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Creating Personal Altars


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)

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7 Responses

  1. Hi Rosa, Welcome! So glad you found your way here and something that resonated. Sounds like perhaps a simple altar might be what your soul is longing for right now? Maybe at some point you will feel called to create your own symbol through paint or collage. Journals can be very inviting in sacred space. I encourage you to keep listening for what your spirit wants and trusting what arises for you. Blessings! Christine

  2. I foud this entry from google. I am in the process of turning one of my rooms into a prayer and meditation room. I have been working on it for quite some time and I can’t seem to settle on what should be in there. As a person plagued by clutter and absorbtion with material things I relish the fact that right now there is only a makeshift bed and the paint supplies from painting it recently in it. I asked my pastor (UCC) for suggestions of symbols that were not too “icon-ic” but I am still reluctant to put anything in he space. So here I am looking up “personal meditation space” in google and feeling a bit lost.

    Thank you for your post. In reflection on it, I think now that I might put my journals and maybe a bible in there as those are things I woud like to do/read regularly but don’t.

  3. Hi again Swandive, Thanks so much for your kind and lovely words. I hope to hear all about your altar when it finds its new home in your new home.
    Blessings, Christine

  4. I just moved, and used to have a room called the “prayer and meditation space.” It hasn’t found a new place in the new home. You have wonderfully reminded me how important that sacred space is and was to me. Thanks for the reminder. And thanks again so much for your blog. So good. Namaste.

  5. Hi Kayce and Jean, Thank you both for your very thoughtful comments! You both witness to the transformational power of intention, symbol, and the cultivation of beauty in your lives. May your altars be windows to the layer beneath and beyond. Blessings! Christine

  6. Thank you for this, Christine. It reminds me that some of us claim to be “not visual,” but even for us a sacred altar is important. We can place items that offer tactile beauty and bring our spirituality to the forefront through touch … or, as Kayce has done, use fragrances to help us reach peaceful places. But visual cues, too, have value for nonvisual folks because it isn’t only our physical eyes that see. Being surrounded by beauty nourishes the soul of even those who aren’t aware of seeing it, just as clutter can be disruptive for those of us who are sure we don’t notice. There is always – always – so much more going on than our mere humanness grasps.

  7. God is so amazing. for some time now, i have been creating a sacred space without realizing what i was doing. i recently purchased a small bulletin board and shelf to place in my room next to my desk. fresh flowers seem quite important right now and the bulletin board has gathered a few important momentos celebrating my life. on friday i bought a candle i remembered seeing and smelling some time ago. this morning, i lit the candle and proceeded with my morning ritual of writing and devotional time. still not ready to officially get moving for the day, i opened up an e-mail from a friend that contained this blogsite (my first visit, but certainly not my last). tears came to my eyes as i realized how God faithfully and gently continues to guide me toward His altar. my day has started with more gifts than i can describe.