Thanks to Layne Hilyer for this contribution to our previously paused, but now perhaps ongoing Meaningful Homes Series. If you happen to be inspired by this series (now that we’re all staying at home a bit more), consider writing a guest post and emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a confession: virtual church services have left me with a hard heart. The calcification began the first week of the stay-at-home order as my wife and I prepared for worship by propping up a cellphone facing the couch like a little television. On screen was the inside of our parish from an angle I had not seen—I would never sit so close to the front—and there was our priest whose voice I heard microphoned for the first time ever as the acoustics in the small sanctuary make audio equipment unnecessary. These changes among others made me so uncomfortable and frustrated that I considered just waiting for the stay-at-home order to pass before “going” to church again. It seems to me that what is so unsatisfying about church via screen is that it places worship within the context of a kind of escapism that my cellphone creates. I look at the screen and forget I am at home; I take my eyes off of the screen and forget I am worshiping. All of the sudden a longing arises for something to anchor my eyes. Several weeks later, few things have changed.
But some things have changed thanks to a small, good gift. One year ago to the month, The Homely Hours began collecting pictures and stories of meaningful homes. I would like to recollect the importance of sharing these homely places and spaces virtually in Covidtide for one simple reason: it is our home altar that quietly broke my hardening heart open.
We all have the impulse to make altars. The home altar often acts as a visual anchor for whatever room it is placed in. There are certain aspects of a room that gather and hold it all together. Just like in our sanctuaries, our eyes are drawn toward the center—where the action is—and the whole room seems to slouch toward the table. Try this: walk into any room of your home and pay attention to the visual anchor: is it a piece of furniture, a window, a blank wall, a fireplace, a painting, a television? If there is no visual anchor, I am willing to guess that you do not go into that room often, or it is the “stuff room” of the home. The easiest way to spot the visual anchor is by noting whatever confronts your vision from threshold. For our home, as soon as you walk in the front door your eye is drawn toward the mantle above the fireplace in the corner of the living room. This mantle is where we decided to make our altar with three simple elements:
A Cross: the shape extends its “arms” out to gather the gaze in. At the center—the crux—is the heart of Christ, the flesh and blood of God. This is the anchor of anchors for when we feel adrift or shipwrecked, spiritually and physically (Acts 27).
A Candle: this light illumines the altar and whatever is nearby. That is to say, the flame and light of God in the Holy Ghost inspires the altar. Candles have great devotional meaning as the warmth and smell rises like prayers (Exodus 30; Psalm 141).
A Vase of Flowers: these organic things act as a signpost for the beauty, goodness, and truth of God’s presence revealed by scripture—from garden to garden (Genesis 1-2; John 15; Revelation 21-22).
Your altar need not be large to be an anchor. Nor does it necessarily need to be central, though there is power in what takes center stage in a room. For many, the home altar can be a little chapel on an end table, on the mantle above the fireplace, or in the corner of a shelf. Like any act of devotion, the meaning of making a home altar resides in becoming attentive and prayerful. In addition to a cross, a candle, and a vase of flowers, placing an image on or around the altar guides me toward seeing God in the here and now both in- and outside our home. Artworks that have been given to us transform wherever they hang or sit into a gift simply by being a reminder of the giver. With this in mind, we can be intentional about what art decorates our home. For example, one artist I have purchased prints from is the iconographer Kelly Latimore. His icons are ancient and new in the way of a deep tradition. More specifically, around our home altar is both an icon of Christ the Shepherd, whose skin is appropriately sunbaked for a Middle Eastern commoner, and an icon of the holy family in worn 21st century clothes crossing a border at nightfall. These two images together discipline the eye to look to the historical and narrative Christ and how he is still gathering lost and exiled people into his fold.
My hard heart would not let these truths in if it were not for the faithful work of simple devotion. I had to allow the space of worship to anchor me. There is no embedded spirituality in places or spaces in our home until we have the eyes to see it, and this true of any sanctuary. With prayer, attention, and an altar our sight will be gathered in and transformed by the Good Shepherd.
It seems appropriate to conclude with a prayer from Anselm of Canterbury (found in the Occasional Prayers of the BCP 2019). Consider adding this collect to morning or evening prayer:
Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, show yourself to me; for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, and I will never find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you by desiring you, and desire you by seeking you; let me find you by loving you, and love you in finding you. Amen.
Layne Hilyer worships and works in Dayton, Ohio with his wife Lauren.