This lesson will explore how to build an altar as part of your home Unitarian Universalist practice. Building an altar is a positive way to create an outward reflection of your internal state in order to do something within yourself about things in your life which need attention. A home altar is a sacred space where you can focus on cultivating your highest self. Even if you do not consider yourself particularly religious or spiritual, building a home altar can serve as a meditative tool to help focus your attention and reflect on your highest values and intentions.
This lesson will cover:
- What is an altar? – with ancient and contemporary examples
- Why should I build an altar?
- How to build an altar
Share your work! Once you have completed the lesson and built an altar, please take a photo of it and send it and a brief explanation of your experience to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you already have a home altar, we’d love for you to share that as well. Click here to see a gallery some of the home altars shared by the GUUF community.
What is an altar?
An altar is a surface or structure on which offerings are made for religious or spiritual purposes. You may find altars in churches, shrines, temples, and other places of worship. Altars usually hold ritual offerings and items to focus the attention of participants during worship. In Unitarian Universalist churches, you might see an altar holding a flaming chalice, along with other items for making offerings, such as candles for Joys and Concerns (see photo above). During special annual rites such as the Water Communion or Flower Communion, the altar may hold items unique to that particular service.
Ancient altars and their purposes – Since time began, people all over the world have built altars, often in places of special power or where something remarkable or mysterious had happened. Altars were places where the people could communicate with the gods. The altar could be small or large: a raised flat area made of dirt, stone, or metal. On these altars, people made offerings to the gods or blood sacrifices that included killing animals or even people. The altar was a place of mystery and power, where perhaps only a priest or priestess could go to communicate with or manipulate spirits and cosmic energies.
Below are some ancient stone altars from different parts of the world. Click the links in the captions to discover more about these images.
Contemporary altars and their purposes – In present times, the altar represents a place in the pathway of our lives where we offer ourselves or our thoughts and dreams to mystery in a special way. Most churches have altars where sacred objects are kept, and many people have altars in their homes. Building a home altar is a fun, beautiful, and meaningful practice to bring spirituality into our own private spaces.
A home altar can serve many purposes. It can be a special place
- For spiritual practice.
- To honor something or someone, such as your ancestors.
- For a precious memory.
- To make an offering.
- For performing a ritual.
- To bring something into your life.
- To focus attention.
- To remind you of a purpose.
- For calming and centering.
- To be inspired.
- For prayer and contemplation.
- For gathering inner strength.
- To make peace with pain.
- For seeking guidance.
Below are some examples of contemporary altars. Click the links in the captions to discover more about these images.
Why should I build an altar?
The words altar and alter are not the same, but the verb alter means to change things, and that is exactly what an altar is meant to do — change things.
What would YOU want to change, hold in your heart, or bring into your life?
- Building an altar is a positive way to do something within yourself about things in your life which need attention or are negatively influencing you.
- Even if you do not think of yourself as religious, having a place that nurtures your understanding, positive attention and intention, and your feelings of connection to source has immense benefits to your well-being.
- An altar helps you cultivate deep presence.
- An altar is a good place for meditation and prayer.
- Doing a ritual using an altar is a great way to influence your subconscious mind through symbols. The special objects and the ritual may not be powerful in themselves, but they are a way of embodying your purpose and bringing your awareness to your own power.
- Creating an altar is a way of making art. Make it beautiful—simple, elaborate, funny, or plain; it makes no difference if it aligns with you.
- Objects placed on an altar or used in ritual are usually symbolic. In the process of creating and using your altar, you will gain useful knowledge about archetypes, the ancient meanings of colors and numbers, the properties and lore of plants and stones, and indigenous people’s teachings about animals and reciprocal relationship with nature.
- How you show up and take care of your altar can be a clue to how well you are showing up and caring for yourself. Tending to an altar strengthens its healing and clarifying energy, while neglect, dust, and clutter weaken its charge.
- An altar is a good tool for introducing children to spiritual practice and the divine. Even young children can create amazing altars of their own or participate in building a family altar.
How to build an altar
First, look around, and see if you already have an altar or three. Maybe you will be surprised. Where do the “SPECIAL THINGS” in your home seem to gather? Do you have a shelf or table where you keep family pictures? Heirlooms? Pictures of grandparents? Do you have a place where you keep lists, special books, quotes, favorite objects, or meaningful tokens? Arrangements of flowers or candles? What do you notice about where they are, and what they represent to you? See? You probably already have a good start.
Next, find a place in your home that feels comfortable and safe, where you can sit quietly. Use your imagination to decide what space will work best. You might want to consider the light at the time of day you will be using the altar or even use a compass to find out what direction your altar is facing. Each direction has a meaning, too (see The 7 Directions (Native American), The Four Directions (Pagan, European)).
When you find the spot you want to use, clear out the space, move air and light through it, and clean all the surfaces to get it ready. If you are thoughtful and intentional, you can make any space feel sacred, no matter how big or small it is. Some people like to cleanse not only the physical space but the energetic field as well. You can do this with music, bells, smoke from a smudge or incense, water, salt, or with a plain old broom. Find out more about cleansing sacred space.
You can use a shelf or windowsill, but a dedicated small table or raised area placed where you can see it when you are sitting will work best. You may want to place a cloth on the table. When you choose, think about what the cloth will mean. Do the color and texture or origin of the cloth represent your intention?
Give some thought to how you want to use your sacred space. Your altar will change with use and time but setting a purpose for it will help you decide what objects to use on the altar you are making now.
Gather all the objects you want to place on the altar and set them by. Every part of your altar should have meaning for you.
Items that you might want on an altar:
- Special objects that represent your purpose
- A bell
- Writing tools
- Your personal chalice (Click here to learn how to make your own flaming chalice.)
- A visual representation of the 7 UU Principles (Click here for ideas on how to make your own.)
Finally, add the altar pieces in any order that feels right. Place them carefully and say out loud what each thing means. What would be a focal point? Where do the objects that match your intention seem to fit? Do they look ordered and balanced?
If you already have an altar, remove everything, clean the surface and surrounding areas, and remake or reorganize it so that it feels fresh based on your current intentions.
When everything is finished, step away for a while and then come back to see if anything needs to shift. Shift away. When everything looks right, sit down, light a candle, breathe deeply, and be still for a little while. Come back every day.
Take your altar seriously. Be warned that talking about it a lot to others will bring their energy to bear on whatever work you are doing. A person who judges you can undermine your power.
That said, we would love for you to share your work with the GUUF community! Once you
have built your altar (or if you already have an altar at home), please take a photo of it and send it and a brief explanation of your experience to email@example.com. Go to the Home Altar Gallery to see some of the altars shared by the GUUF community.