We all make vows to lose weight, exercise more, eat sensibly, and take care of our health, but forget to vow to renew our mental and spiritual well being. Perhaps this desire is unconscious and expresses itself only as a yearning for less stress, greater harmony, and the hope for meaning beyond the banal routine of everyday life. Perhaps we are so caught up in our struggle for daily survival and material success that we have lost touch with our greater purpose and our capacity for wonder.
One of the simplest (and most satisfying) ways to begin renewing our spiritual life is to create a sacred space, a personal site of meditation, prayer, and ritual.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell calls it "the place of creative incubation," but cautions, "At first you might find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something will eventually happen." Peg Streep, author of books on spirituality emphasizes we can’t make sacred space; what comes first is our recognition of the need to connect with a world beyond our temporal world. By creating sacred space, we make room to invite the sacred into our lives and acknowledge the spiritual part of ourselves.
In ancient times people found sacred space, noticing that certain mountain peaks or caves seemed to hold magical, holy properties. The Greeks developed the concept of "sacred groves" – peaceful, sometimes secret, places where they asked their gods for advice. Eventually people established altars at such sites, formalizing the placement of objects and practice of specific rituals. Later, modern churches and temples were built to house these altars.
Today, in the quest for soul-building it is possible to manifest "sacred space" in the form of a personal altar at home.
What distinguishes the domestic altar from mere decorating or display is the intention and meaning behind our groupings. While personal altars may contain objects bearing conventional religious association (i.e., rosary beads, angels, Buddhist statuary), the objects might also come from ordinary life (i.e. family photos, stones, feathers, souvenirs, a proverb). Choose them for their power to release energy, to center yourself, to stimulate imagination, to tap into unconscious thoughts and feelings, and to help understand and articulate a more profound understanding of what psychologist Thomas Moore calls "the re-enchantment of everyday life."
Kellye Crockett, proprietress of The Sacred Source in Kingston, Ontario, a bookstore and unique resource for spiritual practice, reports that the most popular items for inclusion in personal altars are: deity figurines, pictures or images, bells, crystals and gemstones, feathers, candles, incense, herbs, and essential oils. Crockett’s list highlights the role of sensory tools in helping create sacred space. Aromatherapy, with its renowned medicinal and healing properties, can also prompt and connect us to memory and other creative associations. Music, such as Celtic song, Native American drumming, and Eastern chanting can also influence our spiritual experience at the altar.
Now that you have some idea about what you can put in your own personal sacred space, read on to find out some ideal locations for your own domestic altar.
Some people have several altars, each serving the places they spend time. An altar in the entrance honours our passage through the threshold or space between external public life and private dwelling. More intimate spaces such as the bathroom and bedroom are ideal for altars that aid reflection, meditation, dream-catching and journal writing. Kitchen altars celebrate abundance, nourishment and the hearth as center for family life.
From ancient times, the garden served as metaphor for sanctuary. Thomas Moore says "the soul is a garden enclosed, our own perpetual paradise where we can be refreshed and restored." The garden or patio can be a pleasing refuge, whether you are actively building an arbor or sitting quietly under it, listening to crickets and enjoying fresh air. Applying the principles of Feng Shui will enhance your placement of "sacred space" in home and garden.
With longer, more intense workdays, there is a growing need to integrate "sacred space" into our professional space. Workplace altars need not be elaborate to be effective. Streep advises choosing objects that provide energy and focus during a frenetic day or a work-related crisis. Many people put sacred imagery or a proverb on their workplace altar to affirm their spiritual values. Adding a plant or small aquarium lifts the energy in your office. Natural objects, such as a row of seashells or river stones on your windowsill, serve as a reminder of the natural world even if you are in an air-conditioned skyscraper. Drab institutional colours are countered by accent pieces or mementos that resonate with the vibrancy of life.
Travel for work can be tedious and stressful, but even in a hotel or airport, we can create temporary, portable "sacred space." Since ancient times, people have used amulets, worn as jewelry or carried in a pocket, to pay homage to deities and invoke their protection. A polished stone, miniature statue or saint on a medallion all link to spiritual energy. To set up a domestic altar in your home away from home, arrange a photo of loved ones, float local flowers or a scented candle in a bowl of water, and you will feel instantly centered and nurtured.
Creating sacred space, enhances the practice or rituals that support spiritual growth. Some practices commonly associated with sacred space are meditation, prayer, spiritual cleansing, healing, offering gifts or dedication to deities and spiritual guides, the celebration of the seasons, and the commemoration of friends and milestones in life. The degree of knowledge about practices is not important although the more information one has about the items and rituals, the more meaningful and "sacred" the space becomes.
In traditional spiritual practice, the objects and their use are prescribed, but there is no "right" way to create or use sacred space. Ultimately, sacred space is utterly personal. It honors your wish to live mindfully and serves the most intimate communication you have with your soul and with the divine. Create a "sacred space" and observe how it enriches your life.
The article is a summary of a vast body of knowledge on "sacred space." The references below will provide specific and fascinating information about the materials and objects used in altar-building and will lead to more profound studies on religion, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, and art.
Lawlor, Anthony. The Temple in the House, Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
Linn, Denise. Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines into Your Everyday Life. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
McDowell, Christopher Forrest, and Tricia Clar-McDowell. The Sanctuary Garden: Creating A Place of Refuge in Your Yard or Garden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Streep, Peg. Altars Made Easy: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Sacred Space. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1997.
Thompson, Gerry Maguire. Atlas of the New Age: The Origins and Development of the World’s Spiritual and Mystical Traditions. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1999.