Favorite Places: The Altar

I grew up in a family that prayed together before we went to bed. Mom or Dad would tell us to head to “the altar”, and we would kneel together beside a table with a statue of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This is probably a whole different story, but my Dad was annoyed by Jesus and Joseph’s effeminate eyebrows and blondish hair, so one night he took a paintbrush and properly Jewed them up. I digress. I didn’t particularly treasure these prayer times as a kid. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to receive this example from my parents.

When I moved back into my childhood home, it was only natural that the same hallway would become the place for our family prayer time. And while I realize that the term “altar” sounds really, really holy, calling it anything different just seems disingenuous. That’s what I grew up calling it. We don’t always pray by this altar- in October when we try to pray a decade of the Rosary every night, so we do prayer time on the couches in our family room. But I’ve found that though the couches are good for a break and to mix things up, that after a few weeks, the kids distraction level starts shooting up, and it is time to head back to the hallway for a more focused space.

My parents left behind a picture of the Holy Family, and for seven years we used this picture as our focal point. It had some sentimental value, as it was a gift from a cherished pastor, Fr. John Reinkemeyer, but the picture always felt like a placeholder, that something better was to come.  This fall, Jackie let me know that she “had plans” for our family prayer space. She told me about it, and I really didn’t think it was going to work. At all. But I wisely decided that if she could let me do my creative thing and have free reign of the boys’ Castle Room, I should just step out of the way and not complain about her vision for the altar.

When the vision became tangible, it was a wonderful Christmas gift for our family. Jackie has already explained the significance of many of the art pieces in this post. So if you want to see a photo not bathed in angelic light, you can click there. But you’ll miss the two freshly-scrubbed cherubs in fleece jammies. At prayer time, my soul unwinds, but now my eyes are nourished by multifaceted beauty. I gaze at the art until my eyes come to rest on a detail that pulls me in. I stand beside my bride who assembled this holy space and my love for this woman resounds. She is a creator woman, she creates art, and creates feasts, and she created within her these little souls that surround me as I kneel. These little souls that we were so blest to be able to give such awesome saint names to ignite them and inspire them to reach great heights. So many wonderful details to meditate on. I love that Isaac Jogues is teaching in his picture. I love the way Gerard is safely sheltered between Mom and Dad’s confirmation saints. Rose petals from Jackie’s wedding bouquet beside St. Therese. Our roughly hewed cross from Mexico. It seems strange to say, but when we pray, I remember a line from one of my favorite books: “all of Heaven bends low.” For those moments, with the promise of evening respite so near, the eternal feels closer.

prayer time

I like to try and record touching or amusing prayer time stories. Here is an old blog reflection from 2013.  And here’s a status update from November 2012:
Zelie is quite talented at disrupting prayer time. She says something adorable, and we all try to hold in the laughter, and she says something even cuter, and we all bust up. Then she grins and laughs at her victory. Tonight, the breaking point was when she prayed for “all the baby Christmas trees” and then paused and looked directly at me with the big serious puppy dog eyes.

Xavier has had the same petition every night for about a month now. I don’t know where this came from, but it is of the greatest importance to him, and he has been unswerving in his devotion to this important issue:
“For all the bushes, and the trees, and the berries you can eat, and for the berries that you can’t eat.”

This Lent, my prayer for you is that you will continue to discover the beauty, the consolation, and the joy of time spent speaking and listening to God as a family. When my parents passed on this legacy of prayer to me, they weren’t just setting a good example. They made me a rich, rich man.



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9 responses to “Favorite Places: The Altar

  1. momof4boys

    You made me cry. I’m sure Mom will too!
    Your children are rich as well!

  2. Nell

    Thanks so much Joel! I remember your parents altar:) I think “altar” is the perfect word to use b/c it is here that we are (sometimes better) able to raise our hearts and minds to Jesus. We may not be able to consecrate bread and wine here, but we are able to make our own sacrifices. Would I be able to use your picture of your family altar for my Mother’s Prayer Group purposes? “Creating a family altar” is something we recently discussed and I thought it be helpful to show some pictures. Thanks so much! Blessings to you and your family this Lent!

  3. Torie

    I love this Joel. Thank you for inspiring our young family.

  4. That was beautiful. And it made me cry.

  5. mbuford

    most excellent!! I LOVE the sweet toes. your description of Zelie’s intentions reminds me very much of a strapping young man I used to know who would sit in a prayer circle, face aglow, and pray in thanksgiving for the Fall leaves, etc. innocence is lovely.

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