Living with faith In an era of renewed spiritualism, people are creating sacred spaces in the home.

December 21, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Each year as part of her New Year's celebration, Jean McMann creates a personal shrine in her living room.

The artist and architectural historian arranges a bouquet of bright tulips and one of dead leaves on a chest. She adds candles, a little Day of the Dead figure from Mexico, and stones wrapped in paper with New Year's wishes.

"It's a way of picturing the passing of time," she says.

Before you write her off as just another quirky New Ager, you should know that her book, "Altars and Icons: Sacred Spaces in Everyday Life," which will be published by Chronicle Books this spring, is already being featured in mainstream shelter magazines like House & Garden.

McMann and many others are interested in the process of creating a spiritual life in the home. When House & Garden polled readers about what they considered the finer things in life, a startling 82 percent responded that a "quiet place for meditation or spiritual contemplation" was a necessity.

The concept of having a domestic sacred space is an old one. Only in contemporary times have Americans' spiritual and secular lives become so totally separate, with church or synagogue being the place to worship and home where we eat and sleep and rush off from to work or school.

"We've lost all sorts of rituals since World War II," says Peg Streep, who has also written a book on home shrines, "Altars Made Easy," just published by HarperSanFrancisco. "We no longer say grace with meals. The Catholic tradition used to be the saint's shrine [in the home], but more 'Americanized' generations have dropped those traditions."

There have been plenty of suggestions that this is changing, from the fascination with angels of the past few years to the best-selling success of books on prayer and meditation ("Simple Abundance," Deepak Chopra's musings and many more). Recently the national press has heralded a "nationwide boom in religious statuary." And the National Candle Association reports that candle sales have been growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent annually since the early 1990s.

What are people doing with all those candles? Streep and others make a good case for the fact that they are being used on domestic shrines and in places of meditation as well as for decoration and traditional religious ceremonies.

This resurgent spiritualism is a cross-cultural and Asian-influenced one, with Methodists seemingly comfortable with Zen meditation and interior designers incorporating feng shui principles into their practices. So it's not surprising that the concept of home altars as places to meditate and reflect, which seems so New Age -- if not Far Eastern -- in spirit, is appealing to a variety of people.

Architect Anthony Lawlor, whose book on creating a serene, meditative environment, "A Home for the Soul," was recently published by Clarkson Potter, feels that "each area of the house can be an active altar." He likes to quote German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart, "God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk."

This time of year many of us create what could be a sacred space in our homes by setting up a creche or a menorah. But often these are simply decoration, with no real spiritual resonance.

"When we decorate," says Streep, "we look at the surface of objects. A figurine of an angel placed on a windowsill is a decorative object. Set among photographs of those who have guided you through life, in a quiet place where you can look and think, the same angel takes on an entirely different quality."

Starting now

If the idea of creating a sacred space in your home appeals, you can start this week by not relegating your menorah or creche or other symbolic object to a corner of the room. Put it where you can sit and look at it comfortably, using it as a way to think about the meaning of the season.

Or you could do something as simple as rearranging your furniture. Lawlor suggests placing furniture in a semicircle around the Christmas tree to give a chapel-like feeling. As Streep puts it, "Create a small area where you don't think about shopping and your social schedule."

You could think of the Kwanzaa table not just as a table but a shrine. In "Altars and Icons," McMann describes a table arranged by artist Mildred Howard, who says, "The Kwanzaa shrine on my kitchen table is about food. It is also about place, about who we are and how we fit into the world."

She arranges traditional elements like the seven candles, fruits and vegetables with items that relate to black Americans, such as cane syrup and yams, and a photograph of her son, killed in an automobile accident in 1993. She adds an Aunt Jemima image, part of her collection of black stereotypes.

"At one time I thought I could collect all of them," Howard says, "because I felt so bad about them. But no way I could do that!"

After the holidays are over, you may find yourself looking at spaces in your house in a new light.

McMann suggests that we consider shelves "landscapes of memory" and the living room mantel as a public shrine. You might arrange meaningful objects on these spaces, such as seashells or other natural and beautiful things, photographs, beloved personal mementos from the past and, of course, candles as a symbol of spiritual illumination.

You could include items that honor the family's ethnic and cultural roots, political beliefs or souvenirs of travels -- anything that leads to remembering and reflection.

If the idea of creating a domestic altar seems odd to you, McMann has some advice.

"Look around your home," she says. "Notice whether you already have one without knowing it, with objects sacred to you arranged in a certain way."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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