Smells and Bells.
Ah, I love being Catholic.
One of the things unique to the Catholic Church among Christians is the prevalence of “smells and bells.” The Church, in her wisdom, understands very well that we all tend to be a little ADD. This is me at Mass:
“I’m so honored to be here. The Sacrifice of Calvary! Oh thank you Jesus for this wonderful gift! Gift. Gift…. What are we giving the toddler for her birthday next month? She loves trucks. How about a fire truck? Perfect. Fire truck. Fire… truck… fire… Did I turn the stove off? Surely I turned the stove off, right? Nope, I think I left the chicken stock cooking. But that’s okay right? I mean, it’s barely simmering. No problem.” We all stand up. “OH! Right, Jesus! What a beautiful gospel. This is one of my favorites. Aw, my four-year-old is listening too. She is so cute in her pretty dress. Did I check for panties under her dress before we left the house? Okay, I remember putting panties on here… But did she go potty before we left? I don’t remember! (quick check for panties) Okay good. She’s wearing underwear. Hmm… I think this was the last pair in the drawer. I really need to toss in a load of laundry when we get home. Will I have time before naptime? Maybe… what errands are we running on the way home? We need milk, right?” Bells ring. “Consecration! Pay attention now. Jesus, I love you. Please help me make a worthy communion. Fill me with your love, that I may pour it back to you. I have nothing of my own….”
The truth is, all those little extras? The bells, the incense, the music, the changing of posture throughout Mass, they aren’t really extras at all. We NEED them. We are not just spiritual beings, but physical, sensual beings. And the Church understands this and engages our senses!
Do we do this at home?
If we adults need to be sensually engaged to focus on prayer, then how much more do our small children need this?
Enter: the Family Altar!
Putting together a home altar to engage your family in prayer is easy. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be imperfect. You can add to it over time. The important thing is to have a focus for your family prayer life. Any crucifix or other image of Jesus and an image of Our Lady is a great starting point!
Ideally this would be on an East wall, just like churches should ideally face the East, but ours is actually on a West wall at the moment, until the living room can be rearranged. The idea is that you pray while awaiting the coming of Christ, who will come from the East. This is a beautiful tradition, but not a rule. :)Put it wherever it works for you. In Eastern Orthodox tradition the altar is usually a “Prayer Corner” with the intention of facing a corner of the room to help block out distractions.
Add a vase or two for fake or real flowers (depending on what’s growing in the yard this week).
Candles make a wonderful addition! For one thing, it’s much easier to get kids to sit still and pray if, well “You have to be good if you want to put out the candle.”
And it’s much easier for my heart to worship God when I’m gazing up at this beautiful scene!
It’s just easier to love somebody by candlelight. Jesus is no exception 😉
You can use simple jar candles or inexpensive votives from the grocery store. Our candle scones actually come from a thrift store, and just cost a few bucks.
If your candles are lower, you can simply blow them out. Since ours are so high we bought a candle snuffer off Amazon.com. It wasn’t very expensive, and the kids LOVE using it!
If you are on a budget, Be resourceful!
The icons hanging to either side of the altar are just pictures from a calendar we bought at the church rummage sale. We plan to mount them to wood someday, but for now they are just taped to the wall 😉
A small bell is another fun way to engage little hands. Have a helper ring the bell to call the family to prayer.
We also like to play gregorian chant in the background (from youtube). Anything to set prayer time apart as special for our kids.
We have a holy water font (aka, thrift store bird feeder, ahm.) next to the family altar. My kids LOVE playing in water, so this is a perfect way to get them to practice crossing themselves. Unfortunately, they love playing in water, so we do have problems with the holy water being used for art projects or bathing baby dolls… For now we add just a tiny splash of water each evening with prayers, so it is dry by morning play time.
Instead of a lovely holy water bottle, we currently keep it in a mason jar. I did get fancy and paint the words “holy water” on the side! I’m classy like that, ha! Eventually I’ll find a nice decanter or bottle that I like at a garage sale or thrift shop, and we can upgrade. 🙂
Some other ideas you could add:
- Burning incense
- Altar cloths. Some families make beautiful altar cloths in the liturgical colors, then change them throughout the liturgical year. While this sound like a fantastic way to help children explore the seasons of the Church, it wouldn’t work for us. Little hands would just grab the edges of the altar cloth, and pull it and everything on top to the floor… So our altar stays naked for now.
- Patron saint statues. We currently only have Blessed Jacinta, but we plan on adding a new statue for each of our children’s’ patron saints. They belong to the children, who will hopefully want to keep them when they move out 🙂
- Holy cards. These give little fingers something to fidget with during prayer time.
Catholic Traditions on the Home wrote about the importance of a family altar in Sanctifying the home.
Does your family have a home altar? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a link to it in the comments 🙂 Or, if you want me to share a picture of your Christian altar on this post, email me with an image and story about your altar! Let’s inspire each other in our walk of Faith 🙂
In Corde Maria,