by Ethan Lowery
Originally created for the youth and families of St. Stephen’s, Orinda, CA
The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.
Exodus 25: 1-8
I feel like society is on a pretty heavy anti-materialism kick these days. Buzzfeed Tiny House compilations are getting the *heart eyes emoji* treatment on Facebook; decluttering is now [un]officially a Lenten practice; neo-monastic resource-sharing/simple-living intentional communities seem to be springing up all over the church (I was in one!). And these things are all great, and probably healthy. And, taken too far, writing off of the material realm as comprehensively profane is tough, because, as St. Teresa of Avila reasons “We are not angels and we have bodies… As a rule, our thoughts must have something to lean upon, though sometimes the soul… maybe be so full of God that it will need no created thing to assist it in recollection. But this is not very usual…”
The Spiritual and the Material needn’t compete for our attention or jockey for superiority, but, as St. T goes on to say, reliance on the spiritual is cavalier (and unlikely to bear) without experience in the material: “This withdrawal from the corporeal must doubtless be good, since it is advised by [many of the saints], but it is my belief that it must be practiced only when the soul is very proficient: until then, it is clear, the Creator must be sought through the creatures.”
And so, unless any of us has been raptured and achieved Divine Union, we are invited to explore Holiness in the physical—the places and objects—around us. But sometimes, outside of the set aside Sunday churchtime, holy spaces of respite and prayer can be hard to come by during the week. In the day-to-day bustle, many of us have hastily blessed and made do with our automobiles, our desks, our usual seat on the bus or subway, or even our mental head space (i.e. NPR-on-the-radio zen-mode). But we don’t have to just make do.
In the Book of Exodus, God instructs Moses to collect holy and beautiful (or, shiny and valuable) objects from the Israelites and to construct a sanctuary where they would offer praise and sacrifice. We might not have precious metals, premium dyed linens or goat hair lying around, but we do have the Holy Stuff of our lives – consecrated and made sacred by its consistent contribution to our daily ministry and our humble toiling. Our favorite coffee cup can be a chalice. Our favorite book can read like scripture; our favorite sweater can feel like a vestment. And that –stuff– matters! Cultivating a discipline of appreciating of The Holy Mundane can be an avenue to express our praise and thanks to God, to sharpen our gratitude, and to tap into God’s presence all around us. And the practice of at-home altar-making can become that practice.
A place to start is to take a stroll around your home and notice what objects spark your affection and gratitude. As you go, collect them. Look at your bookshelf. Look at your bedside table. Explore your pantry. Wander your living room. Think of the places you haven’t looked and look there. Look in your car. There should be stuff – if you’re coming up short, think of all the things you’re grateful for and take another lap.
You should have an armful of stuff. Bring it the highest-traffic/least-used table or surface in your house or bedroom and dump it. Take three deeps breaths: 1 for Aesthetic, 2 for Architecture, 3 for God’s Grace and get to stacking. Go ahead, I trust you.
… . .
Does it look okay? No? Try again. Still no? Well, I think it looks perfect.
Check it – here are some examples of altars and why the folks picked what they picked.
You may ask: What makes sense to put on my altar? The answer is anything you want. Books that matter to you, family heirlooms, your most faithful utensil (cooking, writing, eating or otherwise), a nice postcard from a person you miss, crosses, crucifixes, icons, rosaries, a craft someone made for you, a soft stuffed animal, candles, incense, soaps, a trophy/medal/achievement you’re proud of, something that reminds you of your favorite sport or hobby or craft., something that reminds you of your parish, etc., etc., etc. Really it can be anything that put a warm feeling in your heart, a sweet memory in your head, or heightens your awareness of God.
You may ask: Where does it make sense to set up my altar? The answer is anywhere. You might try a coffee table, a bedside table, a mantle, a wall-mounted shelf, a desk, the top of a cabinet or dresser, a glass-fronted hutch, a bookshelf, a plank of plywood between two sawhorses, hah, just anywhere. Anywhere you’ll see it, on purpose or by accident, at least once a day.
You may ask: How should I pray with my altar? The answer is anyway you like!
You can stir your gratitude over each object or you can meditate on just one, you can sit next to it and listen for God, you can explain the elements of it to someone you love, you can journal or read in the same room as it, you can just walk past it and notice occasionally, you can just leave it alone and let it billow prayer vibes into the space – whatever you want to do will be great. However you normally like to prayer, try figuring out a way to include the altar, passively or directly.
Ethan’s altar: book-heavy and sensory, assembled on a tall shelf with some wall image as backdrop.
Steve’s altar: leaning more on the religious imagery and iconography, with BCP open to the Holy Eucharist
Spencer’s altar: with many well-traveled items that symbolize to different spaces & places of ministry in her life.