A few years ago, I don't recall exactly when, I suddenly needed an altar space again. It had been a long time since I'd collected objects and arranged them together into a space for reflection and ritual. A strong storm had taken me off of that path which was so direct and daily and spoke to my sense of total commitment. It had been so long since I'd had an altar that it was actually difficult to recall what it really felt like to sit in front of one. With unexpected and sharp lucidity, this forgetting was sad to me. I wanted it back. I wanted a reflection of the intensity of my spiritual path and I wanted to call it my own and to make it into something heart-centred and beautiful. I can only describe it as a call to return. It was just the way my mother would have called to me when I'd run too far over the wide, verdant school field without her. She wanted to keep me in sight, and the boundary she set for me with her call was made out of love. As a child, I knew that, and I knew it when the goddess sent out that same call.
There was suddenly a stark realisation of empty space - the lack of a focal point and of a place of power was causing a feeling of static. I had many frustrations at that point in my life. I was tying myself up in knots and it was instinct which drove me to think of an altar as the obvious remedy. I needed a place to say yes. I needed a place to help me confirm what I already knew but had been trying to forget. Most of all, I needed the gentle push which is so delicious when you're standing right on the edge. The altar is the visual cue. It says do something, feel something, create something now in this moment, even if the only thing you're creating is time.
There is a current and relatively understandable desire amidst witches to profess that they do not need an altar. They do not need tools. They do not need anything except the power of their own mind. This is an obvious backlash against the materialism of the age and it's something that I can appreciate. I have erected several altars for myself on the astral and they work just as well. I can have them wherever I go and whatever I do. They too are mine and yet they can't be seen or touched by anyone else. (Although I like to imagine that one or two of you have drifted past them in your own astral explorations and acknowledged them with admiration..) However, I feel the need to tell you that, at the particular point in my life at which it became obvious that I should create an altar again, I actually did need one. I choose to see this not as materialism or a rejection of the notion of impermanence or an inability to be transcendental. On the contrary, I see it as an admission of my own limitations at that time. I see it as a need which came from radical acceptance. My spiritual focus had left the building and the yearning to grasp it again was stronger than I can depend on language to describe. Without a starting point, I was doomed. Without a place of celebration and affirmation, I would continue to drift aimlessly.
At first, it was just a bunch of flowers and a decorative cloth. I didn't want to get too close to archetypes, deities, syncretic pick'n'mix ideologies and many-flavoured paradigms. I wasn't ready to get 'real' or put down roots. I wasn't prepared to devote myself to the heady process of releasing old ideas and receiving new ones. All of this work came later on. What I really wanted was a place in the room which simply said, 'Come here and be still.' I wanted a place for grounding, centring and simply welcoming spirituality back into my conscious mind. I also wanted something to tend to. Actually, I think it's incredible how tender and protective I feel towards my altar space nowadays, and those feelings are an amplification of what they were then. I thought that if I had a place which meant Spirit Is Alive In You, then I could tend to it, appreciate it, tidy it, take care of it, and that would be my way of saying, 'I love this part of myself - it is important. It is worth honouring.' Although I would never be prepared to blame anyone else for my time away from direct pursuit of spiritual evolution, I can certainly say that I had a boyfriend who was more than I little cynical and wary of my pagan persuasion. On the other side of that relationship, it was a particularly important for me to take my power back and so, in that sense, the altar space was also a way of being unapologetic. It was a defiant embrace of Source in material form.
At certain times in your life, you may need such a space in order to really confirm what you're experiencing within. As a pagan, I feel that my connection to the earthly plain (and all its objects, materials, textures, symbols and shapes) is a big part of my spiritual integration. I was first attracted to paganism because it didn't seem to denigrate matter. It didn't seem to be wholly concerned with ascending and becoming completely transcendental. On the contrary, it involved the celebration of trees, statues, books filled with spells and sacred secrets, dance, sex, death, bones, food, mud, blood, stones.. The ritual aspect of my pagan practice is intensified and aided hugely by material objects. They provide focal points for the mind and springboards for the imagination. Although it's important to communicate to newcomers and learners that it is not necessary to have stuff, I also feel that any militant drive towards the complete elimination of stuff is short-sighted. Quite often, it simply works. If one is comfortable with their intentions and clear on their motivations, altar spaces, tools and the like can be instrumental in forging a practice which links the conscious to the unconscious, links spirit to matter etcetera.
It was matter which brought me back into the loving embrace of spirit. Spirit was all around me but it wanted to be swallowed into me and acknowledged with the opening of my heart. It was the construction of an altar which brought me to that pivotal point, and I'll never forget that. When I wake up each morning, my altar is one of the first things I see. This is the visual call to prayer, call to action, call to discovery, call to The Great Work.. It is a potent reminder of my purpose and my desire. It is encouraging, inspiring and poignant. I will always have an altar for the rest of this earthly life because, even when I'm just walking past it on my way out of the house to face the day, I feel intense gratitude for it and for every object upon it. It plugs me in. It keeps me connected. It cosmically binds my hands and feet when I want to run. It says, 'Your work starts here. You are, first and foremost, a witch.'