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.
While there is certainly idolatry in our culture--our worship of money, success, and political power--to assume that the devotee kneeling before a shrine to a Hindu or Tibetan or Wiccan god or goddess sees only an idolatrous image makes no more sense than assuming that serious Christians think God can be reduced to a white man with the beard that appears in so many paintings and other works of art. To think this about other religions may even be a form of racism.
Although private altars are a beautiful way to reflect on deep issues, public altars can also be created. Every summer, I make a personal pilgrimage to a beautiful country graveyard, Abel's Hill cemetery in Chilmark, Mass., where the actor and comedian John Belushi is buried. Belushi died at the age of 33 of a drug overdose. While I didn't know him personally, and didn't really follow his career, his grave has drawn me back year after year because of the makeshift community altar that has grown atop his gravestone.
Abel's Hill Cemetery is on a beautiful part of Martha's Vineyard, quite near the ocean. There are wild rose bushes, pine and cedar trees, and lovely old New England stonewalls. Inside a small enclosure marked with a wooden fence is a large and beautiful black boulder, simple and rough, with the single word "Belushi" carved into the stone. There is a small bench and a more recent, traditional gravestone that notes Belushi's birth in 1949 and death in 1982, with a phrase about rock and roll living on. The top of the rough boulder is flat, and over the years people have left mementos. For a long while, most of them were about addiction. In addition to rocks, shells, and flowers, people would leave coke spoons, rolling papers, pills, cigarettes, money, candy. The altar became a place to meditate on what addictions symbolize: lives wasted, for example.
But this past week, I noticed that the altar had changed. The symbols of addiction were not as prevalent. Besides a bouquet of flowers, there was an orange with a poem on it, some beautiful shells, and expressions of love and affection. That a community altar would change seems fitting. After all, almost 20 years have gone by since Belushi died. Over time, people tend to celebrate a life more than dwell on the reasons for its end.
One of my favorite things to do is create a community altar with a group of friends--or even a group of strangers who meet for a workshop or meeting. You simply tell everyone to bring one or two personal items. The objects have to be meaningful--things that relate to their lives or to an important experience they had. The objects can be anything, from a piece of jewelry or a photograph to a computer disc containing one's writing.
Then, have everyone sit in a circle and introduce themselves by saying their name and talking about their objects and why they brought what they did. What happens might surprise you. You come to recognize that you have created a simple but powerful ritual because, at the end, you will know rich and important things about the people in the room, often more than you could have learned by any other means in such a short period.
Common themes will be expressed, which become the take-off points for conversation and new friendships. At the end of the ceremony, you will have a temporary but beautiful altar full of objects, each one representing a life story. Every time I look at one of these community altars, I am struck by how utterly fascinating most human beings are, how rich their histories, and how little of that depth we usually allow others to see.