I posted this picture of my prayer altar on Facebook today.
I had initially grabbed my iPhone to take photos of the steady stream of leaves blowing past my window. Winter made an early entrance overnight and into this morning in the form of sleet here in Boston and snow back home in CT, and I wanted to capture the frenzied dance taking place outside in the quad between the deadened leaves and the unrelenting wind.
Fall, it seems, is hanging on for dear life, as winter is determined to make its mark here in early November. Just two weeks ago the tree outside my window was ablaze in color, turning the white walls of my dorm room orange and red when the sun hit it just right.
Now it stands bare against the gray November sky, letting in more afternoon light, but blocking out less of the world then it once did.
As I readied my camera phone, a moment of calm settled outside and my focus shifted to the altar on my windowsill. I set this makeshift altar up on my first day of seminary, and other than the summer months when it travels home with me, it has been there ever since. Regardless of the many changes in the seasons that have taken place outside my window during my three years at seminary, and despite the many changes that have taken place within me, my altar has remained essentially the same, with a piece added here and there for good measure.
Cobbled together over many years and from many sources each item on the altar is there for a reason.
- The framed stained glass with the painted word "SPIRIT" - purchased ten years ago in a gift shop full of *spiritual* knick-knacks in Provincetown, Mass. It's traveled with me through four different moves. And it finds its home in a window no matter where I am.
- The mosaic cross engraved with the word "HOPE" - bought for me by my wife in shop in Southern California, how long ago, I can't remember.
- The laminated Catholic Mass card from my father's wake in December 2001. The prayer on the back begins, "Fill not your hearts with pain and sorrow, but remember me in every tomorrow."
- The Tibetan singing bowl that I purchased just last year for the Blue Christmas service I did at my field placement church. It snowed that night and only five people showed up. But the bowl sang all the same.
- The dried and whitened palm fronds from Palm Sunday services of two years passed. One (hidden behind the bowl) is folded into the shape of a cross.
- A cockle shell received in a student led worship during a class my first year at seminary.
- A conch shell taken from a healing ceremony for a friend who was battling breast cancer many years ago. We were each given shells along with the instruction to place it where we would see it every day and to offer up a healing prayer whenever we did. My friend survived her battle, but I keep the shell as a memorial for those who didn't survive theirs.
- The acorn, now dried and split, was picked up right here on campus at the end of a walk, two years ago.
- The dried and curling leaf is the newest addition. I picked up as I set off down the hill on my 2.5 hour *discernment* walk a few weeks ago. I carried it with me the whole way.
- The painted stone engraved with the word "PATIENCE" is another take-away from that same gift shop in Provincetown. The corresponding Chinese symbol is engraved on the back. Oddly enough, *have patience* is the message that I discerned on my recent 2.5 hour walk. The stone, which has been on my altar for as long as I can remember, has now taken on new importance during my morning prayer.
The remaining four stones are the functional pieces of my morning prayer routine.
I pick them up and finger them in sequence as I move from prayers of thanks and praise, to prayers for healing for others, to prayers of confession, and finally to prayers of petition for my coming day.
The orange and white marbled stone is the first stone I pick up every morning. I found it lying next a stone wall at a CT retreat center in 2005. Its jagged underside and uneven color reminds me of how *unformed* I felt when I found it. I had just made the move into a new church and a new denomination and I remember sitting on that stone wall off in the woods by myself during a church retreat, wondering where it was that God was leading me.
When I pick up this stone in the morning I start off by thanking God for awakening me, for my breath, for my movement, for my senses. My gratitude then moves out from there. For having a safe place to sleep, for the roof over my head, for having access to food, electricity, heat, and running water. For the people God has brought into my life, for the opportunities - and the struggles - that I've been given. For love and joy and Creation itself. And as the gratitude flows, the sharp edges of the stone remind me that love does not exist without pain, and joy does not exist without sorrow.
The flat, black stone is what I hold when I pray for others. Another token received at a student led worship service, its smooth surface is cool to the touch and I tend to rub it between my hands, warming it as I pray. It's wide and flat and serves as a strong stable base to lift up the sorrows and needs of my family and friends, my community, and my neighbors in the wider world.
The dark, round stone is my confessional stone. It has a heft and weightiness to it that reminds me of the burden that I carry with me always. I tend to walk and talk aloud as I *confess* before God, tossing the stone from hand to hand, releasing and receiving the burden as I go. "Bless me Father for I have sinned..." is still the mantra I cling to. This is often the longest portion of my morning prayer routine, as I talk out, and pour out, whatever it is that is darkening my soul. Whether it's a spiritual struggle, an emotional uncertainty, or a physical longing that has distanced me from God. Then I let it go, ask God for forgiveness and guidance, and say the Lord's Prayer. Knowing that I will be repeating this process the very next day...and every day.
The white smooth stone is my favorite. It is hope. As I slip it between my fingers I ask God for strength and courage to complete whatever task lies before me that day. I end my prayer time with the same prayer every morning. The Prayer of St. Francis...
"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury - pardon, where there is doubt - faith, where there is despair - hope, where there is darkness - light, where there is sadness - joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
This entire routine can take me anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and half, depending on how much time I have in the morning, and how much I feel the need to pray.
As seminarians, we're often told that clergy who don't make time for prayer in their daily routines are the ones most likely to burn out.
And that making time for prayer is a practice that should be established in seminary.
Having an altar is a good daily reminder to engage in that practice.
I can't look out the window and thank God for the changes I see in the seasons without standing before that altar, and thanking God for the changes I see in me.