Altar and Prayer   Leave a comment

In her blog, Alison Leigh Lily writes beautifully about the human body as a holy thing, an altar:

So, too, my body is the altar in the nemeton [sacred grove–ADW] of my soul — that small, solid piece of world that settles down like a stone into my awareness. And that awareness in turn is carved by the spiraling torrents of the sacred world, the sun that crafts the seasons out of mud and wind, the moon that pushes the sea to its extremes, the stars that draw the eye into the great distances that yawn open between us, the deer, the jay, the badger, the rustling oak and every being and body that dances through its longing, hunger, fear, curiosity and sleep. All these things turn about the sculpted edge of my nemeton, the sanctuary my soul has made of itself, the self that calls itself “I” and reaches out into the world to touch the chaos that has given birth to it. Sitting in the center of that nemeton is my body, all surface, the appearance of skin and hair and angles and soft curves of fat and loose muscle. Like a ladder that reaches into the dark. A spine, a wellspring, a single tree, a tongue of flame. My body is the altar around which my spirit gathers itself into stillness. Not a temple, but only a simple, useful table where I sit down to do my work.

And some of the work we are called to do is to recognize that altar.  In the Bible I read, “I will go up into the altar of God” — introibo ad altare dei in Latin.  I use it as a mantra, a chant, to be mindful of the altar as a place to ascend to.  For it feels like we do actually rise up, into the body, out of thought, out of waking, out of the distractions and worries and daily obsessions, the small news that passes for important events that other people call “headlines,” but which are mostly just footnotes — out of the image and into the reality, into this body that is part of the world, not a thought or an idea or a remove from the thing itself, but the place where we experience a universe.

I strive to occupy this body, this world, as fully as I can, to be fully incarnate.  Not to forsake this great, unheralded, impossibly large opportunity to know, to dare, to will and to be silent, to listen for the voices of the Others who move all around me, chickadee at the feeder, crows scavenging a dead squirrel on the road early this morning as my wife and I drove through the dark and the fog to her weaving apprenticeship.

And Tom, who introduced himself yesterday afternoon — a neighbor, out chopping wood.  He paused from his work and called to my wife and me, walking slowly over to where we were unloading our car.  “It’s something I can still do, and it needs doing,” he said to us, as he stood before us, dressed in blue sweat pants, a gray sweatshirt, a blue hoodie, pieces of leaves and bark plastered to this clothes.  “I was just recovering  from knee surgery when I had a stroke.  And I was recovering from the stroke when I lost my job.  But I can still chop wood, as long as I don’t have to bend my legs too much.”  So I touch that friendliness, and something of the spirit in him, that brought him to our doorstep to chat in the fading afternoon light of a day in early November. Is any song more wonderful?

“Sanctuary my soul has made of itself,” Alison says — a poem, a song, a prayer for this life, this world.

“Prayer is about being hopeful,” says Sister Alice Martin. “It is not a phone call to God’s hotline. It’s not about waiting around for an answer you like, especially since sometimes the answer you’re going to get is NO!”  And she continues, “If you are going to pray, then don’t worry. And if you are going to worry, then don’t bother praying. You can’t be doing both.”  I know which one I want to choose, often as I can, prayer at this altar of my body.


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