The virtue of attention


"I've recently noticed that somehow, without much intention, little altars have cropped up everywhere around me. There are three in my office, one in the backyard, one on my bedside table...the windowsill over the kitchen sink...the corner of the living room. Just this week my neighbor caught me setting a new one up by my front door..."

So writes Rachelle of ThursdayPM, in her post Little Altars Everywhere: Recovering She. She talks about what's on her altars -- specifically the newest one, by her bedside -- and what the component parts mean to her, and why she has altars at all. Her post rang some bells for me, and I filed it away to contemplate (and respond to) later.

A few days after I read Rachelle's post, Dave at Via Negativa posted Home and Altar, a meditation on altars in twelve numbered sections. He asks great questions: "What happens to the home when it incorporates an altar? What happens to the altar when a religious sanctuary is converted into a private home?" (He also muses on the Abrahamic tendency to see strangers as incarnations of divinity, the nature of possessions and of ownership, and whether computers connected to the internet have altar-like qualities. Good stuff, and the comments on his post are also really worth a read.)

The confluence of blog posts got me thinking. In a way, my dining table is my altar. The rabbis interpreted the words of Ezekiel -- "I have removed them from among the nations and scattered them; I have become a small sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have gone" -- to mean that in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the home table would become a new altar for offerings to God. When I light Shabbat candles, when I bless bread and wine, my words and intentions are my offerings to God, and my table becomes sacred space.

I like thinking of my table as an altar, a place where connections with God are forged. When we bless and share what we have, our table is graced with a presence beyond our own; our words and intentions become offerings to our Source, playing the role once filled by sacrifice. (That's why we wash our hands with a blessing before eating, and why we salt our double loaves at Shabbat.) Table-as-altar: absolutely, that resonates for me. That said...I have something in my house which bears some resemblance to Rachelle's altar, too.

Some of the items I've collected have obvious significance: the pair of Shabbat candlesticks, the glass mezuzah (with visible scroll inside), the set of faded purple "angel cards" that I made years ago. Others may be harder to interpret: the small clay golem from my 1993 visit to the Alt-Neu Shul in Prague where legend says Rabbi Loew's golem was made and unmade. The bit of leather loosely coiled around the angel cards, which was snipped off the end of the retzuah (strap) of my tefillin shel yad to make it an appropriate length to wrap around my arm. The little wolf pin, brought to me from Alaska by a friend, which represents the pathfinder qualities I often wish I could strengthen. The Ghanaian brass sigil in the shape of gye name, the adinkra symbol meaning "except for God", which I bought on my first trip to Accra in 1999...

I don't offer prayers in this corner of my study, per se (not any more or less than I offer prayers anywhere). So the question arises: if an altar isn't for making offerings (of things, or of prayer) then what is it for? What distinguishes an altar from an assemblage of objéts on a tabletop? Our livingroom is certainly full of things: atop the piano there's an antique dondo bedecked with bells, a mossy bird's nest cradled in a wooden plate, a rusted metal sculpture of a cat, and two old mbiras. Each of these has personal relevance to us, but I wouldn't call that an altar. Why is that not an altar, to my mind, while the one in my study is?

Maybe it's a question of mindfulness. Each item I've collected in this place reminds me to be conscious in a different way. The photograph of my grandparents (of blessed memory) connects me with my ancestors; the cup I hand-carried from Karlovy Vary connects me with my roots; the dried lavendar (from our own garden) connects me with the place where I've planted myself. The altar's essential altarity (apologies to Mark C. Taylor, incidentally, and to any Taylor fans who googled altarity and came here expecting ruminations on fundamental otherness) accrues through the way I approach it, the intent I bring.

There's a reason, I think, that this altar arose in my study. Each of the connections it strengthens is necessary for me as a writer. When I light a candle or a stick of incense at that little table before beginning to write, I become conscious of my connections with family, childhood, God, places near and far. I re-root myself, symbolically, before sitting down at my laptop to make words flower. If our bedroom had an altar it would be different. This is an altar for my writing-self.

Maybe the word "altar" is uncomfortable for some of you. You may be thinking, "home altars -- isn't that a Buddhist thing? or Wiccan? Do Jews really have altars?" Well, this one does; but if that's disjunctive for you, you could think of it as a focusing-point, instead. It's not that the altar connects me with God, per se. The altar just reminds me to do the connecting, on my own.

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