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Alternate Approaches to the Sacred

January 19, 2012

I’m not a particularly tidy person and never have been.  These days, I can at least keep most of the floor clear – an improvement from the days when my bedroom was a minefield of legos – but it’s a pretty fair bet that any horizontal surface in my living quarters will be buried under several strata of clutter. My organization system chiefly consists of putting things in piles where I won’t trip on them and can find them again.  This might be a problem if I ever actually used my desk, but since I prefer to work cross-legged on the floor, I’m rarely motivated to change the situation.  So year by year the rubble accumulates, new bits of my life burying the old, like sediment piling up on continental shelves.

Because my desk didn’t provide enough space for piling things on, at some point I moved a small side table next to it for the overflow.  Like my desk, my wardrobe shelves,  and the corners of my room, it, too, filled up with stuff: crafts projects, school notes, sheet music, tools, souvenirs, gadgets, photographs, any number of things.

One day I looked at the side table and realized that an altar had emerged from the rubble.

I cleared out all the things that didn’t matter – rubber bands, pens and pencils, mugs, papers, string, clay.  I rearranged the things that had caught my eye into some sort of order, and there I had it: one space, clean and holy.  Several years later it’s much the same, while my desk remains as buried as ever.  Here it is.

The wooden board it all stands on belongs to a Levanger editor’s desk which I never put together, since it was a gift that didn’t really suit the way I work.  For me, it better serves its present purpose.

I made that box on the left in high school pottery class.  Written around the sides in tengwar are the words Elendil spoke when he came out of the downfall of Númenor to Middle-Earth: “Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!” Out of the Great Sea to Middle-Earth I am come.  In this place I will abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.  Inside the box are some stones on which I wrote runes when I was in middle school and obsessed with Vikings.  I also stuff notes in there from time to time.

The photograph is of my maternal great-grandmother, age thirteen, in the early 1900s.  Her first name is Alice; we share middle names.  She grew up to be a clever and ingenious woman who, like many others, held her family together through the Great Depression.  Below that photo is the corsage that I wore at my sister’s wedding.

I made the candle holder during a power outage using scraps of sheet metal, wire, and a jar that had held the strawberry-rhubarb jam that we buy from a particular farm every New Year’s.  I can’t light it in my room, because mine is an old house and my parents fear I will burn it down, but when I built an igloo a few winters ago and slept in it, the candle lantern went with me.  The candles I use in it come from the stock of candle stubs that burned too low to be used at the dinner table. By the way, did you know that a candle produces about the same heat output as a person?  I remember my family calculating this, one day in Newfoundland when we were fogged in on a mountaintop and had run out of stories.

The dark wood statue came from my grandmother.  It’s a statue of St. Joseph, but I don’t think that St. Joseph would mind; to raise a child not his own, he must have been a generous man, and to raise one as compassionate and intelligent as Jesus was supposed to be, he must have been kind and curious as well.

The little silver goblet was a present from my sister.

The two stacked bowls are both failures, in their ways.  The blue and teal one on top has a jagged hole in the bottom from an air pocket in the clay that exploded during firing.  I was going to plant something in it but never quite got around to it.  The bowl on the bottom was my first real success on the pottery wheel, and the glaze was supposed to fire to a silvery-blue color but turned out muddy instead.  Inside the top bowl is a small bent-wood box wrapped with gold string and filled with tiny people made of wire and thread; a waterproof match case full of matches; a pocket-sized combination telescope and microscope, which I used to take backpacking; and a harmonica, which reminds me of Snufkin, my favorite character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

I also made the white bowl – this one in archaeology camp.  The clay was grey, and I coiled and smoothed it following traditional methods.  That design painted on the inside was copied from the walls of a kiva we visited; I thought it suggested clouds and a stairway to the sky.  I made the bullroarer and the corn dart at the same camp, while sitting on hardpacked dirt under a desert sun.  In the same bowl is also a broken cello string, coiled into a ring.

The bowl in the center was meant to be a bonsai pot, but being more of a geologist than a botanist I filled it with rocks instead, collected from every place I visited: marble from an old quarry in Paris, shale from upstate New York, quartz from Scandinavia, southwestern obsidian, a stone from Mount Etna, basalt from Iceland.  Some knickknacks also seemed to fit: little stone figurines my friends gave me, a marble from my grandpa’s basement, clay birds that I made with one of my favorite teachers right before she left, a snail shell from the Gulf of Maine, a wooden moose from my family’s exchange student, a tiny working carbide lamp from the geologist uncle of one of my friends.

I carved the figure in the center from a branch fallen from an old tree in northern Finland.  The grain runs spirally in these trees and the branches are twisted; I mostly just carved out what was already there, after shortening the branch to a manageable size using a saw borrowed from the hiking hut.  That saw was really too big for the job, and I wound up cutting my knuckle.  The statue still smells of resin.  I pour water over its head from the goblet before I go travelling.

When it’s back home rather than in my kitchen drawer at school, my camping knife lives in front of the bonsai pot.  It has a black leather sheath, a black handle with stainless fittings, and a blade of a practical length, shaped for cleaning fish and other camp activities.  My parents gave it to me on my tenth birthday; it matches theirs, though mine shows many fewer years of wear.

