I have an altar space in my prayer corner in our living room. It is set on top of a beautiful old secretary desk that is from my father’s family and so in the last century and a half has traveled from Latvia to Vienna to New York to Sacramento to San Francisco to Berkeley to Seattle (those last four just in the last ten years). There is a secret compartment inside and when I first lifted it open I discovered a shipping document that had the seal of the Third Reich on it, quite a history it has.
Inside the desk I keep my journal and books I am reading. Right now I have many items of significance to me on the altar including a photo of myself as a little girl mid-giggle, one of my mother and me taken about ten years ago, and an icon of Frida Kahlo, an amazing artist and woman who dealt with painful disability. There is also a clay figure and mask I made at the final sessions of the Awakening the Creative Spirit and Tending the Fire programs I co-led this past year. And a tiara which was on my birthday cake this year. And of course some candles.
But I am feeling something new emerging in me right now. Something I can’t quite name just yet. So I will be clearing off several of these sacred items, laying them ever so carefully in the drawer, thanking them for their wisdom and guidance so far, and leaving space to listen for what new symbols want to dwell there and help reveal to me this next layer that needs tending. As I add new things that feel sacred, I will slowly be unfolding my own story.
Altars can be very powerful. In creating altars, we fill a personal space with the power of our own intentions and longings. We take seriously those deep desires of our hearts that Ignatius of Loyola wisely said were planted there by God in the first place. We acknowledge an incarnational God who speaks through symbols and the things of our everyday lives. A God who rises up in response to our own longings.
A personal altar is a sacred space where we can recenter and reconnect with the holy presence dwelling in our midst. A place to honor the desires of our lives with beauty. Altars help to give voice to the longings bubbling up within us long before we can put them into words. It is an act of courage to say that this space is dedicated to something as “useless” as prayer. It is an act of trust and wisdom to listen to those symbols that want a place in our lives. It is a reminder that there is something greater, bigger than our daily worries and concerns: A fiery Presence that pulses beneath the surface of things, inviting us to pay attention.
What gifts might a personal altar offer to you? What are the sacred spaces in your home? The places that you have intentionally devoted to reminding you of the presence of the holy? What are the symbols you have on your altar or the ones you would like to put on one? What longings need symbolic expression in your life right now?
-Christine Valters Paintner (sacredcenter at aol dot com)