Altars, Shrines, and Every Day Practice
Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, said, “Separate not thyself from the congregation and its concerns, nor postpone thought for thy spirit until the day of thy death. Say not, ‘By and by, when I have leisure, I will care for my soul,’ lest perchance thou never find leisure.”
Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Love yet again come
Story for All Ages: The Flaming Chalice
Reading: from The House Beautiful by William Channing Gannett
Music: You Gotta Stop and Smell the Roses (Mac Davis)
Responsive Reading 426 (HCL)
For You – Walt Whitman
Lesson: Altars, Shrines, and Every Day Practice
William Channing Gannet was the minister of the Hinsdale, Illinois, Unitarian Church, a hundred years ago, and the author of the essay “The House Beautiful” which his friend Frank Lloyd Wright made the centerpiece of an illustrated book, which in turn inspired the magazine House Beautiful. I learned about Gannet from a book I picked up on the markdown shelf of Half Price Books in Dallas on our recent trip. It is called A Place of Your Own. After pulling it off the shelf and reading a bit, I discovered the author was a UU minister, Edward Searl, who was at Youngstown, Ohio, and is still at Hinsdale.
The book is a set of meditations he wrote over the years to use at his home altar, and he begins with the story of how he developed the altar.
Reading from A Place of Your Own
When my brother was last here, we were on the patio gazing down into the yard, and he asked, “Are you building a shrine?” He had spotted the half-circle of logs around the maple tree, with a cast-iron Green Man propped in it. “Well, yes,” I said. The Green Man is a face made of leaves, or peering through leaves, found in many cultures, and common in churches in Europe dating back almost as long as there have been churches. We don’t know what the original meaning was; usually it is interpreted as symbolic of rebirth. I think of our Green Man as the spirit of nature. He hung on a wall of vines, half-hidden, at our house in Austin; our log circle there held our Buddha which is now on the patio, another shrine.
An altar is technically the surface where sacrifices, generally burnt offerings, were made – a shrine is a place for sacred objects. We don’t usually make burnt offerings any more, but we often use candles and the flaming chalice, which recall the original use.
Like Searl, Robert and I have been making altars and shrines since we were first together. We have always had at least one chalice. When we travel, we gather natural objects and buy useful things as souvenirs. The spoon rest on our stove is a curved piece of redwood from Muir Woods, where we visited on one of our first trips together. Although we don’t notice it constantly, for thirty years it has been recalling us to both that trip and to the memory of the redwoods and our love of nature.
When I was working in an office, I had various objects arranged on my desk and in my cubicle; postcards of West Virginia and of paintings, fossils and shells and pine cones and a peacock feather, and this lobster, which is not beautiful, but which reminded me in a time of particular chaos that you can remain balanced as long as you remain centered.
The table under the window, which has been a coffee table in other houses, has become a shrine here. Robert’s room-mate who abandoned it claimed it was made from a bearskin stretcher, but to me it looks like it was a home-made ironing board. It is not beautiful, but it is ours. Here, it has accumulated a number of items – rocks we gathered from each of the Great Lakes on the road trip when we bought this house; Canada geese feathers from a walk along Lake Ontario at a friend’s house; cones from pine trees in Georgia where Robert’s sister lived and spruce trees on Dolly Sods here in West Virginia. There is a basket of oyster shell fossils from along Shoal Creek in Austin and modern shells from a Texas beach where we used to camp. There are matchboxes from various places, and our old Texas Parks passes.
The day before I found the book on altars, I had found this metal cross in a Mexican import shop in Dallas. For a long time, I had been looking for a Christian symbol to recall our Christian roots. Since I rejected the idea of an angry God who had to sacrifice his son to atone for people’s sins, clearly a crucifix wouldn’t do, and a picture of a saccharine Jesus didn’t seem right. But this cross made from calla lilies, with just a suggestion of Christ on the cross, and a suggestion of the universal idea of the sacrificed god reborn in vegetation, did seem right. And the calla lilies also reminded me of the flame of the flaming chalice.
When I started thinking about altars, I realized that in some senses our whole house is a shrine, with meaningful objects in every room. I think what Gannett was decribing in The House Beautiful was a house that was also a shrine, where the decoration and the arrangement of objects had meaning, where daily rituals were held, and where the whole life lived reminded the family of their values. One of my favorite books is Don Norma’s The Design of Everyday Things. He talks about Knowledge in the World – how things we use are designed so we can figure them out easily, without instructions – a well-designed door lets you know whether to push or pull, without a “Push” sign, for instance. I think the shrines and other design in our homes are like that – reminders of the things we know to be true, and reminders to “pray without ceasing,” as Paul said, which I think is the same as being mindful, as Buddha said. We need the gathering and worship that our churches provide, but we also need our everyday rituals and reminders to live our beliefs.
Song: Here on the Paths of Every Day 180 (HCL)
Joys and Sorrows
Benediction 538 (HCL)