Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and seminary professor, begins her beautiful book, An Altar in the World, with the story of Jacob. In Genesis 28:12~18, Jacob dreams a ladder reaching into the heavens, with angels climbing up and down its rungs. After God speaks directly to him, Jacob awakens but refuses to brush this off as a mere dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob exclaims, “and I did not know it.” He proclaims that very spot holy ground, a “gate of heaven”, and sets a stone to mark it as such.
The author shared this story while telling of coming upon another stone arrangement beside a secluded tidal pool in Hawaii. Noting the palpable sense of the Sacred in that lush place, Taylor recognized an altar in the upright arrangement of three stones, the color of humpback whales, left by someone long ago.
While my dictionary defines an altar as “an elevated place or structure…at which religious rites are performed,” it can be so much more than that. An altar can signify our awareness of God’s presence, wherever we discern it.
In the Catholic tradition, an altar is a place where solid matter becomes infused with Spirit, as ordinary bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Yet if God is omnipresent, couldn’t such sacraments serve as reminders that matter is already infused with Spirit, though often we know it not? As the 12th century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg put it, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.”
For most of us mortals, such awareness does not come easily or remain for very long. We need to train our eyes to see. In her lovely book, Taylor offers practices for cultivating an appreciation of the Holy in the world around us. She urges us to create metaphoric altars within our own hearts to, “flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where divine traffic is heavy,” whether we recognize it always or not.
Each moment, fully felt in this way, becomes hallowed. Whether amid nature or rush hour traffic, while eating or walking, at work or in play, alone or in conversation, the Divine can be recognized and honored. We can, to paraphrase the title of one of Taylor’s chapters, wake up to God. Whichever ordinary event we are engaged in thus becomes Spirit~infused and, in the terminology we’re using here, an altar is created.
For example, each time we smile at a stranger or a loved one, we can do so in recognition of the divinity imbedded within that exchange, of the God present there. And another altar comes into being.
As we grow in this ability, we begin to offer ourselves as altars, as places where matter~~in this sense, one’s body, ego, thoughts, feelings, etc.~~becomes imbued with Spirit. A place where God finds a ready home, welcome mat out in front. Our lives grow richer, the experience of living more vibrant. We begin also to instinctively respond to the many and varied altars that bless this world of ours.
Most of us are not mystics who live this awareness always. Without a doubt, though, we can expand our ability to live it a bit here and a bit there. Part~time mystics, all.
Oh, how this world will change!
And my gratitude goes out to each of you for the altars you create, the altars that you are, in this world! Namaste!