Something a little different today as I have been taking part in Hagstone Publishing's Plant Spirit Ally Challenge, which takes place through the whole of May. It has been wonderful, enriching, and nourishing so far. I have learned such a lot, both from the Lilac being who I have been journeying with, and from fellow participants. I am jolly chuffed to say that I am one of the co-hosts of the challenge and have been asked to write two pieces; one today on making a shrine, and another on Thursday for Day 16 on writing a poem, story, or prayer. If you want to know more about the challenge itself, or to join in ~ it's not too late ~ do visit Hagstone Publishing's website at https://www.hagstonepublishing.com/ The Challenge is taking place on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the hashtag #PlantSpiritChallenge if you would like to see what we've been doing. Such a lovely and deep-hearted community centred around the wisdom of our chosen plant allies, whether we chose them, they chose us, or a bit of both.
And so on to shrine making.
I feel that I have been making shrines, or altars, for so long that I rarely think about how I do it anymore. I do remember that when I consciously began creating them I wanted to get everything ‘right’ and that that seemed so very important, but built into that thought is the possibility of getting it wrong. The main thing that I would want to share about altar making now is that we really can't get it wrong at all. This is about our own wild and beautiful relationship with Spirit, in whatever way s/he/it manifests for us and it is for us to choose what our altar will be. All I know is that since I have stopped worrying about getting it right my altars seem like a natural extension of my heart and my prayer for connection and deeper living.
As for prayer, it occurred to me once, I think through the words of a hymn, that there has not been a moment on this planet for thousands of years, or perhaps since the first thought, when a prayer hasn’t been spoken or lifted; that prayer is a whisper that surrounds the Earth in a beauty blanket of hope and sacred connection. And so it is with altars. I am quite sure that from the earliest times of our ancestors there hasn’t been an hour when someone hasn't collected together special objects and felt a connection to something larger than themselves in their presence; altars are a key. They open a door and they always have. This is the thread that we take up when we too choose to create an altar. And it may be that we have been creating altars since we were very small children, without quite thinking of it in that way. Children are natural altar makers, collecting together precious objects playfully and joyfully without self-consciousness and with no fear of getting it wrong. So, let’s find our way back to the child and make an altar in co-creation with the spirit of our plant ally.
Our task today is to ‘make a shrine’. The word shrine comes from the Latin ‘scrinium’, or a ‘case or chest for books or papers’, and from Old French: 'escrin', a ‘box or case’. It carries the sense of something precious, set apart. As for ‘altar’, Old English originally had various spellings alter, altar, but finally ‘altar’ may have been influenced by the French ‘autel’, from Latin words 'altare' (high) meaning podium or stage and ‘adolere’, to adore, in the sense of worship, honouring, and offering sacrifices to something beyond ourselves. These are places set apart. This is holy, sacred space dedicated to a particular energy or purpose, even if that purpose is simply to create a little pool of peace and beauty in an often manic word, a place where, when our eyes fall on it, we remember that there is more than this. Shrines keep us awake. They are a place to breathe.
Shrines are found in many of the world's religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Paganism, and in many different settings, such as churches, temples, cemeteries, and in homes. For example, small household shrines are very common among the people of South and Southeast Asia, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. Usually a small lamp and small offerings are kept daily by the shrine. Buddhist household shrines must be on a shelf above the head; Chinese shrines must stand directly on the floor. And it is true that one of the first decisions to make when creating a shrine or altar is where we might put it, especially in a busy home where we may have little space.
When I began making my own altars at home I made sure that they had a table of their own and they took up a central position in wherever I might be. Now that I share a home with another person I make my decision about altar placement in a different way. I create altars everywhere; they can be as simple as a vase of flowers or a collection of favourite stones, but my main seasonal altar is along one side of our kitchen worktop. That was a completely practical decision when I began; that’s where the space was, but now I find that I like having my altar in the kitchen. The kitchen was, and is, after all the first altar. But I also make altars when I travel; on bedside tables or on desks, when I give talks, as I sometimes do, I try always to have the simplest of altars beside me. They remind me who I am and why I'm doing something the scares me.
For me, my altar is my anchor, the place that I spin out from into the everyday world. There have been times in my life when I have neglected my altar, failed to change it with the seasons, and let it gather dust. I know that whenever this has happened something in me, and in my home, has died. My altar is also my hearth, the place where I warm myself when the world feels cold. It matters to keep the flame there alive. This reminds me of a story I once heard of an old woman in the Scottish Highlands who had lived in her tiny croft since she was a small girl, always refusing to move, despite much cajoling. One day, she suddenly declared that she was ready to go and happily moved into a more modern home. When she was asked why she had unexpectedly decided to leave her croft she simply answered, “the fire went out’, and so it is with our altars. We need to keep them alive.
So, once we have found our place, which can be as small as a shelf or a windowsill, how might we go about creating the shrine itself, how do we make it a place set apart? I’m sure that there are as many different ways as there are people making altars but for me they begin in two ways. I either have something very deliberate in mind and gather objects that fit, or I might create an altar more intuitively, not being quite sure why something has been chosen but allowing that understanding to unfold as my relationship with that particular altar unfolds. We can begin simply. In the case of the Plant Spirit Challenge, perhaps with something as simple as the plant we are working with itself, a few leaves, or an image if the plant is impractical for the space. Perhaps a candle, or some crystals around the pot. We might think about what colours we associate with our plant and add an altar cloth in that colour. We might ask the plant what colour cloth s/he would like. This is a co-creation after all. We are calling spirit in. It doesn’t have to be complicated, only real.
It has been a deep journey for me with Lilac, the plant I chose to walk with for this challenge, and that journey is still unfolding. It feels that my altar is the same; a movement, a work in progress. It began very simply with a vase of lilacs, a beeswax candle, and a carved orb depicting spring flowers. I added a photo of myself when I was quite young looking angrily at the camera. I like the energy in that photo and it holds something of the me I hope to reclaim, remembering that lilac likes to live close to humanity but to be left to grow wild. I think that the little girl in that photo wanted much the same thing. I added hare statues and images for the same wildness of spirit. I am letting the relationship between lilac and hare unfold.
Since this beginning I have added the lilac leaf print I made for the art day of the challenge, the jar of honey gin and lilac elixir I made, and a tiny bottle of gin containing the lucky five petalled lilac flowers I’ve found on the lilacs I’ve brought in to the house. I have added amethysts for their lovely lilac colour and aventurine for the green. Underneath all of this are two doilies passed on to me from my Grandmother. I like this foundation in my motherline. I feel the pulsing of ancestral blood in my tiny corner of sacred space. I remember them there.
And once we have our altar, what then? I say, let's trust ourselves. We will know what to do. This is liminal space. There is no one here but us and love. But we might choose to place objects there, such as my elixir, to soak in the sacred. We might also make offerings. The time that we choose to take in tending our altars is an offering in itself, but we might also burn incense, chant or sing, offer words of poetry or prayer. This is our own little door to sacred space; a place to focus and to dream. And we just can’t get it wrong.