Tag Archives: sacred space

Making an altar

Ten years ago and more, altars were part of my life as a Druid. I like having dedicated space in this way. However, for a couple of years I lived on a narrowboat, and there wasn’t any space to dedicate. Horizontal surfaces were at a premium. So there was no altar.

This flat is also small, and horizontal space has also been at a premium. We live and work here – three of us, and for a while, four of us. There have also been cats, and cats and altars do not mix well unless you can keep the one off the other reliably.

The last week has been really hard. There is now no cat, and we’ve been unexpectedly a household of three when three of us thought we were a household of four. It’s complicated, painful and I write this with no clarity on what’s going on. There’s nothing sensible or useful I can do.

My Druidry has always, to some degree, been what I do in self defence.  This is something I may need to look at and rethink. Often I am at my most willing to dig in with magic and spirituality when I am most in trouble. I tend to manifest my Druidry more on the service and creativity side when life is ok.

So, I made an altar space. For the first time, I made a cooperative altar space. In the past, James was simply too young and not really interested in engaging with the spaces I made. He was interested in Druidry as a child, but more the bard stuff and having an invisible fairy dog (it’s a long story).  This is the first time Tom and I have had shared space we felt willing and able to dedicate in this way.

We’ve talked about what should be on a household altar. We’ve put some things together, and talked about how and when to change that. We’ve made a heart space that we haven’t had before in this flat, and we’ve made the decision to give that some priority. I’ve pulled out old ritual kit that’s been stashed and I’ve started thinking about what it means to me to have dedicated sacred space inside the flat, and what I might do with that, and who it is for.

An altar raises all sorts of questions around intent, and connection, who to honour and how. It raises issues about what it makes sense to do symbolically. Who are we inviting in by making offerings? What do we want to change in our lives by doing this?

In part I wanted to change the energy of the space. I wanted to make something good that could be a focus for love, for beauty, for connection. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about how to better invite magic and wonder into my life, and this is in part a consequence of that process.

I feel better for doing it. I feel like I’ve reclaimed a part of myself that I’ve not been able to make enough space for in recent years. I feel that making this altar space is an act of commitment to a certain kind of future and an expression of how I want to be in the world. I’ve done all of this from a place of feeling grim and lost, and I’ve done it as an act of dedication to not giving up on myself, on the future, or on hope.

Temporary temples and sacred spaces

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live somewhere that had temples I could go to. Sacred spaces that are relevant to me. There are some prehistoric sites locally that I visit. There are churches – which are not part of my faith but are part of the faith of my ancestors. I love Gloucester cathedral as a sacred space, and going there is a relatively short pilgrimage, but it isn’t my temple.

I make temporary temples – I build labyrinths that are in place for a few hours only. I’ve made ritual spaces out of circles of people, a temple constructed in the moment as people hold hands and commit to the idea of being in sacred space and time together. I’ve made altar spaces, but in this tiny flat, I can’t justify taking up much space with that. I’ve made temporary altar spaces outside working with whatever happens to be around. Sometimes my temple is made from the act of lighting a candle or burning incense. Sometimes my temple is a youtube playlist.

As a nature worshipper, I feel I should be able to hold a sense of sacred space any time I am outside. Woodlands should be my cathedrals. The hills are my temple. The sky is my church. Etc etc. And on a good day, that’s fine. On a day when I feel grounded and connected, I experience sacredness and I know how to be a Druid and it’s all good.

But, there are other days. Days when pain and exhaustion overwhelm me. Days when depression cuts off my roots and makes me small and unable to connect. On those days, I could really do with a fixed sacred space that I don’t have to make for myself from scratch. On those days, it would be wonderful to have a designated prayer space I could just go to, ideally with a friendly priest who might offer me counselling, guidance, support, or just an encouraging smile. On the days when I am threadbare and lost, I wish for somewhere to sit and admire the inspiring Pagan art on the walls, or the beautiful Pagan stained glass windows, or just the way the light falls on the stone. I crave the sound of other Pagans singing or chanting or dancing or drumming together. I just want to be able to turn up and listen to a service.

