The altar was not for particular spirits, but honored all the ‘spirits’ we brought with us to share: the spirits of the women and men in our stories, the memories imbedded in the items we gathered together and the spirit of every person present in the class that day.
Last week my students and I created a non-religious altar to conclude our class, Women, Religion and Spirituality. We read about different feminist spiritual traditions in which women created altars to honor their ancestors, spirits or deities; and I thought it might be fun to practice our own form of literal physical creation. I asked students to bring in inspiring items, pictures of people who’d helped them to grow or anything that honored what they considered sacred in their lives. I also asked them to bring food to share, as no altar seems complete without food of some kind. However, asking my students to participate in a course ritual, I also felt it was important to respect their very different beliefs… which resultantly, left me wondering how we would create an altar without God.
My religious experience taught me that altars were a place to surrender gifts in return for a greater gift of God’s blessing or love. The church I attended as a child did have a literal, physical altar; but this raised table was only used monthly to present the communion bread and grape juice before it was passed through the pews. Otherwise, I came to understand, one’s heart was the altar and we needed to present our sacrifices there. Financial gifts needed to come from the heart, then put into the offering plate. Gifts of time or action had to start in the heart, even when required by the youth group or spiritual authority; and resistance to giving these gifts also required sacrifice. My resistance or lack of desire to sacrifice required that I leave my unwillingness at the altar so that I might become appropriately grateful.
At some point I started leaving too much at the altar; and like Abraham’s Daughter I said enough is enough. I recognized myself in the sisters and brothers lying under the sacrificial sword, and I took back my heart. My heart, I realized, hadn’t been the altar; it had been the offering and sacrifice.
So, how do I ask my students to bring an “offering” without asking them to risk their ‘hearts,’ so to speak? I, like many of my students, am very inspired by the idea of physical altars— literal places I can go to visit the sacred, that also allow me to preserve the sacred places where my heart lives. I already have a few places in my home that I consider altars of a sort. I keep significant stones and a singing bowl on the hearth of my fireplace, so I can interact with peaceful energy and vibration there when I meditate. I place a box with a rose in it under a drawn picture of a naked woman on my dresser. The rose is from my grandmother’s funeral; and I open the box to remember her in my own physical way. It is in terms of these physical meeting places—multiple interrelated sacred spaces— that I tried to talk about the creation of a class altar.
I explained, “its meant to be a place where we can celebrate the journey we’ve been on, to remember, to share stories and to finish our class.” I hoped our altar could be a meeting place, but let them know I did not want them to be uncomfortable. They did not have to participate. Those students who had altars or their own traditions didn’t need to disrupt their own practice or places to share sacred items with the class. Most importantly, we would not dedicate the altar to a particular deity or spirit—which for me meant, I did not plan any particular ritual, perhaps, confusingly. I have to admit, I was overly concerned that my students might not tell me if they were uncomfortable. Thus, I believe that I used a lot of words to under-explain what I was hoping we would create (as I am apt to do). What I forgot was that while the altar itself was not for god or goddess, that god and goddess would be there for those of us who honored deity. The altar was not for particular spirits, but honored all the ‘spirits’ we brought with us to share: the spirits of the women and men in our stories, the memories imbedded in the items we gathered together and the spirit of every person present in the class that day.
I brought my meditation stones to share (along with several other items)—their two tiny spirits shy as I set them on the sari my father’s “Nana” Sharine gave me before she died.
I also made cupcakes, painting snakes on them with icing to both reference the goddess we’d studied in class and to continue my efforts to create a more positive relationship with this animal. I didn’t put the cupcakes on the altar for fear that I would impose deity on our shared creation; but I was pleased that like me, others found the snakes a fun element.
Two students brought books, explaining the ways that the texts were pushing them, challenging them, exciting them or giving them hope. One student reflected that really, her whole bookshelf was like an altar in her home—a sentiment that many in the class shared.
Several students talked about the importance of their politics and the way their items reminded them of their intentional commitments and priorities. A rock shaped like a fist reminded a woman of her power. The anime film, Princess Mononoke gave a man hope and inspiration as the characters engaged in a battle for nature.
Other rocks and pieces of nature joined the altar. Three garden rocks with powerful words reminded one student of her journey with her partner. A stick that made almost a circle or spiral had lived with another student for years, after they found one another in the forest during a hike.
One woman shared a ring that she’d bought so that she could have something for herself. Her dear friend wore an identical ring, connecting the two across distances.
Another student told the class that her body was an altar and she showed us some of her tattoos, noting their (sometimes changing) significance.
Most students without physical items shared what they might have brought had the items not been too precious or fragile to bring. A grandmother’s spice rack, creating food that ties family together. The jewelry shared by generations.
Everyone reflected on the altar process, noting that many of us already had altars in our homes and didn’t realize it.
I was really touched by all offerings we brought to our altar, and how they encouraged and shaped us. This altar wasn’t about sin, surrender or sacrificing our hearts—it was about what’s in our hearts. Our temporary place told me more about who we were as a class-community. My only wish is that I had known better how to honor this altar’s gifts with ritual or ceremony—which is why I wanted to write about it here.
What’s on your altar? How do you honor this sacred space? How do you create sacred places, temporary or no, in your own communities? I would love to hear more about this.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.