In Community- Sacred Altars
Dear ones in the cold South! I don’t think of this time of year as one when I, in the Pacific Northwest, should be warmer than you all, but apparently this year is that way. I hope you’re managing to wrap up as well as possible and stay warm, and that the community of UUCA is continuing to warm your hearts, as well as bodies.
I was very excited to learn of the sermon series on sacred objects. What a wonderful and rich topic! For my part, sacred objects play an essential role in my spiritual practice, and I thought I’d share some of my history and current use of them in my life and home.
In 1991, when I first discovered Pagan practice, I learned about building altars. I was already inclined to put little photos on the walls of my student apartment, or quotations. I had Keats’s Ode on Melancholy in my bathroom (perhaps a odd choice!), landscapes on the door to my closet, art I had created on the wall above my bed, and other images that reminded me of important parts of myself, parts I wanted to be mindful of and encourage.
That year, I took this practice of mindful gathering a step further. I lived in a basement apartment, which meant that I had those little window wells with large “sills,” if you can call them that. On one of those sills, I placed a drawing I had done, a small (small, so as not to burn the place down) candle, some incense, and a few shells I had gathered from a trip to the northern California coast. I didn’t know what I was “supposed” to have on an altar, or what I was supposed to do with them once I put them there. It just felt right.
I have a dear atheist friend who has little collections of sacred altars all over her home. Found birds’ nests. Shells. Rocks. Photos. Other images and art. She says that they make her home feel more like an extension of herself, more her own place, and they are part of what she arranges as soon as she moves into a new place.
Over the years, my altar-building practice has grown into something much bigger. Now I have an ancestor and family altar in my living room, with a soup tureen that belonged to my great-great-great-grandmother, a statue of Kwan Yin brought back from China in the 1940’s, teapots from my and my wife’s grandmother’s, and images of our wedding.
I have an altar focused on the sea, one of the places I feel most connected to the Universe, to that which is greater than any of us, and which I call Divine. That altar includes mother-of-pearl and abalone, mussel and oyster shells, strings of blue and white beads, a scallop-shell box my mother gave me, and a statue of a mermaid.
And I have little spaces that change with the seasons. For example, an Advent wreath or Christmas tree with gifts can be considered altars. Around winter solstice, I put up white lights and light candles on the mantle. At May Day, I fill the kitchen table with flowers. During the days of the ancestors, from October 31 to November 2 each year, I offer favorite food and drink to those who have gone before me, and spend time tending to the family altar that is always in my living room.
Finally, I have what I call my “working altar.”
My working altar is the place I come to pray. The place I bring the concerns of my heart, the worries of my soul, and my desire to become more and more my better self. This altar is much like that altar I built so many years ago. More candles, a more systematic arrangement, more tools to help me focus my mind…but still the stick of incense in a special bowl, the chalice, the four colors of the cardinal quarters of the compass, and symbols of my work as a minister as priestess/priestx.
What altars have you made in your space without even calling them altars? Why are they important to you? What do they call forth in you that you want to nurture?
Or if you don’t have spaces like this, might you like to create one. Just a corner of a mantle can be a place for special photos and candle to honor the people in them. A dresser top can hold special natural objects that remind you of your connection to the world around you. Sacred statues, collage, artwork, sculptures or pottery you have made; all these things can create an altar for any of us, no matter what our theological orientation is.
So I invite you today to clear a space. To make a space in the corner of your mind to consider what corner of your home can become a site for the sacred, a place to bring what is Holy to your mind.
Blessings on your way, friends.