If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come. Chinese Proverb
In the hilarious and bittersweet novel Little Altars All Around, Louisiana native Rebecca Wells concludes by indulging the main character in spiritual reverie. Sidalie suddenly recognizes the power of many small and seemingly unimportant
"sacred spaces" at both key and mundane moments in her life.
When reading this book, I was reminded of a description of early childhood by my sister-in-law, whose mother is Korean and father Chicano. In classic Mexican fashion, one kitchen corner sheltered a small altar dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Another shelf held candles and incense for the Buddhist custom of honoring ancestors.
While one happy task of Christians is to prepare the way of the Lord, all too often this is interpreted solely as work in the world. John the Baptist exhorted and preached, but he also paused on the banks of the Jordan and baptized Jesus. Jesus and his cousin regularly retreated to the desert for purification and renewal. At the same time we heed the call to labor in the field, we should cultivate also the vineyard of our souls.
This task of pruning and preparing our hearts is made more concrete by assembling in our homes a sign of Christs "in dwelling." Make an altar or prayer table in a quiet but centrally located spot. Young children appreciate a table with a Bible, candles, and seasonal materials displayed at their level. A low table also invites taller family members to kneel. All appreciate a small pillow for use during extended prayer and meditation.
In setting your altar, consider the contribution natural materials can make. Beeswax candles burn cleanly, lasting longer than either the silicone or paraffin type. The pleasant aroma testifies to the gentle might of bees to transform lilies into sweet honey. One anonymous cloistered Benedictine nun likened prayer to this organic and hopeful process.
Flowers and grasses in a pottery vase can be changed according to the spring and summer progress of blossoms. Fall and winter offer lovely opportunities: dogwood or hawthorn berries succulent against the austerity of leaveless branches; forced paper-white narcissus or tulip bulbs in a bed of pebbles; and cheery Christmastide holly (be careful of poisonous berries around the children!).
Icons and statues are powerful touchstones in many religious traditions, aiding the prayer lives of believers. Images of Christ or gospel events assist in realizing greater contemplation. Possibilities range from the fabric and enamel folk arts of Latin America to jewel-tone illuminations gracing medieval manuscripts.
Follow the church year with passionate images for Lent and Easter, nativity scenes for Advent and Christmas, even abstract art in warm reds and yellows to recall the fire of Pentecost and St. John the Baptists feast (midsummer). Museums offer low-cost postcards and small prints, with many subjects perfect for contemplation. My daughter Lucy loves van Goghs "Starry Night" because yellow halos circle each heavenly body.
Personal images can direct our prayer. We know one family who keeps photographs of people needing special prayers close by. Another friend uses a small atlas to focus prayerful attention on global trouble spots.
Creating a dedicated sacred space in your home is an outward sign of the kingdom coming in, one little altar at a time.
Part of an Orthodox mission to the United States, the Icon and Book Service sells traditional and modern icon facsimiles of saints with prices starting near $5. Also available are hand-painted icons and many varieties of liturgical incense. Staff are particularly helpful to those making phone inquiries. I&BS, 1217 Quincy St. NE, Washington, DC 20007; (202) 526-6061.
Praying With Icons, by Henri Nouwen; Ave Maria Press, 1990. This spiral-bound book introduces the Western Christian to the discipline of praying with icons and includes several iconographic images with guidance for prayer.
Bridge Building Images is a small business that offers contemporary icon-like images of modern and traditional saints in inexpensive poster and card format. In addition to compelling images of Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, BBI presents a Palestinian Madonna and several Native American depictions of Christ and the Holy Family. BBI, P.O. Box 1048, Burlington, VT 05402; (802) 864-8346.
MARYBETH SHEA writes from Mt. Rainier, Maryland, where she lives with her husband and three children. She has been a poet in residence at area schools and is on the faculty of the University of Maryland Art Center.