I started making home altars when I was a teenager but I didn’t think of them as “altars” like in a church. It was a way to gather objects which had a spiritual meaning for me. I continued this practice throughout my 20s and early 30s—it was an intuitive spiritual practice of creating meaningful spaces as a way of expressing my prayers or whatever spiritual reading I was doing at that time.
But when I began meeting with a Catholic laywoman for spiritual direction, I began to understand that I was creating altars as sacred space as a way of enhancing my prayers. These altars were also a visual, external expression of God’s movement in my interior. This same spiritual director suggested I read To Dance with God by Gertrud Mueller Nelson which provided a historical and ecclesial context for what I was modestly doing in my home.
At seminary (AMBS) there was a visual element in our thrice-weekly chapel services that deeply spoke to me. I resonated with colors, shapes, and symbols as another way of communicating with God. Additionally, I became more familiar with the church calendar and how the colors and symbols of a given season informed my understanding of the Gospels.
By the time I began pastoring at Michigan State University Mennonite Fellowship, I tried to give as much care to the visual elements of a worship service as I did to the words used throughout the service, including the sermon. Granted, there were some Saturdays when I finished writing my sermon and I realized, “Shoot! I haven’t given any thought to the visuals!” And the following day, I would have a simple setting of candles and colored cloth that represented the church season.
Since moving into our current home, Kevin and I have tried to have an “altarscape” on one side of the dining room. We are fairly intentional about creating altars that follow the church season but get distracted and bored during the long season of Ordinary Time (which, truthfully, is the deeper challenge of that particular season—becoming distracted and bored in one’s relationship with God). Some seasons Kevin takes the initiative to create the altar, other seasons I do. We consult with one another, making sure that the symbols and images are meaningful to both of us.
I’m often surprised by the arrival of the first Sunday of Advent and dash to the craft stores looking for four purple and one pink candle. Sometimes I find them and sometimes I am too late. This year I was too late and ended up with five beige candles for our Advent wreath. I also painted a small canvas and created a quote to attach the canvas but I am still working on it.
In Christine Valters Paintner’s awesome book, The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, she writes of creating a personal art altar: “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 the deep desires of our hearts the St. Ignatius of Loyola wisely said were planted there by God in the first place. We acknowledge an incarnate God who speaks through symbols and the things of our everyday lives, and responds to our longings.” (p. 44, see my interview with Christine here).
Have you created altars in your home? What symbols are meaningful to you? When and why do you change them? Please leave your comments below.