Many of us who grew up in contemporary U.S. Protestant denominations and were later exposed to high Anglican or Roman Catholic practices have noticed the astonishing lack of performance-based ritual in their own traditions. Of course, the first Protestants believed their grievances just in railing against such Catholic traditions as plenary indulgences, priest as mediator between God and lay-member, ecclesiastical material excess, etc. But then along came the puritans, who smashed stained-glass windows and painted over frescoed church walls, and the Calvinists, who preached success through discipline and self-denial as proof of one’s divine favor. Somehow, as the Protestant and Catholic paths diverged, the Protestant attack on such fetishes as holy water, anointing oil, transubstantiation, etc., left little room left for religious performance and resulted in a ritual-impoverished church. The priest was replaced by a minister preaching the infallible “word of God”, and the altar, by a pulpit.
For those Protestants who have felt this ritual poverty in the stale and dull environs of their own churches, it is almost like replacing a fireplace with a television set. While in the Catholic Church priests may have mediated God’s messages for their laity, the laity at least had the opportunity to participate in physical, substantive rituals which rendered their observances more concrete; in many Protestant churches, however, the most inspiring formality consists of partaking in Communion through the ingestion of crackers and grape juice. Scores of Protestant ministers will undoubtedly stress the centrality of preaching abstract theological messages for silent, detached congregation members to absorb and contemplate; for many, however, such nebulous, invisible contemplation is unsatisfactory, and the message is more succinctly symbolized, and fully realized, through participation in physical ritual. Perhaps “magic”—what skeptics might call “superstition”—is the missing element.
How, then, do we “take back the altar”?
In her blog The Wandering Lantern, priestess and Universal Life Church minister Ember K. Miller gives suggestions on the many ways in which one can build a private altar in the home to help make their beliefs and practices more physically potent and meaningful. An altar can be created for any religion, she notes, including “serene Catholic shrines, vibrant Hindu shrines, simple college [sic] altars to the elements, elaborate Samhain altars, expansive Voudoun / Hoodoun work spaces”, and “elegant Etruscan altars”. It need not even directly involve magic or religion, but can consist of “a small shrine set up for a departed pet, or a simple stone next to a pen for a writing altar, or candles and flowers near the bird bath outside to honor the coming of [S]pring”. The point is that the altar reflects one’s unique personality or path. Often this incorporates symbols of the “four” elements which help ground one in the physical environment, e.g. a fountain for water, a bell for air, an incense stick for fire, or a plant, such as a flower, for earth.
What is striking about this type of observance is its similarity to the Christian sacraments—most notably, the Eucharist, in which participants are summoned to the altar to partake in bread and wine transubstantiated into the “blood” and “flesh” of Christ. The fact that traditional Roman Catholics as well as animists and many pagans believe in the mysterious power of ritual objects demonstrates the versatility and relevance of home altars. However, whether or not one believes in the magical or consecratory properties of holy water, incense, smudging sage, photographs, etc., physical spaces and objects can have a very practical effect: they help frame and concentrate one’s inner thoughts and establish their reality in the everyday world, even if this functions as a mere mnemonic device or psychosomatic effect.
Perhaps this is why highly organized dances, processions, and divination techniques are integral to the ceremonies of many pre-industrial ecstatic traditions: ritual may in fact manifest beliefs, hopes, or dreams in physical reality. It is a highly esoteric question, but, then, religion is a highly mysterious creature.
Image: Wiccan Altars
Source: The Wandering Lantern