Altar Renew Your Spirit for the Holidays and Beyond
Your altar is more than just
a place to put things. Through the ages,
the use of altars has been both communal and private. Although home
altars seem more prevalent in certain faiths, in recent years their use
has become more widespread regardless of one’s spiritual
path. While altars and their purpose have evolved over the millennia,
they continue to fulfill a fundamental need that transcends spiritual
There is a certain power to
an altar. It is not just a thing that holds a collection of objects;
intention and energy transform an altar into a space that is separate
from our everyday world. When we use an altar, we step outside the
boundaries of our day-to-day lives. When we sit in front of an altar,
we place ourselves in the presence of spirit and open ourselves to
receive answers to the questions that guide our souls.
As a central part of ritual
and worship, an altar is a place of spiritual encounter. It serves as a
reminder of our contact with the Divine as well as contact with our
souls. Using an altar strikes a familiar chord within us. We may not
understand why this occurs, but we can sense a shift of energy away
from ordinary awareness. Altars hold objects of inspiration and
devotion, personal and sacred, resulting in a space that visibly and
energetically links the spiritual and physical worlds and provides
clues to our innermost thoughts and feelings. The Greek word gnosis is
usually translated as “knowledge;” however it can
also be translated as “insight.” According to
Elaine Pagals, “[g]nosis involves an intuitive process of
knowing oneself.” 1 An altar becomes
a tool for gnosis—knowledge that comes from spiritual insight
and self illumination.
In the past, the sacred and
secular were not so rigidly segregated. This is not the case in
today’s world; however, having a place where these aspects of
our lives come together can be a means for finding balance. This
meeting point of spiritual and mundane energies can provide an
orientation or anchor in the world—a place to hold onto and
come back to for personal strength and exploration. The things that we
place on an altar become symbolic of what is going on in our hearts and
minds. Because of the convergent energies, an altar is not a passive
space—there is constant interaction.
In addition to providing a
place for worship, an altar functions as a tool for exploration and
growth. Like a labyrinth, an altar top itself can act as a
“blueprint for the psyche to meet the soul.”2
An altar is a place where you lay out your intentions—put
your cards on the table, so to speak—to manifest particular
energies into your life. In describing how Peruvian shamans interact
with their altars, Jim DeKorne said that the altar top functioned like
a “game board, a symbolic paradigm against which the ritual
This is the premise of my
book, Your Altar; using the altar as a game
board—for lack of a better term. The phrase “game
board” is not meant to be irreverent. It’s a way to
convey the concept of a matrix or setup for an altar and a different
form of meditation practice. While it is standard practice to use an
altar for focus, it can be used as an integral part of the meditation
technique. Dividing the altar top into multiple sections and using them
to focus a flow of thoughts allows the altar to function as a powerful
and symbolic tool not unlike a Buddhist mandala, classical Christian
icon or Hindu yantra.
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An Interview with
Sandra Kynes, author of Your Altar
is the main purpose of an altar?
I believe there are two main
purposes for an altar. First, altars are as old as human belief in
divinity and represent the attempt to communicate with the Divine as
well as provide a place to make offerings. The second purpose is to
maintain contact with ancestors and other spirits with the altar
providing a visible link between the living and dead.
The first purpose has a slight duality: The altar creates a place for
communion with divinity (through worship/ritual) and a deepening of the
soul (through meditation/contemplation). I say “slight
duality” because these are intertwined. Meditating to find
the true essence of who we are eventually leads us to the Divine and
vice-versa. There is a divine spark in all of us and when we find it,
we discover who we are and that we are part of a universal energy.
your book Your Altar,
you discuss ways to setup
an altar. What is an altar setup/matrix?
the words setup and matrix interchangeably to indicate that the altar
top is divided in some manner. Assigning areas of an altar for specific
functions is not unique. On Christian altars the Paschal candle at
Easter is placed on the right side, which is called the Epistle side.
(The left side is called the Gospel side.) The traditional Buddhist
altar consists of three tiers: the top one is for images or statues of
Buddha, the second for symbolic elements such as a dharma wheel and the
third for offerings. Often Pagan altars are divided into five parts
with areas representing the cardinal directions and the center for
Traditionally, a meditation altar is used to focus the mind.
I’ve gone a step further by using the altar not only to focus
but also to guide the meditation. In the introduction to the book I
refer to an altar matrix as a game board as way to convey the idea of
dividing the altar into separate sections for specific purposes. If you
want to play backgammon you wouldn’t use a chessboard, since
each board game has its own physical layout, its own rules, and its own
mindset. This also applies to an altar matrix because each one is
configured with a certain intent that functions as a path to guide the
Dividing the altar top can be done by putting a large piece of paper on
the altar and simply drawing a grid for whichever altar layout you plan
to use. For example, if you are using a nine-part altar matrix it would
look like a tic-tac-toe grid. If you prefer to work simply, anything
straight and thin can be used to demarcate the sectors. A simple or
elaborate setup is a personal choice.
we have to belong to a certain religion to set up and use an altar?
No, altars are common to
most religious paths; however, my intent is to
provide an interfaith exploration of self and our personal relationship
with the Divine. While the concepts and practices that I present come
from a variety of spiritual traditions, they do not require you to
leave your own beliefs behind. I also feel that it’s
important to be open to other religious paths because there is so much
we can learn from each other’s beliefs.Some of the
meditations that I suggest in the book are not connected with any
religion. For example, one deals with the five senses: Because they
connect us with the outer world as well as our inner world, tuning into
our senses can help us become fully grounded in our physical being.
Meditation brings us into self, which as mentioned, leads us to the
Divine regardless of specific religious path.
your book you mention that dividing the altar top into multiple
sections allows the altar to function as a powerful tool; can you
explain how this division makes a difference?
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the full interview.
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without Losing Your Mind - Or Your Life Savings
No matter who we are or
where we live, the Yuletide season is something we all look forward to.
As worthy of celebration as the Winter Solstice is, though, doing so
often presents its own set of problems in the form of time and money.
Dorothy Morrison illustrates how to celebrate the Yuletide season
without losing your mind--or your life savings, for that matter.
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