How we fill our space


by Melissa Musick Nussbaum

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

According to the Institute for Church Life, by the time young Catholics in the United States reach their mid-20s, 50 percent of them no longer identify as Catholic or even Christian. Most of these young people still say they believe in God and they even pray, but they don't feel connected, and aren't connected, to a life of faith. Many say they do not believe that faith and reason (by which most of them mean science) can be reconciled.

Then consider this finding from the Institute for Church Life: If a young American Catholic -- from the same Catholic population of whom 50 percent no longer practice their faith or identify as Catholic -- grows up in a home with a shrine or altar, a place set aside for prayer, that young Catholic is "very likely" to remain in the church.

Now I can't find a number that corresponds with the phrase "very likely," so I don't know how this finding stacks up as a percentage against the 50 percent of young American Catholics who report that they no longer either identify as Catholics or practice their faith.

But if a home shrine or altar is listed as a factor in why a young American Catholic stays in the church, it is worth reflecting on what it might mean to establish one. I certainly don't think it's because there is something magic about a home shrine, any more than there is something magic about a home gym. Both have to be used, and regularly, to effect any change.

I think the answer has to do with the simple fact that real estate, and that includes home real estate, is valuable. We have a finite amount of space: in our homes, in our hearts, in our heads, in our days, and what we fill them with tells us and others what we love, what we value. How we use this limited amount of space tells our children what really matters to us.

A few years ago, my husband and I invested in a new flat screen TV. It fits inside a wooden cabinet with doors that close to hide the screen. Open the doors and an ingenious device allows the screen to be pulled and tilted in a way that makes it possible for everyone in the room to see.

We'll tell you the doors are a testament to our desire not to have the TV dominate the room. We'll tell you that television watching isn't very important to us. Consider the (prime) space the TV occupies and weigh that against my assertion that television watching isn't very important to us.

Then look at the bills -- from the carpenter who built the cabinet, the painter who painted it, the sound specialist who sold us the set and then installed it, along with the boxes and remotes that bring in all the channels -- and consider again my avowal that TV isn't very important to us. You might well tell me I'm delusional.

It just makes sense to me that parents who devote a space in their home for a shrine -- and who use it -- have made prayer and a life built around seasons and saints days and Sundays at least as central to the life in that house as ESPN or CNN or HGTV. And their kids watch and learn, bowing their heads alongside their parents, absorbing what really matters.

On May 15 this year, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost and bring the Easter season to its close. All through Easter, we heard readings from the Book of Acts in place of the usual first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Because if Jesus Christ has truly risen from the dead, that single fact changes everything, everything. It changes human history and it changes human lives. It changes my life.

This is the question of the Easter lectionary: If we are changed, how must the way we work and rest and eat and get along with others change? How then shall we live?

The church looks to the lives of the first Christians for an answer to those questions.

What strikes me, every Easter, is that what the first followers of Jesus think about the Resurrection, or how we live in the light of the Resurrection, is nowhere to be found. There's no exchange between Peter and James about their opinions. Acts is all about how Christians live, what they do, how they spend their days, how they use this real estate they been given.

This is what we learn: They pray together, they eat together, they heal the sick, and they care for the widow and the orphan and those in prison. They share what they own like a family does. They teach the ignorant. They preach the news of Christ's resurrection from the dead.

A few weeks ago, I opened my biblical concordance and searched for where in the Scriptures I could find that favorite 21st-century word, opinion. Because it's my opinion, for example, that television doesn't play a significant role in my life. But the word isn't in there.

I could find the word think, but it isn't used frequently, and when it is, thinking, as in opinion, doesn't seem to be held in much esteem. In John, Jesus chides those who think they have eternal life through the Scriptures while refusing to come to him.

Paul tells the Corinthians to "stop being childish in your thinking," which might well include thinking that your opinion reveals more than your deeds, that your opinion of how you spend your life matters more than the actual deeds constituting your life. Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, "Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall."

We did recently put up a small holy water font on the wall near the door leading in and out of our garage. It's the door we use most often. The ceramic font looks, as my husband rightly observed, "very Grandma Gulde," she of the holy water flung over everyone at every departure.

But I notice that the gesture, dipping my fingers and making the Sign of the Cross, makes me think, however briefly, of the One to whom I belong, as I enter and exit. It forces me to stop and take just a moment from what often seems to be the real business of my life, the business of getting and keeping.

More importantly, I notice my grandchildren dipping in their fingers -- the little ones stretching on tiptoe to reach, the littlest ones asking to be lifted up -- as they go out and return.

Will it make a difference in my grandchildren's lives, in their faith as they grow up? Well, if it helps me not only think of Jesus as I leave and return, but then try to act like Jesus, maybe, maybe even "very likely." I'll check back with you in about 10 years.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's column for NCR is at Her latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: How we fill our space.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters