Creating an At-Home Altar to Bring Spiritual Peace and Joy
No matter your spiritual outlook, creating a place that is set apart will help you in countless ...
When I get busy, I am terrible at attending to the necessary details of my life. Luckily, spiritual practice can bring me back into balance if I only notice new techniques that arrive in unpredictable moments at seemingly dull locations.
Here’s how this practice developed. First, I neglected to drive into town for three weeks to check my post office box. When I eventually arrived, I was not surprised to see two warning slips. They identified that I needed to speak with the postal clerk about a package that might—or might not—still be there. Nervous and berating myself, I headed to the front window.
Ours is a typical New England small-town office, where villagers go to check their boxes, buy stamps, and catch up with each other while awaiting their turn at the counter, which is generally sparsely staffed. Yet, we, the villagers, don’t grumble about this. We know our postal staff. We are in relationship with them, in addition to this beautiful, little stone building with murals painted during an age when “colonialism” was something the people in this area took pride in. It is a place that, in many ways, is stuck in time. Yet, it is also cozy and magical, full of potential and surprises: What awaits me in my mailbox?
When I got in line, I was slightly disappointed to see today’s clerk was the one I refer to as “the gruff one.” It seems each time she assists me, I have done something wrong. She is stocky in size and candid in speech. I often feel like a scolded child.
I handed her both of the notification slips. Looking at one, she remarked, “This is a final notice!” Alas, I had done something wrong... again. “Let me see if it is still here,” she continued. Luckily, the package was. While passing it to me, she smiled―something I am not used to noticing with her. Then, with apparent delight, she exclaimed, “Oh! A bear!”
Trying to follow her train of thought, I followed her gaze. A small stamp featuring a black bear among colorful trees appeared on the front of the Priority Mail package, next to the printed label with my name and address. It was no more than an inch square, yet it changed my day. My judgmental attitude ceased, and my inner child exclaimed, “My postal clerk likes bears! I like bears! She must like me! I can like her!” The logic was flawed, but the sentiment was influential.
I was excited and started to rip open the package to see what was inside. Her “Ahem...” suggested I should instead sign for the package. Alas, the critical eye of my mother and teachers and bosses of the past all appeared again. But their gaze was somehow lighter now. They like bears!
Noticing the card and tissue paper inside, I realized the package had been thoughtfully prepared and decided to give it the same consideration. I ceased ripping, placing the parcel into my bag. Upon arriving at my destination, again swept into the whirlwind in which I usually exist, the package was forgotten.
Upon awakening to the sweet melodies of birdsong and a distant train, I pulled back the window’s curtains, gazing at the mountain and the lake below. The rising sun reflected so brightly off the recent snow-covered ground and branches that I had to turn away. So I grabbed my breakfast and my I Ching to do my daily practice and noticed the half-open package. Since I was functioning slightly slower than usual, I savored opening it, and inside were two poetry books.
I am someone who generally runs hot-and-cold on poetry. There is some sacred wound back there, I suppose, of trying to be a poet in my youth and failing. A flash appeared in my mind of a poetic boyfriend who critiqued me, as well as memories of mystically-minded people who are softer and quieter than I am. I felt assured of their disapproval of my brashness and loquaciousness—I feel like the Tasmanian Devil around then. But I trod forth, knowing the sender and curious about my response.
Both books had birds on the covers. I exhaled―we were off to a good start. Flipping through the first, Dawn Songs: A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration, I was treated to over 100 poems by almost as many poets. Each included 50 lyrical observations on knowing, wondering about, lamenting, and celebrating migratory birds.
The second, Snowy Owls, Egrets, & Unexpected Graces by Gwendolyn Morgan, is a slim collection of poetry organized according to sabbats celebrated by many modern nature-oriented spiritual traditions, including the summer and winter solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes, Lammas, Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltane.
I flipped through this book, letting the momentum of the pages decide an entry point for me. There’s no doubt in my mind the result was divinely guided. “Italic handwriting as spiritual practice” is a love poem for feathered ones and our shared cosmos. I savored the words for 10 minutes, then decided to take journaling into my morning practice. I would handwrite my contemplations about the remaining poems in the book, leaning into my love of italics, which are oh-so-easy on the computer but remarkably more ambitious when writing by hand. Finally, I emailed the poet, who was the package sender: Thank you for your generosity and influence. You have unleashed inspiration in me.
Poetry has a way of entering us that is hard to define. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a poem is a “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” Like many definitions, this seems to fall flat, doesn’t it? Perhaps the most useful idea here is that poetry has a special intensity. It’s no surprise, then, that a poem’s ability to inspire us relies on creating a sacred space in which to receive it.
Plan to read poetry fresh in the morning as your mind is slowly waking up.
Find a space near a window that is uncluttered by to-do piles.
Gaze outside at the more-than-human world.
Take a few deep breaths.
First, address the book. Hold it. Gaze at the imagery on the cover. Feel it in your hands. Read the author’s name and the book title. Hold them in your mind for a moment.
Flip through the book and sense where you should stop.
Read a second time, aloud.
Contemplate what’s coming up for you.
Gaze outside at the more-than-human world.
Journal. Try creating different styles and weights in your writing. What does bold look like? What about italics?
When you feel complete, thank yourself for making space for sacred practice. Thank the poet of your chosen book for inspiration and the publisher for supporting the poet. Thank the illustrator, photographer, designer, printer, and others who made the book possible. Thank the animals and habitats which inspired the creation of the work. Whisper: May you all be free from pain and suffering. May you be happy, joyous, and free.
Here are my favorite poetry collections that include lions, tigers, bears, pigs, and birds. Oh my!
Snowy Owls, Egrets, and Unexpected Graces by Gwendolyn Morgan (Homebound Publications)
A Bouquet of Stars by Chelan Harkin, with Tracy Brown, Beverly M. Frederick, Kristen Guerrero, Susie Rafferty Glad, Michael Harrison, Venka Payne, Charlotte Robertson, Lisa Perskie Rodriguez, Laura E. Scheele, Paul Senn, Velusia Van Horssen, and Elaine M. Watson (Poetry Chapel Press)
Kind: Poems by Gretchen Primack (Lantern Publishing & Media)
Dawn Songs: A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration edited by Jamie K. Reaser and J. Drew Lanham (Talking Waters Press)
Want more book recommendations? Read Seeking Unity: Three Books to Inspire “Justice for All”
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