Creating a Personal Altar

Few things can ground self-awareness of your inner life like setting aside sacred space in your home–or in nature. If you haven’t done it before, experiment with creating a personal altar that represents your deepest values and aspirations and gives tangible form to your image of the Divine.

If you grew up in a tradition where household altars are mainstream practice (like Latin American Catholicism), creating an altar may come naturally; or it may be shot through with associations you need to get away from. If you grew up in a tradition where no one did such a thing, the novelty may appeal; or its foreignness may feel like a stumbling block. Don’t get unhelpfully tangled in prior associations. There’s no need to call what you’re building “an altar,” if you can find another word that works better for you.

Choose its location carefully. If you can’t see it in the course of your ordinary routine, it can’t call to you. But if it isn’t somehow set off from ordinary space, approaching it can’t feel like you’re answering its call. Maybe you have an alcove in the corner of the bedroom big enough for a low table. You might clear the practical objects off an eye-level shelf in the kitchen. Maybe there’s an unused fire escape just outside your living room window. Where you choose to set it up establishes a powerful center of gravity for your practice.

Include the objects that represent most intuitively what’s important in your life. Think of this practice as a kind of spiritual collage. Start by looking around you for what’s already rich with personal association: photographs of lovers, friends, family, pets. A smooth stone from your favorite beach. A matchbook from the bar where you met your first boyfriend. The prayer shawl you haven’t worn since your bar mitzvah. Once you’ve grounded yourself with objects close to home, go out and buy something fabulous to accessorize.

Presentation is everything. The way you arrange what you bring to your altar speaks volumes about what’s central in your life, and about how these objects relate to each other. Make a statement-maybe to others, but first and foremost, to yourself.

Show it ongoing reverence. A sacred space that isn’t treated with due respect doesn’t stay sacred forever on its own. You need to approach it daily with a sign of respect–one as simple as a bow when you get up in the morning; or something much more elaborate. Start simply and briefly. You heart will tell you when it’s time to experiment with adding something new. If your altar gets dusty, you know you’re in trouble.

Pay attention to what you can learn from it about yourself. Listen to your life. What you’ve brought to your altar may reveal something that you didn’t know before. Maybe you’ll feel called to add objects. Maybe you’ll take objects away. Maybe you’ll feel a sudden impulse one morning to rearrange what’s there. If you do, ask yourself why. Use these impulses to take inventory of your soul.

Don’t abandon it carelessly. Take responsibility that you’ve made the Sacred visible. If you can no longer tend it, then take it apart with as much reverence as went into putting it together.