I am looking at the rickety wooden table to the left of my desk. It was given to me by Maria, my first lover, then roommate, then ex-roommate, now reconnected friend. Maria gave me this small, wooden table she painted sky blue. She gave it to me to be an altar, a place to center my spiritual life.
It has been an altar for nearly twenty years.
It was the altar in the little, kneeling-walled room I had in our apartment.
It was the altar in the dining-room-turned-bedroom where I lived with Greg and Lana and Dave.
It was my altar table in many places. And in many places, the items for my altar were among the first I unpacked upon arriving.
I had an altar at Our Lady of the Alleghenies convent when I was with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. I had an altar when I was involved with Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. I had an altar all through seminary. I have an altar now.
And I made my first altar not on a table at all, but in the window well of a basement apartment when I was a sophomore in college.
But what IS it?
This table, this thing I keep calling an altar, is not technically an “altar” at all. It is a table for prayer, for centering, for calling to mind what is most important in my life. And the practice of building and using these spaces I call “altars” has become fundamental to my spiritual life.
The practice of making altars is really just the practice of arranging items on a table, shelf, mantle, stereo speaker to call to mind something that is important.
For example, I have a small ancestors’ altar on one of my bookshelves. It has a photo of my father, a silhouette of my grandmother, a genealogy book, and some other items from members of my family who are no longer alive. I have a small ceramic cup with an incense stick inside—I burn incense there to remind myself of where I come from, and from whom.
My wife and I have a family altar on our mantle. It has the broom that was made for us on our wedding day, a photo from our wedding day, various sparkly and shiny things, candles, and other items. Everything on the mantle—and on the collage above the mantle—speaks of our gratitude for one another and the importance of our relationship.
The main event
These altars though, while they are important to me, are newcomers on the scene. The practice I began twenty-two years ago was not for my ancestors, nor for any specific relationship. It was between the Divine and me. And it still is.
The altar I have now—the one pictured at the bottom of this post—is a collection of many things. A black mirror to remind me that discernment is often looking into obscure reflections. A photo of myself, age three, to remind me to take care of the child inside and to cherish the child I was. A ceramic blue-and-white ball that survived being halfway buried in the ground and mowed over. Candles for each of the four Directions. A fat, goddess-shaped bottle that used to hold damiana. All kinds of things, each of which has meaning to me. Even down to the little red bench that holds my candles, everything has meaning.
Meaning to me. What has meaning to you? How might you gather some objects together in a place that calls to your spirit, reminds you of what’s important and what centers your soul?