“How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.”
In this strange and scary time of quarantine, a lot of us Christians are struggling with being isolated not just from our family and friends, but from our church communities. While many churches have quickly adapted to live-streaming services on Facebook and YouTube, you may feel, as I do, that it just doesn’t feel the same as being physically present in church. So then, maybe this is a good time to set aside a spot for prayer at home if you’ve never done it before.
For as long as I can remember, my abuelita has kept a little home altar in her apartment, with statues and pictures of Jesus and Mary and the saints, bottles of holy water and her rosaries. She would light candles there every morning before doing her prayers as a way to ground herself for the day ahead. Keeping such a space is a practice found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the idea being that this little home chapel is an extension of one’s parish church. Inspired by my grandmother, I have long kept a practice of keeping a dedicated spot for prayer in whatever living situation I’m in. Borrowing from my Roman Catholic roots and practices from our Orthodox siblings, my space is a little of both, a little Anglican too, and uniquely my own.
What follows is a basic guide to creating your own prayer space at home, based on my practices that have, in turn, come out of research and guidance from clergy and friends. Call it an altar, a prayer nook, icon shelf, whatever you’d like. I’ve also included pictures of my own space as well as friends’ for your inspiration.
A table, desk, or shelf with some space for you to stand, sit or kneel in front of it. Choose a space that you pass by and see every day. A nice place might be your living room, but if you live with roommates, family members, or a partner, you may have to talk with them about whether or not they’re okay with this kind of space in a common area. It would be nice to choose a room or space together! Once you’ve picked a spot, decide what kind of surface you want to work with. Do you want a low table you can sit in front of? Or maybe a shelf? It’ll depend on your preference and the size of the area you’re working with. Now that you have the table or shelf, you can keep it plain, but you may choose to put a nice tablecloth or piece of fabric on it. Personally, I like to swap the fabrics I use according to the current liturgical season, but I’m a little extra, so you don’t have to do this. You also don’t have to buy new furniture if you don’t want to! You can easily convert the top of a book case or a corner of your desk into a prayer space.
A cushion or chair. If you cannot stand for extended periods of time, definitely get something you can sit on. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If kneeling is part of your worship practice, you may also want a cushion for this. You may want to go extra ascetic and kneel on your floor, but I guarantee you that your knees will ache after about 5 minutes.
Devotional objects, such as icons, statuettes or crosses. You should have an image of Jesus front and center, as a reminder that he is the center of your life. This can be an icon, print, or a standing cross. Personally, I have an icon of Jesus Pantocrator (Jesus Almighty, sometimes called “Jesus the Teacher”). Use whatever depiction speaks to you. You can also swap it out according to liturgical season, perhaps using an icon of the Nativity for Advent and Christmas and a print of the crucifixion for Lent and Holy Week.
From here, you may want to add an image of Mary and/or of saints that you have a connection with. If you can’t think of anyone, this might be a good opportunity for you to research holy people! You have so many options here, friends. You could also start with an icon or picture of your parish patron saint, as a reminder that this prayer space is an extension of the church.
At home, I have many icons of Mary and the saints, but unfortunately, not all of them fit in my prayer space, so I occasionally rotate them based on how I’m feeling. Currently, I have an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which I got, in all places, at a thrift store (I have a knack for finding icons in places like this); a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, my patron saint; a picture of St. Moses the Black, one of the Desert Fathers; as well as a larger statue of Our Lady of Grace.
Candles. A flame, whether it is the light of a candle or the new fire of the Easter Vigil, is a physical reminder of Christ’s light in our lives. It is also a visual cue – when you light a candle before an icon or a statue, it immediately conveys a feeling of sanctity. It sends a message to your mind that you are in a sacred space and it is time to pray, so you should have at least one candle in your prayer space. I have one main vigil lamp – a simple tea light in a glass votive holder – in front of my icon of Jesus that I keep lit while I’m at home. The tea light lasts for around 4 hours so it needs to be replaced if I want it lit all day. I have recently ordered an Orthodox style vigil oil lamp with wicks that I can replenish throughout the day so that it is a true vigil and also a bit less wasteful than using tea lights. I also use two tapers that I light whenever I’m saying the Daily Office or if I’m watching a livestream service from my church, but you can keep it simple and just stick with one candle if you want. If you can’t light candles in your space, use battery operated candles. Yes, I know, “They aren’t the same!” But you have to use what you can in your circumstances and God meets us where we are. I assure you that your prayer will not be less effective if you use electric candles.
