I keep a personal altar in my bedroom at SCH, a place where I pause each morning for reflection and light candles as an act of ritual to help me focus on the various aspects of my spiritual awareness and practice. Ritual is a very powerful thing. And we all perform rituals in our lives, even though we don’t always recognize them as such. As Joseph Campbell wrote in Transformations of Myth Through Time (Harper & Row, NY 1990) “People sometimes ask me, ‘what ritual do we have?’ You’ve got rituals, only you’re not meditating on them. When you eat a meal, that’s a ritual. Just realize what you’re doing.”
I have several candles of the type found in botanicas and at the grocery store, cylindrical clear class holders with paper images applied to the outside. To avoid overconsumption (many people burn these candles, toss them, then buy replacements), I have burned the original wax down inside each candle and then replaced it with a votive. That way I am only buying more wax and wick, which lowers my waste output and saves me money.
I like these botanica candles because of their paper imagery pasted on them. They aid my focus and center my thought as I begin my day in prayer and contemplation. As I light each one, I reflect on its theme or message.
There’s the “Holy Spirit,” and the “Guardian Angel.” This one is especially important for me because I believe my maternal grandmother, who passed in 2009, watches over me and protects me. I’ve felt her spirit particularly close to me through the struggles of this past year. Another candle, the “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” keeps me in touch with the central figure in my faith tradition, and the values that he embodies. There is the “Virgin of Guadalupe” to remind me of the feminine in God, of the “mothering” as well as “fathering” aspects of the God of my own understanding. I also use the “Virgin” candle to remind me that we each have a part to play (Mary was a human being who played her part in bringing God into the world in the person of Jesus Christ – and when I live according to the values of my faith tradition I can also bring God into the world each day in a similar kind of way). The Virgin reminds me of the great country and people to the south, and of the ways in which growing up and living in Southern California is an experience as rich with Mexican traditions as the prevailing American ones. She reminds me of the possibility of miracles, and of the ways in which the Divine reveals itself to the common man as Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 (my favorite telling of the story is found in the children’s book THE LADY OF GUADALUPE by Tomie de Paola ).
I keep one botanica candle which is clear, without any image affixed to it, and I light this one each day for a different person or persons. I might light it as I pray for my mother, or a friend, or the memory of Nelson Mandela, or the people of the Phillipines after the terrible storm last month. I keep a second candle on my altar which rises on a stem and is encased in a hurricane of green glass. This candle I light for peace and justice in the world, and to remind me that I have a part to play in the advancement of each.
I have two vases – one a bud vase for a single flower, and a larger vase for a small bouquet. These provide fragrance and beauty and remind me of life and its passing.
I have two items on my altar that were gifts – a small hand-painted image on wood of Saint John, the patron saint of writers and a small laminated card with the image of Jesus on it which was a gift from my Cuban friend Agustin.
Finally, I have a special oil candle made of stone which has a “step” in it. This was given to me by my friend Rafael as a reminder of the importance of my sobriety and the power of the 12 steps in my life.
Behind my altar hangs a calendar, which reads in Spanish, “?ES EL FIN DEL MUNDO, O APENAS OTRO DIA?” (Is it the end of the world, or just another day?”). This great find came to me at a garage sale in Silver Lake years ago for just one dollar. It has dials on either side that allow me to change the day of the week, date, and month. Making the change each morning centers me in the here and now, and reminds me that yesterday has passed, and tomorrow will be “dialed up” another day so what about THIS day here and now? The calendar helps me keep things in perspective, and with it’s humorous text and illustrations it really amuses me. I don’t have to take myself or life too seriously. And it’s never the end of the world.
When I was 18 years old I wrote a song to explain the power of faith in my life, and it took as its main image a lit candle. The lyrics are as follows:
I light a candle
I let it burn
In the hope
That one would see
This light that’s burning
The only life for me
Though the world
Grows dark I know
My light won’t dim
Nothing can darken
My light is Him
I light a candle.