Altars All Around Us

An altar can be a place where you reflect on the things you truly value.

If you were to ask a randomly selected group of people if they have altars in their homes, most of them--at least here in the United States--would automatically say no. The word "altar" makes many people feel uncomfortable; it brings up associations with exotic religions and strange cults. Some recall the Ten Commandments' injunctions against "graven images" and the worship of "other" gods. For many, the word altar conjures those images and gods.

Altars carry a lot of historical baggage. With the exception of Roman Catholicism, most Western religions--Judaism, Islam, and many sects of Protestant Christianity--have equated religious imagery with idolatry. This heritage runs deep. At a gathering of religious women many years ago, I watched as observant Jews and Muslims walked through a Tibetan Buddhist temple, clearly feeling they were in an alien and dangerous world.

And yet most of us have altars in our homes--although often we don't know it. If you rephrase the question and ask: "Do you have a place, or several places, in your home where you put family photos and other mementos, like shells, a favorite rock, flowers, or other natural items?" most people would answer yes.


The objects on an altar are often symbols of larger ideas.

An altar can simply be a place where you come to reflect on the things you truly value--often deeper, more lasting, more eternal aspects of life. The objects on an altar are often symbols of larger ideas. Even family photographs are not just about the people themselves but also about your feelings toward family, community, love, and friendship. Objects--a rock or feather, even things you might not expect, like a poem, an old toy, or piece of clothing--can be, in the words of Theodore Roszak, in his book "Where the Wasteland Ends," "a transparent doorway" to deeper realms.

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Margot Adler
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Related Topics: Holistic Living