The tree that gave me its branch

So there you have my altar, such as it is.  Each thing, broken or whole, new or ancient, humble or adorned, has its story.  Put together, they build a whole that is heterogeneous but coherent- a synecdoche of the Holy.  I find myself hard-pressed to actually express in words what this collection of objects means to me, and I don’t know if I would even make sense to someone who hasn’t accumulated the all the particular associations that I have.  This is why I tend to resort of poetry when trying to communicate the numinous; the more words I put out, the less adequate it feels. So for now I’ll say this: Here it is, the altar that emerged from chaos.  Make of it what you will.

Sometimes I wonder if this approach would work on my life in general – if I could could pick out the clutter and the fluff, leave the sacred shining out between breaths of clean silence, and make of my life an alter to the Holy.  What would stay? Science, for sure: Carl Sagan said it best, that we are a way for the cosmos to know itself, and I truly believe that observation and inquiry are some of the highest human callings.  Relationships: love, friendship, community, even honest rivalry.  Music and words and art, acts of creation.  Dance and good dining and hugs, ways to celebrate living in this physical universe.  What would go?  That’s harder.  The things that you do on those days when you go to sleep feeling you have accomplished nothing, maybe: the stupid internet links, the substanceless communication, the empty calories of junk food.  Irritated words, spoken in hunger or sleeplessness.  Laughter at the faults of others.  Fear of mistakes or of change.  Can we, as human beings, take these things out of our lives? Does it make sense to? For some reason I find it hard to believe that captioned cats are as holy as an old jam jar, but they do make me laugh.  French fries taste good, and Goldfish are the kings of crackers and fill me with nostalgia besides.  The utterly nonsensical conversations my housemates sometimes have envelop me in warm fuzzies.  Lacking the faculty to really stand back from my life – I’m living in it, after all – I’m not sure I have the ability to separate the sacred and the profane, to take one and leave the other.  Nor, for that matter, am I sure that I should.  Are there things that are good and/or necessary for human life but not sacred? Are there things that are sacred but not good? Or is sacredness not a property inherent in a thing, like mass, but instead an emergent property that arises when I look at a part and it give me insight into the whole?  That case would call for approaching existence as a path to the Holy – asking how each experience, each object, can let in another pinprick of enlightenment.  Yet this approach seems to deny objects, people, relationships, and so on the right to exist in and of and for themselves. Surely that can’t be right, either morally or theologically?

(See, this is what happens when I try to talk about spirituality directly, instead of throwing paint splatters at an invisible form until I can see its edges.  I wind up running around in circles at four in the morning, confusing myself and everyone around me and wailing about the futility of language.)

Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

My altar - full view

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 12:42 pm

    As you mentioned in your post, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to separate sacred from non-sacred, to say what is in and what is out. I think that it is important to live our lives fully, and treat each day as an opportunity rather than worrying too much about these issues. I believe that the sacred can encompass both the sublime and the silly. All too often the sacred can become distorted and forgotten in our modern society. It can certainly be a lot harder to find the seed of sacredness within a parking lot or a shopping mall than it is within an old-growth forest or a mountain, although I still believe that it is there, even when it is buried and neglected. I think that when we recognize things as sacred, then this promotes their sacredness and makes it “healthier”, if that makes sense. You questioned whether sacredness is an inherent or emergent property, but I think both of these are true in a way. To me, sacredness is something that is inherent, but it has an emergent property as well, since it is the ways in which we relate to and interact with things that influence how that sacredness is expressed in the world. That’s my opinion on this, anyway!

    Lovely altar, by the way. I enjoyed reading your descriptions of the history behind each of the objects. I always find altars like yours – ones that have arisen almost organically and that are intensely personal – to be the most meaningful. Thanks very much for sharing.

    • January 31, 2012 8:42 pm

      And thanks for your thoughts. I certainly agree with you that living fully in the world is the primary thing.Thinking about this over the past week, I think I find it personally useful to let “sacred” mean something beyond “belonging to the whole,” and I do think it’s dependent on having an observer — though everything has the potential to be sacred, things become sanctified when we consciously form relationships with them. (This came about because I was trying to imagine what an ant would find sacred, and what it might think of the things I find sacred, and my mind could not quite stretch far enough. An ant definitely experiences the world in a very different way from me.) I’m not sure I agree that promoting sacredness makes things healthier in any metaphysical sense, though. If a mountain suffers for not being sacred, it’s because people leave trash, pollute streams, and do other environmental damage that stems from people viewing it as a place that is empty and doesn’t matter, rather than a place that is full. Which, I think, is a metaphysical loss to the people involved, not to the mountain (not that the environmental impact doesn’t matter! But I think that’s a partially separate issue).

      And then maybe there’s another side, that of respecting what other people have found sacred, and trying to form a relationship with that and see things from their perspective and find out how it illuminates your own? Like, other people’s churches still feel special.

      If I could understand the sacred of the ants, what a gift that would be.

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