Good news. Finally finished a book! Thank you, sweet Barb for the good times and in light of finishing “An Altar in the World” I have one last post to share. But I want to start this post my being honest. I figure if Barbara can be honest to the hundreds and hundreds of people who read this New York Times bestseller, I can too for the however many of you there are reading this blog. Just go read the introduction to Chapter 11, “The Practice of Being Present to God: Prayer” if you want feel better about your prayer life! In it she says:
I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life, I feel like a bulimic must feel when people ask about her favorite dish. My mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem. I start talking about other things I do that I hope will make me sound like a godly person. I try to say admiring things about prayer so there can be no doubt about how important I think it is. I will ask the other person to tell me about her prayer life, hoping she will not notice that I have changed the subject.
Of course I loved this, relieved that my author hero and I were on the same page. Honestly, I don’t know too much about how prayer works and the more I’ve thought about it, the less I understand. But in that conviction, somewhere along the way I’ve actually lost the ability to pray. Or at least pray like I used to. I’m not sure how prayer should be, so I had pretty much given up on making much of an effort. But the hopeful thing of realizing this truth is where we can go from it. Barbara says, “The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, exploring two distinct possibilities: 1) that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2) that some of what I actually do in life may constitute genuine prayer.”
There is hope that prayer is more than I used to think it was! This was an idea I already knew true but needed to hear it again and a tangible way to try it out. Later in her chapter, she talks about how she keeps a prayer altar in her room. It’s covered with candles, icons, and drawers where she stashed the prayers she has written down. And even on most nights when she passes by, it serves as a tangible reminder of prayer and is there ready to receive her when there comes a night of deep need. “Prayer overtakes me there. I am utterly swamped by the presence of the Holy.”
So I’ve made a new goal to try it out for this month and have decided to keep my own little prayer altar! Excited for this tangible way to keep up with some form of prayer life, I got started. This morning, I scavenged through the shed in our backyard for pieces to make up the altar and decided it was a good enough place to host my endeavors. Later, I biked over to HEB and got 3 candles, one big veladora in an effort to respect my current culture, a smaller candle with a Jesus figure that I’m not quite used to, and a febreeze candle because why not? I placed these candles neatly and got all the necessary elements I could think of to spend some time making the place home.
But if you know me, you might know that I’m not too great at lighting matches. It was almost comical, and certainly symbolic somehow, that it took me 11 terrified tries to get a match-to-candle success. Then I spent some time writing down some prayers and stashing them in my designated drawer, but of course I had to pull out the guitar. I felt I had to bless the place the best way I knew how, so I was playing through the drop D chords of the song I had come up with for Dr. Marler’s assignment of a representation of the “ultimate environment”, when WHAM! No seriously, wham. Something huge obviously fell right outside my shelter, banging the tin roof with such force there was no way to ignore such a disturbance.
I walked out to find that a large branch had fallen from the one tree in our backyard. Now I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious enough to not ignore a sign like that. So like a kid at Christmas I ran back into the shed, blew out my candles, and grabbed by towel to see what could be had out there. Turns out the fallen branch made a perfect seat for resting my head back and looking up at the green leaves above.
It was as I was sitting there that I realized the title of the book. It’s called “An Altar in the World” not “An Altar in Your Closet” and I was relieved of the reminder. It was outside that I could feel the deep breeze and take in the light still covering the earth. It was at that new altar that I could be aware of the life around me from sounds of sirens, dogs barking, and leaves swaying. And even though I was doused in my new incense of very strong bug spray, the bugs still found a way around to bite my skin every once in a while to remind me of my body and tangible life.
When I did sit outside long enough to breathe deeply, I noticed a small tree I hadn’t seen before and it caused me to immediately jump up and almost fall over from my excitement. Hammocking for me is pretty much a religious experience in itself and after weeks and weeks of scouring that one large tree in our backyard for any possible hammock spot, it finally all came together. I made my bed between the two trees, finally able to cover myself from the unending bug bites and able to enjoy the breeze that moved me just as it moved the leaves of the tree. I stayed there until the light of the sun had faded, just sitting and swaying.
Am I going to abandon the candle altar? Definitely not. I love that there is still a place where I can go for my prayers. But tonight was a prayer practice that reminded me I don’t just have to pick one sacred spot for encountering God. I don’t have to make the candle space any more holy or mystical because all of the world is capable of such depth. It’s just taking to time to recognize it.