A quiet place
Rogue Valley residents join a national trend toward home
altars as a tranquil haven from life's shocks
By JOHN DARLING
for the Mail Tribune
When John Miller wants to explore
life's meaning, he doesn't look to a church or a book or
even nature for guidance. He heads to a
bedroom-turned-sanctuary, a room he has outfitted with three
altars, wall tapestries, music and a simple cot-like bed.
Its purpose? To "relax me if I'm
stressed and worried," said Miller, of Ashland, "and
otherwise to explore my life and inspire me.
"It's the most important room in
Home sanctuaries — quiet spaces
devoted to everything from reflection to meditation to
worship — may not yet have the cachet of, say, a home
theater, but they are laying claim to square footage in a
number of Southern Oregon homes. It's a trend that's evident
nationally as well, say religious scholars.
Barbara and Robert Casey of
Jacksonville made one of their three bedrooms into a
meditation room. It has a table for an altar, featuring a
statue of Buddha flanked by candles. Another altar honors
ancestors and has a statue of Jesus.
A sign on the door says, "Entering
this room, I see my true mind. I vow that once I sit down,
all distraction will stop." When they enter, they set the
tone by bowing, an act of humility in Eastern religions.
"It's our favorite room in the
house," said Barbara Casey. "People want to come in here,
not the living room, and just sit in the peaceful energy.
What the room does is it centers you. It's very nurturing
and shifts your consciousness when you come in here."
Such rooms often feature an altar,
set in a corner and covered with altar cloths and
thoughtfully arranged with sacred images and regalia.
On a living room altar where the TV
used to sit, Kathy and Keith Black of Ashland have placed
feathers, plants, pictures of saints, a statue of Christ, a
statuette of the Hindu god Ganesha (an elephant-deity known
as the "remover of obstacles"). Together or singly, they
meditate before it.
Arranging or adding to the sacred
objects is a powerful meditation in itself, and
contemplating the items stimulates a devotional frame of
mind, said Kathy Black.
"It creates a focus in the house
and is, in fact, the center of the house," said Black. "It's
an incredible presence and when people walk in, they comment
of the quality of peace here, despite the dogs running up
and jumping on them.
"Meditating with my altar is like
charging my battery for the day, so when I do run into
challenges, I will draw on that instead of frustration and
fear. I can use it two or three hours a day on good days,
but most days, if I spend five minutes there, I'm thrilled
While still remaining Christians,
Beth and Dann Hauser of Medford created a Buddhist altar in
their living room, with small gongs, candles, incense and a
statue of Buddha. They chant and meditate an hour in the
morning and again in the evening, producing a "warm and
fuzzy feeling" that lasts through each day, said Dann
He recently found another
unexpected use for the shrine when members of a religious
group came to the door and asked if he'd like to pray with
them. He said yes, let's both pray in each other's religion.
They agreed. He prayed with them, but when they saw his
altar turned around and left, he said. A picture of Jesus
they gave him now sits on the Hauser altar.
A tradition in ancient cultures,
the home altar has flourished in recent years among
Americans who find that it powerfully expresses their
intensely personal spirituality, scholars said.
John McGuckin, an Eastern Orthodox
priest and professor of early church history at Union
Theological Seminary in New York, said he has seen altars
that combine figures of saints with running shoes and photos
In rural parts of medieval Europe,
home altars were kept by Christians who could not easily
travel to church for communal worship, McGuckin noted. But
in modern times, the altars' popularity has less to do with
physical distance than with the spiritual gulf that
separates many people from organized religion, he said.
"Today it's not so much that they
can't walk to church. There are intellectual problems," he
said. "They've retreated back to their little village. It
might be a 14th-floor apartment, but it's their own little
Peter Kowalzik, whose online
business, Sacred Source, sells devotional items, said he has
had a steady increase in interest in home altars, and the
Web site features photos of dozens of altars that customers
have set up.
The store carries more than 500
"multicultural Goddess statues and sacred images," according
to the Web site, and is organized by religion, with a menu
that includes links to "Gnostic," "Norse" and "Wiccan and
Pagan," among other categories.
"A lot of your pantheist customers
— Wiccans and Pagans — are centered around the Celtic Wheel
of the Year," Kowalzik said, and they change their home
altar according to the season.
Nancy Brady Cunningham, author of
"A Book of Women's Altars," one of several books about
altar-making, gives lectures and consultations on the
subject. Cunningham said the impulse to create an altar is
not so different from a sports fan's desire to arrange
posters and memorabilia of a favorite player or team in a
certain way, or an office worker's need to put an inspiring
photo and fresh flowers in her cubicle.
Miller, the Ashland man who turned
a bedroom into a meditation space, maintains three altars
for specific purposes: one to focus on and manifest goals
and dreams, one to meditate at and the third simply for
"personal stuff" — mementos and photos that bring joy to his
life, he said.
Like most people who maintain a
sacred space, Miller isn't bashful about describing the feel
of the place — "a very open-hearted, unconditionally loving
atmosphere that helps me realize what's really important in
life and what connects me to a vaster universe."
John Darling is a free-lance
writer living in Ashland.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Washington Post also contributed to this story.