Throughout time and many traditions, the household altar is often placed in the kitchen, the heart of the home and the place from which all activity flows. In some ways, the hearth itself is an altar, centering the household with the offering of food and nourishment, warmth, and a place to gather.
In general, we don't see many home altars these days, which is too bad. As we navigate the enormous challenges of modern life, perhaps the most important thing is to be constantly asking and exploring the question 'what is the most important thing?' An altar can remind, affirm and encourage us to align with what is holding the center of our lives, helping us to discover our deepest intentions, our most fundamental values.
So when we create an altar, we have made these core values manifest and by turning it into something physical, we are creating an opportunity to encounter it throughout the day. This is a powerful, transformative act and a supportive one, too.
Another way an altar functions is to express gratitude and appreciation. Often this is shown through an offering, which can be a stick in incense, or a little snip of the food that is being prepared, or the tiny skull of a bird. The simple activity of tending to an altar—cleaning it, removing an old offering, freshening the flowers—is another way to practice appreciation, and can refresh and renew us in the process.
Here are the classic elements of an altar, which can be interrpted and expressed according to your own way of being.
Location: The altar is a 'home within a home' so find a place that suits this. It can be a little shelf or corner or a windowsill. It can be very obvious, or somewhat (but never completely) hidden.
Fire: Usually a candle. Or some representation of fire that carries the concept of warmth or transformation.
Flower or plant: Representing earth, life, beauty.
The center: This can be a statue or a rock or an image of someone or something that represents a deep value. It can also be a word or phrase or poem.
Of course, an altar doesn't even have to be an altar in the classic sense. It can be a just stone, or a lovely piece of fruit or a handful of seeds placed deliberately in a specific location. One of the most beautiful kitchen altars I've seen is just a simple empty bowl placed on a small shelf—to be filled, to hold space, to honor emptiness—representing the radical notion of receiving what ever is offered in the moment.
I have a friend who keeps a small tray on her kitchen windowsill. Every now and then she places something in it that has caught her eye for a variety of reasons: something beautiful, or curious or interesting, or something broken or a specific color or shape. What these objects mean and how they support her life is mysterious to all but her.
While they are indeed rare, here and there I occasionally encounter a kitchen altar and this gives me hope that it is possible for us to pause in the middle of our busyness, to remember and pay homage to the most important thing, to discover and honor whatever it is that we find sacred.
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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in October 2009. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.
(Image credits: Dana Velden)