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Spiritual But Secular

For non-churchgoers, home altars bring spirituality as close as the kitchen table

By Anne Bokma

Marianne Daly grew up in a Catholic home where a living room end table did double duty as an altar. It featured a large white Bible, a statue of Mary with her hands clasped in prayer and a framed image of Jesus, his heart pierced by thorns. “It was a special space that showed the importance of religion as part of our daily life,” she says.

Today, the 55-year-old teacher from Hamilton has three altars in her home. One, intended to inspire creativity, holds a braid of sweet grass, a tiny butterfly, a medicine wheel, a prism and a jade Inukshuk. Another, a reminder of the positive aspects of religion, includes a picture of Jesus, a gong, a menorah, four different Buddha statues, an image of Ganesha, a totem pole and prayer beads. The third contains a candle sculpture of five dancing women, a clay hand with a henna design and a rock with the word peace. It’s at this one that Daly will light a candle to set an intention for the day or say a prayer for a sick friend or family member. “We always had an altar in my family. I guess I’ve multiplied the tradition,” she says. “It adds meaning to my life.”

Creating a sacred space in the home for prayer, meditation, inspiration, intentional gratitude, reflection or to preserve family history is an ancient practice in many cultures, from Mexican Day of the Dead altars that present offerings of gifts for the departed to Hindu altars that feature likenesses of favourite gods and goddesses.

Now secular shrines are becoming popular for those who eschew church but want a bit of the holy in their homes. The “spiritual but not religious” are creating sacred spaces to display meaningful items — such as treasured childhood objects, chakra candles, ritual goblets, crystals and gemstone bowls — that reflect their personalized brand of spirituality. Pinterest and Instagram have thousands of images of inspirational altars, and you can purchase altar adornments such as Secrets of the Forest prayer beads and Red Tent goddess sculptures from the online marketplace Etsy.com.

In Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines into Your Everyday Life, Denise Linn posits why closets and corners are being turned into intimate devotional areas. “The human urge to create physical sacred centres for our lives is so deep that we often create them unconsciously,” she writes. Photos on the dresser and personal objects on desks are tangible tokens “of our attempts to strengthen connections between our loved ones, nature and community and other great sources of spiritual power.”

Home altars offer a simple, imaginative and tangible way to bring the spiritual into the everyday. “In a post-church world, home is our sacred space. The windowsill is our shrine. The table is the new altar,” writes Rachelle Mee-Chapman, spiritual director of an online community called Flock. “Sacred objects and symbols mark your home as a place of sanctuary.”

After returning from a spiritual retreat in Scotland last year, Doug O’Neill carved out a corner of his Toronto condo as a “personal worship centre” that he uses a few times a week. “I don’t read or use my phone there. Its exclusive use is mindfulness and reflection — my genre of praying,” says the 57-year-old communications professional. It features an old wooden armchair from the train station in his hometown, photos of beloved family members, a Buddha, a few travel photos and hiking gear. “I love the outdoors, so the hiking boots and trekking poles are like my statues. They’re my stained glass.”

The space has added a positive new energy to his home, he says. “I was programmed to think you had to go somewhere else to be spiritual and reflective, and this has taught me that you don’t need to be in a grand mausoleum to feel that. My home isn’t just a place where I can relax — it’s also where I rejuvenate spiritually.”

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer. Her blog, "My Year of Living Spiritually," will appear every second and fourth Friday of the month.
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