A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones   Leave a comment

An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshipper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.  The red color of the Taoist altar below immediately alerts the eye to its importance and energy.

As a center of ritual action and visual attention, an altar is positioned to draw the eye as much as any other sense.   In Christian churches like the one below, everything is subordinated to the Cross and the altar immediately below it.  Church architecture typically highlights this focus through symmetry and lighting.  But in every case, enter the sacred space which an altar delineates, and it tells you what matters by how it is shaped and ordered and organized.

Part of OBOD* training is the establishment and maintenance of a personal altar as part of regular spiritual practice.  Here’s a Druid altar spread on a tabletop.  Nothing “mundane” or arbitrary occupies the space — everything has ritual or spiritual purpose and significance to its creator.

Such obviously physical objects and actions and their appeal to the senses as aids in spiritual practice all spring from human necessity.  We need the grounding of our practices in the physical world of words, acts and sensations in order to “bring them home to us,” and make them real or “thingly,” which is what “real” (from Latin res “thing”) means.

Religions and spiritual teachings accomplish this in rich and diverse ways.  We have only to think of Christian baptism, communion and the imposition of ashes at Easter; Hindu prasad and tilak; Jewish bris/brit (circumcision) and tallit (prayer shawl) and so on.

Atheists who focus exclusively on belief in their critiques and debates thus forget the very real, concrete and physical aspects of religious and spiritual practice which invest actions, objects and words with spiritual meaning that cannot be dismissed merely by pointing out any logical or rational cracks in a set of beliefs.  Though you may present “evidence that God doesn’t exist” that seems irrefutable to you, you haven’t even begun to touch the beauty of an altar or spiritual structure, the warmth of a religious community of people you know and worship with, the power of a liturgy, the smell of incense, the tastes of ritual meals, the sounds of ritual music and song.

Just as we hear people describe themselves as “spiritual without being religious” as they struggle to sift forms of religion from the supposed “heart” of spirituality, plenty of so-called “believers” are “religious without being spiritual.”  The forms of their spiritual and religious practice are rich with association, memory and community, and can be as important as — or more so than — a particular creed or set of beliefs.

Having said all of this, I’ve had a set of experiences that incline me away from erecting a physical altar for my Druid practice.  So I’m working toward a solution to the spiritual “problem” this presents.  Let me approach it indirectly.  Once again, and hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed this blog or is as bookish as I am, the trail runs through books.

Damiano, the first volume in a fabulous (and sadly under-known) trilogy by R. A. MacAvoy, and recently reissued as part of an omnibus edition called Trio for Lute, supplies an image for today’s post.  Damiano Delstrego is a young Renaissance Italian who happens to be both witch and aspiring musician.  His magic depends for its focus on a staff, and we see both the strengths and limitations of such magical tools in various episodes in the novel, and most particularly when he encounters a Finnish woman who practices a singing magic.

When I read the trilogy at its first publication in the 80s, the Finnish magic sans tools seemed to me much superior to “staff-based” power.  (Partly in the wake of Harry Potter and the prevalence of wands and wand-wielders in the books and films, there’s a resurgence of interest in this aspect of the art, and an interesting new book just published reflecting that “tool-based” bias, titled Wandlore: the Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool).

So when I then read news of church burnings, desecrated holy  sites, quests for lost spiritual objects (like the Holy Grail) and so on, the wisdom of reposing such power in a physical object seemed to me dubious at best.  For whatever your own beliefs, magic energy — whether imbued by intention, Spirit, habit, the Devil, long practice, belief in a bogus or real power — keeps proving perilously vulnerable to misplacement, loss or wholesale destruction.  Add to this Jesus’ observation that we are each the temple of Spirit, and my growing sense of the potential of that inner temple of contemplation — also a feature of OBOD practice — and you get my perspective.

Carrying this admitted bias with me over the years, when I came last year to the lesson in the OBOD Bardic series that introduced the personal altar, I realized I would need both contemplation and creativity to find my way.

My solution so far is a work in progress, an alpha or possibly a beta version.  My altar is portable, consisting of just five small stones, one for each of the classic European five elements — four plus Spirit.  Of course I have other associations, visualizations and a more elaborate (and still evolving) practice I do not share here. But you get the idea.  (If you engage in a more Native-American nourished practice, you might choose seven instead: the four horizontal directions, above [the zenith], below [the nadir] and the center.)

I can pocket my altar in a flash, and re-deploy it on a minimal flat space (or — in a pinch — right on the palm of my hand).  One indulgence I’ve permitted myself: the stones originate from a  ritual gift, so they do in fact have personal symbolic — or magical, if you will — significance for me.  But each altar ritual I do includes both an invitation for descent and re-ascent of power or imagery or magic to and away from the particular stones that represent my altar.  Lose them, and others can take their place for me with minimal ritual “loss” or disruption.  Time and practice will reveal whether this is a serviceable solution.

This post is already long enough, so I’ll defer till later any discussion of the fitness of elemental earth/stone standing in for the other elements.

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*OBOD — the particular “flavor” of Druidry I’m studying and practicing.

Images: Singapore Taoist altar; Christian altar; Druid altar; Amazon/Trio for Lute.

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Updated: 27 July 2013

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