Respect for Community and The Sacred: circles and altars

What do you hold sacred? Anything? If there is room for the sacred in your life, what does it look like? What does it sound like?

I am a “cradle Catholic” who left the Catholic Church in my 20s in a search for deeper meaning and less rote response. Now an interfaith minister who works daily in the interfaith movement, I rarely find a consistent practice in a religious community that “speaks” to my need for Awe and Gratitude, with a basis of intelligence and logic.  I belong to and support a UU congregation, in support of its over-arching stress on social justice, and I sometimes attend pagan ceremonies, which help to fulfill my need for emotional context.

Mankind is in need of a religion that combines community and a devotion to a higher power, however that higher power may be defined.  Society, today, suffers from a lack of respect – respect for others, respect for ideas, respect for the ideas of others, respect for institutions, respect for the Divine.

Geometry matters and there is a reason it is called “sacred geometry.”  Consider the geometry of various congregations:

  1. In the Catholic Church of my youth, the congregation faced the altar, as did the priest, who had his back to the congregation. The idea (actually diagrammed in our grade-school lessons) was that the congregational body acted through the priest, who interceded with God on behalf of the congregation. Now, of course, the altar has been “turned around” so that both celebrant and congregation face the same focal point.
  2. Whereas Catholic and “high” churches have altars, the majority of Protestant churches do not have an altar as the primary focus, although there is increased emphasis on the existence of an “altar-table” or “communion table” in worship; while the focus is generally on the pulpit, the intent is to focus on the Word being spoken, rather than the speaker.
  3. In Judaism, although there are certain distinctions between the various movements, there is a central focal point – the aron ha-kodesh – the “holy ark” where the torahs are stored. There is also the bima (a riser/lectern used by the readers) as a focus of attention; in fact, the bima (also, bema or bimah), which symbolizes Mt. Sinai, is generally situated so the congregation is facing Jerusalem. During all ceremonies, the torah is presented to the congregation by “circulating” through the congregation, and, at times, the congregation may also circle the torah.  The circle is, therefore, an integral part of the service and the congregation’s attention is directed to a focal point.
  4. In Islam, everyone faces the same direction to pray, facing Makkah in the mosque, by facing the Mihrab, the semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of the Kabbah in Makkah, behind the imam, or with praying separately without an imam, directly facing Makkah. Since all Muslims, when at prayer, face a central point on the earth, one could interpret that as creating a global circle of the faithful.
  5. Generally, Eastern religions also use altars as focal points of gifts and sacrifices and the common idea of a “home” altar brings the Divine into everyday life.
  6. In a pagan ritual, it is common for the participants to be in a circle, all facing a central altar, the message here being that all are equal before the Divine, with equal access to the Divine, with the altar providing a central “core” axis of balance and stability.

An altar is important as an object of concentration and stability and as an anchor and a link between Earthly Reality and Divine Presence. The importance of an altar is central to respect for the sacred space created by ceremony.

Watch what happens when people gather around a fire – our ancestral memory causes a hush, as people gaze into the flames, seeing the past and the future and, possibly, hopes and prayers in the rising smoke. Even if the purpose of the fire is simply for warmth, there is an immediate community formed, as those around the fire feel a kinship and a reverence that is as intense as it is, perhaps, unexpected.  THIS is the power of the altar – an object, a place, a centering, that creates community and produces a mood of respect and awe.

The use of an altar can help to focus the mind to see the commonalities of worship.  If you use only your five senses, you will see only part – the straight line and the priest, for example, but not the others around you.   See the “circle” which is always present, even if it is not “round.”  Use your sixth sense – not your brain, but your mind, your superconscious – to see the circle of others that are always around you. (I prefer the term “SuperConscious” rather the “subconscious” since that implies that only our physical senses can be trusted and that non-physical senses are “less than” in some way.)  That SuperConsciousness will also provide the context for respect.

To underscore the common foundation all humanity shares, think about humanity’s symbols – language is not the most basic or probably even the first – symbol used by humans.  Our core beliefs are reflected most profoundly in our symbols.

All religions, faiths, and societies have chosen to represent their most sacred dreams by a variation of the universal circle – from the first circle of stones placed by ancient peoples for ritual purposes to the Golden Record sent into space aboard Voyager, in our attempt to reach other civilizations.

If you keep the Sacred Fire in your heart, it will be easier to remember that there are others in your community and to remember the connection we all have to the sacred circle.  If we don’t focus on the sacred circle, we can become alienated from the circle of community and, hence, alienated from the Divine.


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