presence of GOD. For a Christian the Bible is obviously the most important collection of Holy Scriptures. A book of common prayer (or breviary) from your personal faith tradition, I highly recommend “Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals”. We also enjoy having a hymnal of our favourite songs of the faith.
7) a tablecloth – this is both practical and spiritually significant. Practical in that it covers your altar area and protects from any wax that drips or ash that falls from incense, and spiritually significant because it can be changed to correspond with the liturgical colours of the season.
8) a prayer list – ideal for remembering specific needs and requests when you sit down to pray.
9) a prayer rope - an excellent tool for meditative prayer. I weave my own prayer ropes, borrowed from the Orthodox tradition, which I personally prefer to beads. Depending on your tradition, or personal preference, you may choose to use a rope, rosary, or even bowls of stones to count prayers.
10) significant objects – many people relate well to metaphors, and certain objects can act as visual reminders of spiritual truths. For example: a broken piece of pottery (Psalm 31:12), a salt shaker (Matthew 5:13), or a stone (Joshua 4:20-24). The possibilities here are endless, and choosing objects can be a great way to involve any children in your home.
11) seasonal objects – logically, these are to be put up and taken down according to the season. Some objects that correspond to church liturgy include: advent candles/wreaths, nativity sets, water and wine, palm branches, nails, Easter lilies, etc.
TIPS: There is no right or wrong way to build a family altar, so feel free to get creative! Make the space feel personal and unique, it is an expression of your own journey with GOD.
Remember: This area is created to be “sacred” (spiritual in nature) and “holy” (set apart to GOD), so it is good to respect the space with a certain element of reverence. For our family, that means not putting our keys on the table, or using the drawers for storing junk. We also have spiritual kid’s books on the bottom shelf for the boys, as a way to teach them to honour the space.
If you have any questions about constructing a sacred space in your home, workplace or church feel free to post them in the comment section. I would love to see a photo of your sacred space, or hear a story about how your family practices your spirituality together.
Posted on January 24, 2012, in Family and tagged domestic church, family altar, family shrine, how to, incense burner, sacred space, spiritual discipline, spiritual practice, statues of saints, vigil candle. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.