We are all our own priests and priestesses. That’s intrinsic to modern Paganism. While the autonomy is good, it doesn’t take into account how much work is involved in being even a mediocre priest or priestess. It doesn’t allow for how we all need support at times, and how we may become weary and threadbare, how life may grind us down so that we need solace and reassurance.

All I can do for now is make temporary sacred spaces. But, it has been on my mind for a long time that I would like to make something permanent. Something others can just turn up to for comfort, affirmation and inspiration.

Sharing a sacred space

We’re in school holidays at the moment, and so I have had the luxury of not having to set the alarm clock. Usually I’m up and working, and parenting before seven. On the plus side it gives me a solid working morning and I tend to get a fair bit done. However, I’d much rather wake naturally. I tend to wake with the sun, so at this point in the year I’m surfacing before the alarm would have gone off, and then I’m just lying there for a while.

Back when I was working on Pagan Dreaming, I thought a lot about the possibilities of bed as sacred space. For this to be so, your bed must be a place of comfort, safety and joy. Of course for many people who experience abuse inside their own homes – adults and children alike – the bed can become a focus of misery, not a place of safety. When you’re living with abuse, if can be very hard to see what’s going on. Abusers use shame, blame, mind games, criticism and lies to confuse their victims. So let me mention that if your bed is not a safe place, there are some very serious things wrong in your life.

There is profound luxury for me in these current, small lie ins. An extra hour here and there, warm, relaxed and relishing the company of the man who shares the bed with me. It is a gentle intimacy, rich with affection and good for the soul. But, there have also been times in my past when I’ve woken in beds other than this one, tense with anxiety and hurting with my whole being.

Care and respect are the basis of any healthy relationship. If we are kind to each other, if we take into account each other’s needs and feelings and check in with each other about that regularly, it is not difficult to have a good relationship. And yet, so many relationships are blighted by one person’s need to have control of the other person. It is usually men controlling women, and it is a state of affairs backed up by centuries of cultural norms and ideas about marriage as ownership. Fear of what the other person might do if we don’t control them can turn us into monsters. You can’t have a good relationship with someone who is afraid of you.

Lying next to someone when there’s nothing to prove. When there are no points to score, and there’s no fear of being judged, or blamed. Lying next to each other because it’s inherently lovely to do that, sharing space and skin and togetherness. What shocks me about this, sometimes, is how blessedly easy and uncomplicated it is. How little effort it takes to have this beautiful time. And in turn, how deeply unnatural it is to de-sanctify this sacred space with power games, bullying, and physical cruelty.

Boundaries and sacred personal space

I lost my boundaries. It was a soul destroying experience, over a number of years, underpinned by people who felt entitled to use me any way they liked and expected me to be grateful. Looking back I see parallel things happening in a number of relationships, not all of it domestic and some of it deliberately caused by professionals. I learned not to have an opinion, nothing was private, nothing was mine. I had no right to refuse, and therefore no way of holding boundaries.

As I became conscious of this, I locked down in every way I could. We had very few visitors to the boat, and in part that was because I did not like sharing it. That was my safe space, I guarded the threshold fiercely. I created emotional distance from everyone except my husband and child, and I reinforced that with physical distance. I was profoundly uncomfortable with even the idea of most people touching me, and made sure opportunities did not arise.

I held my boundaries very close, very tight. It felt safer that way. I felt stronger and less afraid, I’d built my castle and I could sit in it and resist efforts to besiege me if necessary. I was not going out to be bloodied in combat again.
And then we moved.

All of a sudden we had an address people could find, and it was reasonable to expect me to show up. I’d planned a gentle, cautious return to normal life in which I would lower my defences in gradual, carefully considered ways, and never so far as to feel exposed. Life apparently had other plans for me, with a startling rush of human contact, places to be, jobs to do, and most of all, people who put hands on me. People I did not know well. It’s been a bit of a system shock.

I can’t live where I was, it was a straightjacket as much as a defence strategy. I don’t actually know how to handle normal situations with normal, friendly, tactile people, and that’s not a comfortable realisation. I’m never entirely sure what’s ok, what’s too much, where I could reasonably draw lines. I can’t have no edges, I can’t be more wall than person, there’s got to be something in between and I need to figure out where that is.

