High above ancient city of Petra, the Nabataea people carved the windswept rock into a place to honour their gods. It was simply a High Place. An altar in the wind of the winds of the heavens.
Temples, cathedrals, churches and shrines have their altars too. But for all their drama and eye-catching splendour do they imprison the spirit as much as they may release it.
Altars are more than religious furniture no matter how spectacular or historic. Before the age of religious buildings or even the Tent of Meeting in the Hebrew tradition an altar would be as simple as one stone put on top of another; as in the story of Jacob who turned the his stone pillow into a sacred pillar.
Last weekend I asked a gathering of spiritual directors to define the meaning of altar. They came up with:
- A place of exchange
- A place of focus
- A place of transformation
- A place of worship
- A gateway to heaven
- A place of sacrifice.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the impact of discovering ways in which the patterns of Christian practice can be nourished by everyday episodes and locations. She has a particular reason for this. In an earlier book she describes what it meant for her as an Episcopalian priest to leave behind church attendance.
“Although I never found a church where I felt completely at home again, I made a new home in the world. I renewed my membership in the priesthood of all believers, who may not have as much power as we would like, but whose consolation prize is the freedom to meet God after work, well away from all centres of religious command, wherever God shows up.” (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith)
Since I have retired from pastoral ministry I have discovered the power of not going to church. I never liked that expression. It always sounded like a Monday morning conversation.
“What did you do this weekend?”
“Oh I went to church”.
“Really, we went to the garden centre”.
To describe the worship of Almighty God by ‘going to church’ seems to me to drain the occasion of any significance.
So I don’t go to church now. That doesn’t mean I don’t worship or join other worshippers on a Sunday morning in a local sanctuary but responding to Taylor’s experience I now have other altars.
These days I live in a small Leicestershire village. I seem to have found a number of altars.
- The canal bank
- A small rarely used park with a pond and a resident heron
- Nest-building doves
- A view of wind farms and an unused windmill
- A sleepy ladybird in the bark chippings
- A park bench where he sits clutching his cider bottle
- The moon slipping around the side of the cottage
- A hillside with church towers in sight in every direction
They may be more than one rock set upon another and some lost their meaning as quickly as it came. But for a moment I was held in place by them and was glad.