When I was teenager, my Aunt Margaret showed me a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes which she had in her cupboard – she had brought it back with her from a visit to Lourdes in 1958. After some pleading, and as she wasn’t using it, she gave me the statue. Taking it home, I set up a little personal altar in my bedroom, adorning it with candles and flowers and even – later on – making a little crown out of old jewellery, with which I solemnly crowned the statue.
Some forty-five years after that time, I sill have a little altar at home. It is just to the right of me here in the upstairs study. It is a different statue now, but there are still candles and flowers and a crown.
It is here, before this little altar, that I pray the Hours of the Divine Office each day, and it is here where I offer the prayer of the Rosary to She who is it’s Queen. And it is here that I bring to Her everything each day contains – the joys, the sorrows, the dreams and the trials of everyday life. This little altar is my ‘ecclesia domestica’ – my domestic church. It is here that I am reminded most powerfully that I am a Christian and a Catholic – not only on Sundays, but on every day of my life, and in each hour of all those days.
An altar is, first and foremost, a place of reminder – of our duty to God and of our requirement to honour Him and to worship Him. And it is also a place of sacrifice; for me, it is the sacrifice of prayer, for all the intentions which arise each day, both for me and for others. Prayer does not replace action where action is possible – but every intention is always accompanied and supported by prayer.
This ‘domestic church’ took on a far greater importance for me during the period of lockdown. In those days, the doors to the Churches were barred and bolted and there was no access to the sacramental life of the Church. And so this little altar assumed a greater prominence for me.
Although there were numerous live-streamed Masses during lockdown, I struggled very much with these; I know they offered a powerful spiritual connection to a great many people, but I simply found them disconcerting. They reminded me all too powerfully of what I could not have – rather like dying of thirst whilst looking through a window at the beautiful fountain flowing freely beyond.
The little altar, on the other hand, was immediately present – as a call and as a reminder, as a focus and as a place to pray. All through that period of lockdown, a votive lamp burned at that altar for the intentions of all affected by the virus, and not least of all those who were dying. That votive lamp never went out – not once. It was very little, I know, but it was one thing I was able to do for all those souls – to place them in prayer at the feet of the Mother of God.
That darkest of periods has seemingly passed in large part – at least for the moment; but the altar retains it’s importance for me now, day after day after day. The time spent here, in the morning and again in the evening – in fact, especially in the evening – is the most important of my day.
I know that I am far from being the only person to have such a place within my home – from time to time, I see photographs online of the little altars which others have set up in their own homes. Some are very simple and beautiful, while others are more elaborate – I even saw one which was little short of a private chapel! Of course, it matters not a bit what the altar looks like nor how grand it is – though many personal feeling is that simplicity is generally best, in this as in so many other aspects of life. What does matter is what we do there, and how we do it – in other words, how well it leads us to the Lord. If our altar – or, indeed, our spiritual lives more broadly – are nothing but a source of self-satisfaction then they will do nothing very good. They are means to an end, not an end in themselves. And like the Church herself, our personal spirituality must always challenge us as much as anything else it does; we can never be satisfied to remain still, like a pool of water which is slowly stagnating and attracting weeds.
An altar is, as noted already, a place of sacrifice – and it must be ourselves that we place metaphorically upon it along with our prayers, leaving it to the Lord to do with us as He deems best; His plans for us, however, are often quite different to our own plans for ourselves – that is where the ‘sacrifice’ comes into it. Without this, it is not the Lord’s will we are seeking.
An altar, whether at home or in our local Church, is the place where we are trying to seek what the Lord wills for us – and to open ourselves, correspondingly, to His will; it is the symbolic but very real place where we give Him that willingness.