I suspect what I have to do, is figure out what I want. For me. For whatever reasons strike me as being important. I know, logically, that I have a right to hold whatever boundaries I wish, and for whatever reason. It is evident that I’m not clear of my past because I still don’t feel that entitlement to do what I need without having to justify it. I still expect people to take issue and demand I do differently. I still find it hard to say ‘please don’t put hands on me’ when perhaps it would be ok to do so. I don’ trust people to hear that and not get angry with me, and again that’s history speaking and nothing to do with the character of any given individual.

The road back to some kind of viable, non-anxious, not-depressed life is a long and complex one. Every time I think I’m there, I find a new thing I have to deal with and unravel. One day, this will stop. In the meantime, I’m going to hold that thought of personal space as sacred space as best I can, and try to bring something a bit more spiritual to this need to sort out where my edges need to be.

A temple of sky

For two years or so, I lived on the flood plain, down low, barely above sea level. Although I travelled about, mostly I lived on the flat, and most of my best views only gave me a handful of miles in any given direction.

I grew up on a hillside, hills are where I feel most at home. The flat lands were only bearable to me because they were the flat bit between hills, and I could at least see that which I love. It’s amazing though, how much can be forgotten, and how quickly.
This last week I’ve been able to get out and about on the hills around my new home. There are commons here, lovely open spaces that survived enclosure acts and the tendency of wealthy landowners to put fences around things. It may be my inner nomad, or my inner communist speaking, I don’t know, but I find the concept of land ownership difficult. I’ll happily respect living spaces, and crops in the fields, I’m careful with livestock, but fenced off spaces with ‘private keep out signs’ make me cross. The land should belong to everyone, and not be fenced off for the benefit of the few. Access and faming can be compatible so long as people are sensible and respectful. Yes, I know that’s a big ask, but I’m an idealist.

I love common land and the absolute right to wander about. In practice, many spaces owned by ‘the public’ are actually managed by some outfit or another. We see how that works (and doesn’t) around sites like Stonehenge, and national parks, where ownership on behalf of the public turns rapidly into a ‘right’ to charge a lot of money for access. That doesn’t sit well with me, either.
There are hilltops here with commons on them, and on that land are signs of all kinds of old and ancient human activity. There is wildlife – orchids, insects, all manner of things. I’ve found fossils, because this is old sea bed. Most importantly, there are the views. Vast, panoramic stretches of landscape open up before me. I can see the river, and distant mountains in Wales. Depending on where I go, the views carry me in many directions.

On a hill top, the sky is a vast and wholly visible dome, unbroken by manmade or natural intrusions. The wind is almost constantly present. The sense of being on the earth and under the sky is intense. This is my temple to air and space, to freedom and flights of fancy. Here I can open my arms and pretend they are wings, and feel the air rush past my face. Dwarfed by the landscape, and by the enormity of sky, I feel release and relief. All those things that belong to the human domain (down at the bottom of the hills) cease to be relevant for a little while. This is what matters. This is the important bit.

I cannot live in a temple in the sky. I have to come back, eventually. Reluctantly. Here in this space, the immediate and human concerns loom large. They seem increasingly like distractions from that which is truly important.

A sacred space

I think spirit is in all things, so am wary about ways of thinking that suggest anywhere could be ‘unsacred’. However, the kinds of relationships we have with spaces will inform how spiritual we feel in them. There are places that are more sacred, I think. I like cathedrals for the atmosphere of love and reverence built up over centuries. I love Avebury for the same reasons. I struggle to feel a sense of sacred connection on garage forecourts, in crowded shopping centres and on traffic islands. That’s as much about how I am interacting with the space as anything else.

One of the features of the boat, is that we do not have a permanent bed. Narrow boats being six feet wide, double beds are tricky. Permanent single beds pose no problems, but our solution rolls back and forth on a daily basis. Most of the time, the bed is not a bed. It creates practical issues around illness, and means if I want to go to bed early, the chaps have to as well. We’ve managed this with no trouble at all over the last two years, but the arrangement was making me feel sad. It has taken me most of the time we’ve been here to figure out why this is.

