Q: I would like to make my apartment more holy. How might I do this?
Rabbi Rami: For starters let me suggest two things from my own tradition. First, attach mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) to the doorposts of your house, inside and out. Noticing these decorative containers reminds you to “do justly, act kindly, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) in every room of your home. While Jews fill the mezuzah with Torah passages (Deuteronomy 6:4–9; and 11:13–21), you might choose texts you find more meaningful.
Second, place a tzedakah box in your house, and at the end of each day put loose change into the box to celebrate joys, mark concerns, or give thanks for another day of life. Tzedakah (from tzedek, “justice”) reminds you to use your finances justly. When the box is full, donate the money to a favorite charity or cause.
You can purchase mezuzot and tzedakah boxes from local synagogues or online, or make your own.
I’ve recently returned from Europe, and found that whenever I visited a cathedral I felt small. Shouldn’t religious buildings empower us rather than diminish us?
I enjoy cathedrals because they remind me just how small I am while at the same time awakening me to the infinite reality of which I am a part. I enjoy planetariums and looking up at the night sky for the same reason. These experiences empower me to step beyond my egoic self and into my cosmic Self, and in this way to uphold the dignity of all beings.
Why are some spaces sacred and others not?
Once when visiting Jerusalem with a group of evangelical Protestant ministers, I suggested we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, sacred to millions of Catholic and Orthodox Christians as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The pastors refused because their particular Christian narrative placed these events at another location. While some places may contain unique geological properties, it is usually story that makes a place sacred or not.
My husband and I have just moved into our first home. We have a nice-sized backyard, and I want to make it holy somehow. What would you suggest?
Here are four things you might consider: First, mark the four corners of your yard with signs, symbols, or words you find spiritually meaningful. These could be etched on rocks, or written on parchment and buried in the ground. Second, plant a garden. Being able to collaborate with Mother Earth in growing fruits, vegetables, and flowers is magical and keeps you in tune with the seasons. Third, build a shrine in the yard where you can sit and contemplate the presence of God, Life, Tao, etc. And fourth, build a labyrinth in your yard and walk it daily (see the following question).
My friends and I have recently purchased a vacant lot in our neighborhood on which we plan to build a community labyrinth. While we are each committed to the project, we don’t agree as to what a labyrinth is for. Do you have any experience with labyrinths? What do they mean to you?
Labyrinth walking is a very powerful spiritual practice, and I walk labyrinths regularly. As you’ve discovered, labyrinths can carry different meanings. Here’s mine: In Genesis 12:1 we are commanded to lech lecha, literally to “walk toward your Self” by freeing yourself from the conditioning of nationality, ethnicity, and parental upbringing, and in this way to become a “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Labyrinth walking is one way to do this. When I walk a labyrinth I set my intention to continually identify and free myself from the conditioning of nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and family bias in order to engage the world from my truest and most loving Self, and in this way to be a blessing to every being I meet.
I’m thinking about putting an altar in my bedroom. Can this help me be a more holy person?
It can. One way to alter your life is to altar your living. An altar is basically a flat space on which you place objects that, when you contemplate them, shift you from your basest self to your best Self. I have an altar in my office on which I place a variety of religious icons from different traditions, as well as photographs of my rebbe, guru, roshi, and dog. I don’t worship these images, but looking at them reminds me to cultivate an open heart, open mind, and open hand.
Last year I quit my church over its celebration of Halloween. I believe in the Devil and don’t want my children worshipping him. My church friends say I’m overreacting, and urge me to return. But Halloween is coming up again, and I haven’t changed my position on the Devil. What do you think?
I wouldn’t want my kids worshipping the Devil, either. Here is what I would do: First, speak with your pastor privately about how she or he understands Halloween, the Devil, and the chance that one might be inadvertently worshiping Satan through seemingly benign Halloween customs. Chances are your pastor has thought this through, and may help you work through your concerns. Second, reframe Halloween to better reflect your Christian conscience. All Hallows’ Eve is also All Saints’ Eve, and used to be a time to go to church, remember deceased loved ones, and honor saints. Have your children dress up as, and tell the stories of, the great Christian saints or deceased loved ones from your own family. As long as they get candy, they will go along with your approach.
On the other hand, if you notice that your church friends are offering up dark chocolate to the Dark Lord, you may want to leave for good.
Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro has been called “one of the best bridges of Eastern and Western wisdom.” His newest book is Embracing the Divine Feminine.