My next entry in the 100 Untimed Books challenge I’m filing under prompt #46: Coming Home.
Altars and Icons: Sacred Space in Everyday Life by Jean McMann is a curated peek into the world of personal altars and shrines.
There are probably forty or fifty altars featured, and accompanying each photograph is a small, page or two, explanation from the altar’s creator of the significance of the objects used and why they created it. It’s quite an eclectic collection, covering the gamut of altars with religious connections (of many religions) to purely secular gatherings, and everything between.
I’m fascinated by altars and have them all over my house, and I’m always interested in seeing other’s altars as well. It’s like looking into someone’s studio or at their collection of books – little peeks into their soul that they gift you with. For me it’s always magical and not to be treated lightly – no matter what the altar represents; whether it resonates with my beliefs and values or not; no matter if I find it aesthetically pleasing to my senses or strangely jarring. For those of us who build altars, we do it for entirely unique and personal reasons, and that to me is interesting as well.
One of the stories I treasured most from this little volume is the story about the altar of Marina Golitzin, who was ninety at the time of the interview. Her mother was a Russian princess, and their family left Moscow in 1917, and then when the Red Army was closing in in 1919, left for China, and eventually emigrated to the United States. The story of their journey, while only briefly sketched out, has etched itself in my mind, and I find myself returning to it again and again. Of the things they brought with them, her mother’s icons were precious treasures, and Marina also has on the altar a piece of embroidered from her mother dating from 1911. Such rich history.
It’s always a lovely thing to keep flowers on an altar. They can be used to represent the element of earth, or as a token of appreciation, or simply to add some beauty or scent. In keeping with my system of rating books using floriography, the language of flowers, I think it’s appropriate to offer a vase of flowers for the altar, with Agrimony (thankfulness), Rosemary (remembrance), Peruvian Heliotrope (devotion), and China Rose (beauty always new).
Although I do keep many altars, for many reasons, I do have a main one. All altars require tending – whether regularly if you’re using them for reflection or meditation or some regular practice, or perhaps more sporadic attendance, whether simply to refresh objects or arrangements when you feel called. My main one has been a pretty fixed entity for some time, although of course new objects find their way onto it, and older objects get removed, many items have stayed as particular touchstones. However, this year, I’ve been called to entirely change it out. Dismantle and build anew. I was surprised when I got the call to do that, and yet, it took me only a brief moment to know how perfect and right that was. The energy of everything feels changed in our external world doesn’t it? Our personal external expressions need to change as well.
I’m curious about how each one of us is choosing to navigate this journey. What things we’re choosing to cut, what things we’re choosing to hone in on, how we’re refining and re-defining. It feels like alchemy to me. This year of Fire Rooster is alternately considered a Phoenix year, and I’m feeling into that energy. I’m looking at the places that feel like dross needs to burn away so pure spirit can shine through. Altars and Icons is about sacred spaces in everyday life, and I’m paying deep attention to what feels sacred to me and how I want to express that.
What about you? Do you feel like everything is inherently different and calling you to respond in new ways? Do you feel the excitement of that? Are you creating something new? Do you keep an altar? Do tell – you know I love to hear.