Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Altars in the World

Nature's baptismal font, Hawai'i

When you’ve finished reading this, I invite you to click on “comments” at the end of the post and share your favorite/most meaningful “altar in the world.” Click on “comment as” and if you do not have an account with one of the services listed, choose “anonymous” and enter your comment followed by your name, if desired. I will be publishing your comment later in the day. Thanks!

A seminary friend, Barbara Brown Taylor, has a book titled something like the title of this post. I haven’t read it yet, but having read three other books of hers, including Leaving Church, I have a sense that its theme parallels what I write here.

The contemplative life is about finding altars everywhere. Celtic “thin places” where heaven shows itself on earth. Creatures who, much like Meister Eckhart’s caterpillar, are so full of God a sermon is unnecessary. Leonard Cohen’s broken places that let the light shine in. Strangers who are angels unawares. The “least of these” who are Christ himself. People who, as in Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a city intersection, do not realize they are walking around “shining like the sun.” Maya Angelou’s “caged bird,” Ruben Alves’s datesRumi’s beloved guide ShamsMother Teresa’s “Christ in a distressing disguise.” 

For a contemplative like Hildegard of Bingen, music is another altar: “a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony.”

Etty Hillesum, who was to die at Auschwitz, might smile to be considered a contemplative, but who but a contemplative could observe the following in Nazi-occupied Holland, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars of David? 
That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won’t get a mention in [the history books]. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily. And all that yellow—I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look. 
In her “Spiritual Autobiography,” Simone Weil saw herself forever standing on the threshold of the church, because so much that she loved and that God loves is outside the church.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Gerard Manley Hopkins declared, as so many poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics have witnessed through the ages.

The contemplative knows no bounds, no walls, no restrictive or exclusive way of experiencing the sacred. Altars are everywhere for those with fingers to touch or noses to smell or tongues to taste or ears to hear or eyes to see or bodies to be held or minds to imagine or love to be made or justice to be done. Anyone with any sense may know the altars of God’s presence and pleasure.

That’s why contemplatives often find more in common with mystics of other faiths than their fellow “believers,” why they find kindred spirits in so-called “primitive” religions that are more down to earth, or why, even among “godless” sciences they find a cause for awe and praise and—reverence.

Contemplatives do not have an exclusive view of their vocation: they learn from everyone, for, just as it is sometimes said “we are all theologians,” we are all contemplatives who do it more or less. The trick is to do more, to find ways to open ourselves to the altars in the world, to the sacred ways of other cultures, to the guidance and wisdom of other spiritual communities, to the diversity of spiritual experiences and practices even within our own faith traditions.

Listening is key. Self-Realization Fellowship founder and contemplative Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a song I use in leading retreats: 
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song;
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song:
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you;
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you—
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
“In this tempestuous, havoc-ridden world of ours, all real communication comes from the heart,” Etty Hillesum also wrote. Hearts may be altars as well, and listening is something we best do with our hearts.

Attending, attention, mindfulness, presence—these are our teachers, these are our guides, and these are the ways we bring healing to one another and to the world—one person at a time. “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” Woody Allen famously quipped--and yes, comics may also be contemplatives. We need more of them!

So many places to find God; so little time!

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Looking at the pond through the trees in my backyard, while listening to the tropical birds sing--or paddling in a canoe on a river, which I refer to as "the silver highway" because of how the river looks when the sun dances off the water. Elder Nancy Maxwell

  2. I have many, but one in the context of the present is a profoundly worshipful moment one morning when one of my "prayer-companion cats" was lying on my chest, nose-to-nose with me. I was suddenly overwhelmed with awe at the marvelous pattern of the whiskers on her face. In every detail, as Chris says, the Infinite Creator is brought to us in personal intimacy.