Most of my more private spiritual activity happens in bed. The things that are most important in my private practice, and the things I hold most sacred; dreaming, prayer, meditation and making love are all bed based. Certainly, prayer and meditation don’t have to be, but my preference has always been to work along the edges of sleep at the start and end of each day. A bed that is not always a bed, is not able to hold that space in the same way. I can’t decorate it, or support aesthetically what I’m doing. I can’t retreat to it at need because most of the time, the bed does not exist as a bed. I’m starting to realise how much I need a bed as a permanent structure.

A bed should be a place of peace, rest and trust. It should be a happy place. Warm, comforting, relaxing, secure. That’s one area of anxiety I’ve largely dealt with. Going to bed is a happy thing now, not a fearful thing. I look back at my history and wonder how on earth I tolerated some aspects of my past. But then, a sleep deprived person does not think too well, and I endured years of not being allowed to sleep when I needed to. I don’t wake up to panic attacks all the time now, and I don’t have nightmares every night – I’m down to maybe once or twice a week, which is bearable. There is less fear in me, and this bed is a good place.

Sacred places do not have to be altars and temples, self-announcing in terms of their use. We might look to nature for our inspiration, for groves to gather in and spaces to love. However, there is nature in so much that we are and do. The kitchen and the hearth are no less places of connection with scope for sacred relationship. The bathtub may be your place of prayer and contemplation. These days the centre of the home seems to be the sofa and the television, which does not lend itself to a sense of sacred relationship. The sofa and the spinning wheel would though, or any other kind of craft space. Going out in search of nature is important, but seeing how nature is with us all the time, in everything we do, also matters.

Where are you at your most spiritual? What gives you a sense of connection? If we want a spirituality that is part of life, not a bit set aside, then places of doing and living will also be our sacred spaces.

Nature Worship

There are those who come into the hides quietly, with an air of reverence about them. They sit, wait, watch, open to a miracle that is some flash of wildlife, some unexpected vision. Then there are those who wander in, look round, see nothing and leave. Some bring children and encourage that same reverence in them, others bring children and let them shout and run about. All of the behaviour I’ve seen in hides, I have also seen in cathedrals and at stone circles.

Most people are tourists. They come to look, but don’t really know what they’re looking for. When you’re in a hide, the odds of walking in and seeing something exciting in the first thirty seconds are slim. It happened to me once with a badger, though. The tourist mentality seeks a quick thrill, a low effort moment of being entertained, and often it leaves, disappointed, complaining of how dull, how rubbish it was. I’ve seen that at more tourist attractions than I can number. The bored child and the jaded adults.

The trick is that what you get out depends entirely on what you put in. The person willing to spend hours in a hide waiting to see if the bittern raises its head, stands a fighting chance of seeing the bittern. A fleeting glance almost never gives you that. The person willing to walk slowly around a space and get to know it will learn things that were unavailable to the person who made a flying stop.

I’m fascinated by the reverence of people in hides. Of the spaces I frequent, I see more overtly inspired, reverent people in hides than I do in churches, cathedrals or at ancient pagan sites. It’s nature worship, but in a non-religious context. These are people who are inspired by the natural world, who are open to being affected by what they see and willing to give of themselves in terms of time and patience in order to make a connection, experience something. Perhaps some are pantheists. Perhaps some are pagan. I don’t know, but the innate spirituality of what happens to some people in hides, is unmistakable.

The jaded ones with the noisy children move on, and I suspect do not even notice what they’ve missed. On a good day, I may manage to stop someone, point something out, share a little of the sense of wonder. Half the trouble with hides is knowing what to look for, and often the tourists need a guide, some way of entering this mysterious, magical world. Many of the nature worshippers will share their knowledge, drawing people across one by one where they can. It’s beautiful to watch.

As druids we could learn a thing or two from the hides. No challenges, no pressure, no putting down the inexperienced, just the quiet and occasional reaching out of a hand and offering of guidance that opens people to the inspiration beyond the window.