A Voice from our Community

Altars and Traveling Through Lent

Altars! Remember those days when it was almost commonplace to see an altar in homes of our friends? They were the crucifixes, and empty crosses. They were the religious pictures, the nick knacks. Some of us pass grottoes against the mountain roads, filled with small statues and photos. Some homes have stacks of rocks marking a better direction. Many of us still have walls covered with crosses and miniatures of angels. My mother had a wood cut picture of St. Christopher carrying the two children across the bridge over the turbulent waters. I don't think I really had my own altar until I had my own home. My altars have always been reminders of the perennial traditions of nature or of the liturgical calendar. In Texas my altar was above the kitchen sink, on the granite shelf by the windows overlooking the empty fields of our home. I would have bird nests and feathers, snake skins, unusual rocks, fossils. Easter, it was the small rabbit collection and dyed eggs, items to represent resurrection. Christmas, it was always a nativity scene.

This year there was a new carved wooden German nativity, a gift from my husband. It was really the only one I put out as there wasn't room for hardly any more around the living room. My camel collection ended up in a secondary room. That collection consists of about 24 small camels of all textures, wooden, stone, fabric, carved, glass, even small plastic ones from the children's toy sets. They are all walking towards Bethlehem. The Wise men were part of a caravan crossing the desert and guided by the night skies. Can't you envision the dust picked up by the dozens and dozens of camels' hooves? The caravan would have walked in the dust constantly. The story of the wise men has always been my favorite part of Christmas. All that discomfort, all that uncertainty just to adore an unknown child. All my shepherds were on display on yet another piece of furniture. I put all my sheep and goats with them as they were crossing the moonlit fields, going to worship in Bethlehem. Those goats are a foretelling of Jesus's crucifixion. Angels are with them, guiding and singing their alleluias. And I do have a clay duo of Joseph and pregnant Mary on her donkey. Yes, they are walking to Bethlehem on a hard dirt packed road. Mary's back hurts and she is anxious.

While packing them away mid January, I was reminded that we had had Christmas up for six weeks. The spruce tree once growing too close to others in the forest had been brought inside and draped in glass icicles and was becoming a fire hazard. It had stood as sentinel by the windows overlooking the Rio Grande valley and up into the mountains. The bottom needles were turning yellow and the cat seemed to bump more off all the time. It was time to turn away from Christmas.

Lent does begin soon. The season will begin after Mardi Gras with Ash Wednesday and move into fish fries and opportunities to learn new crafts like decorating Ukrainian eggs, and shaping twisted bread dough into pretzels. There will hopefully be new interpretations of the meaning of Easter.

Lent as well as Easter has always been difficult season for some of us. It reminds us of childhoods with a Church full of anxiety and threat. Being a sensitive child and taking life too literally I myself had a great deal of recrimination and guilt.

There were nightmares of disappointing someone. Even so, that was then and now is now. I do all I can to turn away from that repetitive negative narrative and to repent ( the turning away from that which separates me from closeness with God) of the strength my personal history has over me.

There are many of us for whom the tool of welcoming prayer becomes almost an obsession and our monkey minds will not let us go. We sorrow for the growing distance from God and miss his comforting presence in our lives . The memories confuse us and tie us to its darkness. I desire to change that narrative and turn towards the light and promise of Christ's resurrection.

With such dark thoughts, how can I encourage my hospitalized niece towards health? My close friend suggested joy. Yes! Of course! My personal history includes lessons I have learned to twist into a new interpretation, ones that move me towards acceptance and love. Rather than dwelling on my past, I move my thoughts to that of joy. Joy is a welcoming distraction that anticipates the future. Joy focuses on gratitude. The card I send my niece has words written for her to run towards joy. To chase it, to catch it. I write it for myself as much as for her.

For now, for me there will be another attempt to resolve that recurring deep regret and childhood lesson that Jesus willingly sacrificed his life for me. He offered me his death so I could grow. I can move away from that guilt laden outlook and turn the focus towards his lessons of love and acceptance. I will look for that necessary twist, for that extra strand so I can move beyond that misunderstood baggage, that burden. That cross is so heavy and strong. It cannot be lifted alone. It is truly “stinking thinking”. It takes such effort and creativity and persistence to move through it. Those memories are almost tied to me with a strong rope.

I choose joy. I will set my altar up with objects that show it: flowers, feathers, photos, a rock or several, a broken pot, sea shells. Each serves as a metaphor, as a tangible lectio divina. My altar will change and grow as I change and grow and as the season draws closer to gratitude and acceptance of Love and Light. Developing it will grow space in my heart and help me focus on the positive. In rereading this story, I think I will find a braided rope to place on my altar. That rope will express a loosening of the ties of memories that hold me back.

Everyone in the Christmas story is walking to Jesus. We adore him, we try to emulate him. He does his work on earth and on the cross he becomes Christ. I truly have simplified it.

Joy is a fruit of the spirit. It can become part of my armor when times get tough and I feel threatened. I want to remember joy. Turning away from the negatives during Lent is important. It is not healthy to wallow in them. Bless that “stinking thinking”, and release it. Altars are tools that help make that possible.

Thanks to Thomas Keating in his book, Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit. Thanks also to Father Bill Sheehan.

Johanna Ash February 2024



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