  3. Although I am a very visual person and "see" many places as being possible altars, I love that you point out that "listening" to music in all its forms can be an altar. I have written a piece using the words of St, Francis of Assisi and that is my altar now. Here it is if you care to listen:

  4. Other "altars" that have come directly to me or on Facebook pages: liturgical dance, dinner with a longtime friend and colleague in ministry, a fire pit on a personal beach that becomes "an altar of gratitude," a peak above Santa Barbara where a monastery once stood, Charnwood Forest in Loughborough, England, where memories and the spirit of her dogs can be found, the valley of Yosemite. And a great quote from German philosopher and psychologist Moritz Lazarus: "Every house a temple, every heart an altar, every human being a priest." Thanks, all! I look forward to hearing of more altars!

  5. Two favorites. Literal altar: Dominus Flevit Church overlooking the city of Jerusalem, with the mosaic of a hen and chicks - I love this feminine image of God. Second, the pond on my property. Wish I could post pictures of these two.

  6. Reading your blog reminded me of Teilhard De Chardin "A Eucharistic Prayer Over An awakening World." some of the most profound, insightful, revealing and heartfelt / heart rending words I have ever read, so simple and yet so deep. For me it is an objective tangible doorway into and through the cross, the literal crux and interface whereby everything meets and is contained in the ever present. The eternal mystery of God's self sacrificing love, in whom we live and move and have our being and in trepidation I dare to believe that through him and with him and in him our sufferings and the world's sufferings are his sufferings and at the heart the sacred heart of Jesus breaks in boundless love renewing the world. Thanks to Teilhard I can now appreciate Rumi when he say's "The Cure For The Pain Is In The Pain" and when Rumi was asked what characterized a true lover of God. He replied, “The power of passion that comes from heartbreak and the peace of serenity that comes from surrender.”

    "O God, since I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols and make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer to you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

    Grant me, Lord, to remember and make mystically present all those whom the light is now awakening to this new day. As I call these to mind, I remember first those who have shared life with me: family, community, friends, and colleagues. And I remember as well, more vaguely but all-inclusively, the whole of humanity, living and dead, and, not least, the physical earth itself, as I stand before you, O God, as a piece of this earth, as that place where the earth opens and closes to you.
    And so, O God, over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day, I say again the words: “This is my body.” And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, I speak again your words which express the supreme mystery of faith: “This is my blood.” On my paten, I hold all who will live this day in vitality, the young, the strong, the healthy, the joy-filled; and in my chalice, I hold all that will be crushed and broken today as that vitality draws its life. I offer you on this all-embracing altar everything that is in our world, everything that is rising and everything that is dying, and ask you to bless it.

  7. A couple more have been listed on Facebook: anywhere in New Zealand and the grotto in Portland, Oregon. True for both!

  8. For me, as it was for Mozart, music is the Sacrament of Life. Many compositions bring me through the veil into the Presence, but four never fail to bring this home for me, whether in live performance or on a recording: J.S. Bach's Cantata #150, "My Soul Yearns for You, O Lord," and the finale to Mozart's opera, "The Magic Flute," and Berlioz's Requiem, and Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" (which I sang under his direction my senior year in college). Each of these has caused me to burst into tears or to weep uncontrollably. Each of these takes my conscious mind out of time and space.

    1. Thanks, Robert, and I love your choices too. I once thought I'd like to die listening to a very fine sermon; now I'd prefer dying listening to a very fine musical composition. I had a friend who actually died that way: she had on earphones and listened to sacred music as she passed. Btw, I saw/heard "The Magic Flute" at the puppet theater of Salzburg. How wonderful that you got to sing under Igor Stravinsky's direction!

  9. More altars from Facebook: the ocean view from the rocks at Pemaquid Point, Maine; the National Shrines in Washington, D.C., the Shrine of St Francis in Assisi and the shrines of the Vatican; all moving water; all shorelines; and beautiful trees and giraffes.

  10. A reader added: "I also find 'places' that cause my heart to change, to listen to the still quiet voice, to become new. A hillside behind my childhood home, a river in NJ, empty churches . . ."