Prayer aids, such as Bibles, prayer books, rosaries or other prayer beads. As a Good Episcopalian, I need my Book of Common Prayer within reach when I’m praying. I also have a small, black leather bound copy of the Bible nearby, though I am more drawn to reading from my bilingual Spanish/English edition these days. If your spiritual background includes praying the rosary, have one on your table or shelf. You don’t have to put every prayer aid you have on the table, but keep your more heavily used ones on it or at least within reach.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Once you have your space selected, it’s time to assemble. As mentioned earlier, put your image of Jesus front and center, and have other images and items arranged around it. Place candles so they don’t obstruct the images – you want to be able to see them during prayer. There’s no right or wrong way to arrange things, so let the Spirit move you. You may want to open and close this time with prayer and listen to some appropriate music while doing so.
Incense. “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense” (Ps 141:2). In addition to smelling lovely and reminding us of the sweetness of our Lord, incense provides for another visual cue – our prayers ascending to heaven. If you’ve never burned incense before, you may want to start simple with incense sticks and a boat rather than fiddling with charcoal and a censer. I serve as a thurifer in my parish, so I’m a bit more comfortable using the latter and prefer the smell of incense grains over sticks. It’s totally up to you! If you can’t burn incense in your home or apartment, try using a wax warmer with a scent that reminds you of church.
Flowers. Adding a small vase or vases with fresh flowers from time to time adds a really nice touch to your sacred space. I like to put flowers on my prayer desk for major feasts as well as when I’m feeling thankful for a particular blessing or prayer answered. My friend Jimmy keeps potted plants in his prayer space (pictured here), which I love! They can be wonderful reminders of the beauty of God’s creation and our duty to preserve it.
Blessed objects. Things like palm branches from Palm Sunday or blessed chalk from Epiphany. I also have a bottle of holy water that my priest gave me.
Other decor. Be creative! I have seen folks use string lights, rainbow fabric, and prints with scripture verses. Choose decorations that make the space inviting and inspire your faith. One item that I keep central is a small dish that my friend Sarah gave me a few years ago with a simple message: “Pray more. Worry less.” Fitting for the times we’re in!
Use the space for prayer. This should go without saying, but use your space for prayer. Don’t check Facebook after saying the Daily Office (which I am *totally* not guilty of doing) or use the space for mundane activities like eating. Prayer doesn’t have to be restricted to just the Daily Office, of course – if your church has been livestreaming the Eucharist, put your laptop or phone next to your prayer table while you watch the service and light a candle or two. You can also take time for lectio divina and read scripture or devotional books in your space.
Respect the space. As I mentioned earlier, if you live with roommates or family, you’ll want to talk to them about this prayer space, especially if you decide to put it in a common area of your home or apartment. If your partner, roommates, or guests aren’t particularly religious, take the opportunity to share why having this space is important to you.
Ask them to respect it by not disturbing your items or putting non-sacred things like food or drink on it. If you have kids, involve them in the process of constructing the prayer table or nook! This will teach them its importance and help them to practice reverence in front of the space. You’ll also want to set some rules for kids with regard to the prayer space as well, especially when it comes to fire safety if you’re using candles or incense.
Clean the space regularly. Make time to clean your prayer table or shelf. Dust the surface itself and any icons or statuettes you may have. Remove dried flowers, used tea lights, wicks, charcoal dust, etc. This space is an extension of your church – treat it as such! You may find it helpful to recite Psalm 84 while cleaning, as I’ve recently started doing.
I hope you find this guide useful and I pray that it inspires you to create your own prayer space or add to your existing one. Please remember, this space is your own, it is already special and pleasing to God. Don’t judge your space as inadequate because you don’t have x, y, or z or because your friends have loads of icons and lamps. If having just a simple table with candles and a cross is what speaks to you, that’s enough. This is a devotional space for you to come to God with your joys, sadness, thanksgivings, fears. Make it feel as such, and let the Spirit guide you.
“Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.”
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