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Since I have neither bread nor wine nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols… I will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and suffering of the world.

~Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

In 2004-2005, I was part of a Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde exchange program, which gifted me a counterpart from Mexico and 4 months each with host families in rural Alberta and rural Morelos, Mexico. Our host family in Tepetlixpita lived across the road from a Catholic Church, constructed of stone, and this is where my host Mother worshipped. And even though the church was so near, and she went there almost every day, she also had an altar in her home. 

I had never had an altar in my own home. So early in our time with her, spanish-english dictionary in hand, I asked her about it. Here's what I scribbled inside the back cover of my dictionary in half spanish, half english, right after we spoke (the dictionary has long since disintegrated and a photo of this back cover is all I have). I've since marveled at her graciousness and wondered what went through her mind as she tried to decide how she could possibly explain an altar to this person from a far away land, and another branch of the faith, who only marginally speaks her language! What could I understand? 

Translated but not edited: 

-This is normal, typical. This is for faith. 

-Candle v. important. Always one. Special reason? More. 

-Jesus. Always Jesus, clear yes? 

-My husband made the table. You know he is dead. Then the table is special, clear yes?

-Flowers, always flowers. Not many whichever colour. The sun here makes many flowers (grows?)

-Mary. Always Mary. Do you know Mary in Canada? Mary is important here. [the second Mary is circled several times]

-I go to church. there. I go here, everywhere I pray. kitchen? pray. chickens? pray. You understand? 

-Separate 

-Beautiful 

Ever since then, I've endeavored to set up an altar in my home. Home, and altar, have been flexible concepts. Much of summer 2016 I sort of lived in my car between Terrace and Fernie, so my altar was a wooden cross that fits in the palm of the hand and a Tree of Life; in a cupholder and hanging from the rearview mirror, respectively.  Sometimes an altar was part of a windowsill, part of a shelf, or fit in a cloth bag jammed in to my backpack. But it was always separate, and it was always beautiful.

As we begin Holy Week, this is what my altar looks like. Generally, for me, items here are found, gifted, or of sentimental value. 

-These suitcases belonged to my paternal grandfather, and they still have his Greyhound luggage tags on them, his information in his hand writing. He died in 2006, so these suitcases are special. 

-These books are here because often, I don't have the words for prayers and for reflection and people like John O'Donohue and Richard Wagamese and Mary Oliver offered such beautiful words for the world. The spiral bound book behind them is where I write my prayers. Sometimes single words, circled. 

-In the white frame is a few things; at it's centre, a peice of fabric with a cedar tree printed on it, and a person standing at its foot and below them both the words 'we are small'. More on that in a future post. 

-All these small things: shells, rocks, seeds, glass, a pearl, wooden crosses. Placed apart or together. Items which remind me of people and hopes and sorrows and prayers of ongoing import. 

-In a frame, on the right, one line from Psalm 46: Be still and know that I am God. (God, that is. Not me).  

-Flowers (right now, the sun is making many flowers), Ferns (for Jesus), a Ficus (to see if I can tend to a Ficus. I'm so curious. It's so tiny!). 

-A candle. Sometimes more. 

Do you have an altar in your home, or items which help ground you wherever you are? What items are part of this for you and why? Knowing that gathering for worship and communal prayer in person won't be an option for the next little while, if an altar is not part of your spiritual practice perhaps this is something you may want to experiment with, as a way to gather into focus what is, here and now; a tool for pausing to notice the making of meaning and the movements of the Holy One, even in these relatively disrupted days. 

 

1 Comment


Valerie Neilson 7 months ago

Thank you for this suggestion and description of an altar. I currently do not have such a dedicated and intentional space, but that may change...

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