Monday, January 25, 2021

Building a Home Altar

In the past year, I’ve heard more frequently than ever before from people who are interested in building an altar for their home, or who have already done so.

Their reasons for doing it vary to some extent. Some would like to have a formal prayer corner with icons or statues and they wish to give it still more dignity by the installation of an altar beneath the holy images. Others have a spare room in the house that is well suited to become a chapel where people can go to pray the Divine Office, the Rosary, or read Scripture, and surely no chapel is complete without an altar to remind us of Christ the Rock, the supreme Sacrifice, and of our duty to make our hearts His altar. Still others have priest friends who stay with them when traveling through town or who might wish to have a quiet place to say Mass when they are not otherwise obliged to offer it, or who are looking ahead to darker and more difficult times, when good priests may be forced to make rounds from house to house, or go into hiding.

Whatever the reasons may be, we need to understand a few things before we go about setting up such an altar.

First, while the family is indeed a domestic church, and the home is a sanctified place once it has been formally blessed using the Rituale Romanum, nevertheless an altar of this kind has not received a solemn dedication, nor has a home chapel been consecrated for divine worship, and so their use should be seen as something of an exception, or at least, something that should have a reasonable justification. Certainly, an emergency situation, such as the State’s unjust suppression of worship in churches, or a bishop’s cancellation of such worship, would easily qualify.

Second, the altar, if possible, should have a first-class relic in it or at least placed on it for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Some priests of my acquaintance travel with a Byzantine antimension. The very prayer said by the priest in the traditional Roman rite when he reaches the altar to kiss it before saying the Introit makes reference to relics in and near the altar: Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum [he kisses the sacred stone] quorum reliquiae hic sunt, et omnium Sanctorum: ut indulgere digneris omnia peccata mea. Amen (We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen). A traditional priest should be able to assist you in sourcing relics.

Third, if you custom-build an altar, it would be improper to use it for any other purpose, especially once Mass has been offered on it. It should not double as a dining room table or a television stand or a surface for cleaning rifles. Let the altar be an altar and nothing more.

Fourth, make sure that the altar is built according to correct specifications. Most regular tables are too low to be suitable for Mass, since they are made for sitting, not for standing. Although dimensions can vary considerably and still be acceptable, the following dimensions work admirably for a home altar and have been found by priests of my acquaintance to be suitable: 39 inches in height; 59 inches wide; 20 inches deep. This height, depth, and breadth allows room for everything needed for the traditional Latin Mass.[1]

When space and resources allow, it is optimal to place an altar atop three steps, but this is not always practicable in a home setting. While the steps are a beautiful symbol, clergy are accustomed to “making do” with whatever situation they have  (e.g., many priests when traveling offer Mass in hotel rooms). I have also seen home altars fully dressed with an altar frontal in the appropriate liturgical color of the season or feast; this may be considered a refinement when everything else is in place.

A home altar with frontals (antependia)

My view is that we should be building altars in our homes. My wife and I commissioned a friend to build one, which we had the privilege to see “inaugurated” by Holy Mass three days in a row when a priest friend was passing through town. Built of sturdy wood and stained a dark brown, it was set up in our living room against the eastern wall, with an icon hung above it, and two first-class relics on top of it.

A last point. There is absolutely no need for a home altar to be a “Cranmer table,” that is, situated so that a priest can offer Mass versus populum or toward the congregation. Historically and theologically, this is an incorrect way to say Mass; it is not even what the Novus Ordo assumes by its own rubrics; and it is useless in the intimate situation of a liturgy done only a few feet away from the faithful. Any priest of the Roman rite should be able and willing to offer the sacrifice ad orientem (eastward). This, moreover, is usually necessary in a house because of the small space available, where an altar up against the wall is of much practical advantage.

Priests who offer the traditional Latin Mass are usually well-equipped to offer it anywhere, carrying with them reversible chasubles and the other garments, as well as candles, altar cards, and a missal. However, it is a good idea for those who have a home altar to keep a supply of candlesticks (preferable at least 51% beeswax), cruets for the water and wine, three layers of linens to dress the altar, and a small bell. It can’t hurt to have the other items, too, in case one ends up giving shelter to a fugitive who has lost his belongings or who never owned them to begin with.

How ironic it would be if the “Christian house church” — that concept so dear to the antiquarianizing liturgical revolutionaries who took it as a pretext for their streamlined modern prayer-service — turned out to be the place where the Tridentine Mass in all its medieval and Baroque density, albeit in temporarily humble circumstances, survived the coming persecution of Catholics.

Perhaps a time is coming when the words of St. John Chrysostom will be once again as accurate as they were in the fourth century:

As those who bring comedians, dancers, and harlots into their feasts call in demons and Satan himself and fill their homes with innumerable contentions (among them jealousy, adultery, debauchery, and countless evils); so those who invoke David with his lyre call inwardly on Christ. Where Christ is, let no demon enter; let him not even dare to look in in passing. Peace, delight, and all good things flow here as from fountains. Those [pagans] make their home a theatre; make yours a church. For where there are psalms, and prayers, and the dance of the prophets, and singers with pious intentions, no one will err if he call the assembly a church. [2]



[1] Those who are interested in further detail can read Matthew Alderman on the proper shape, dimension, and placement of altars.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, from the Exposition of Psalm XLI, in Oliver Strunk, ed., Source Readings in Music History from Classical Antiquity through the Romantic Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1950), 69.

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