Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My Altared State

I'm happy to report that my home altar is off to a promising start (see below) -- it was kind of a kick to leave the picture frame empty until Easter, then place an icon of Christ Pantocrator in it: He is risen; he is risen indeed! Alleluia! And praying the Compline aloud before it last night was wonderful. There is something about full-bodied, on-your-knees prayer that enhances the experience. (And speaking of full-bodied, note the "holding cross" to the left -- a recent gift from a blog friend. The idea is to hold it as you're praying. It's been especially meaningful for sick people who can't always see or speak, but who can grasp the freeform cross and experience it in a tactile way.)

You will note the tiny cross hanging above the icon. This is a multicolor millefiori cross, made from colorful rods of transparent and semi-opaque glass of various hues that have been fused together to create flower-like bursts. Millefiori is associated with the glassmaking cities of Italy...but this cross isn't from Italy. It's from India. It's made by a cooperative of Untouchables -- Gandhi's beloved Harijan, or Children of God, the lowest caste in the hereditary Hindu caste system. Untouchables are considered ritually unclean, hence their name, and the worst jobs in Indian society fall to them -- latrine cleaning, ditch-digging, garbage picking. And because this is an hereditary system, there's no way out; if you're born into an Untouchable family, your future is spelled out for you by the rest of Hindu society in big, ugly, indelible letters. In recent decades many Untouchables have turned to Christianity or Buddhism and attempted to disengage themselves from the caste system, which has infuriated higher-caste Hindu fundamentalists. Many Untouchable converts to other faiths are harrassed, and some have been killed.

So how'd I get this cross, with its unique provenance? I ordered it through a company, A Greater Gift (see my blogroll), that specializes in fair-trade merchandise from around the globe. At the time I didn't know the whole story behind the makers of the crosses; I just knew that the jewelry was from India, and was quite reasonably priced, and I liked it. One of my fellow assisting ministers at church is having a lot of fun with his new role, and invested in a ginormous scapular cross for his liturgical duties; I'm not comfortable with that much bling, but I thought it might be cool to alternate my usual free-form silver cross with something a little more festive, especially since my AM duties always seem to fall on our youth Sundays when our li'l kiddos are front and center in church. And of course you've got the rainbow colors, meaningful on a couple of levels, and the fair-trade concept, where artisans are guaranteed a fair wage for what they produce.

At the same time I'd ordered the cross I'd also chosen a small wooden wall cross from El Salvador that I thought I'd put at the back of my altar. But shortly after I'd pressed "enter" and sent my request, I started feeling buyer's remorse. The wooden cross was charming -- a smiling Jesus, arms outstretched, against a colorful outdoor background, is painted across the cruciform wood, his feet off the ground as if he's jumping up and down. But on second thought it didn't really go with the feel I had envisioned for my devotional space; I wanted, I thought, something with more gravitas, more evocative of Crux sola est nostra theologia.

So today I came home to find a box on my doorstep. Inside was the little millefiori cross. But evidently I'd made a mistake on my order form; instead of the wooden wall cross, the invoice listed two glass cross pendants. I was not upset. I was absolutely delighted. "I know where I can put the second one!"

What better way to meditate upon our cruciform way of living, and remember the suffering of the whole world -- all persons whom Christ loves, for whom Christ died -- than to look upon this little cross, and think about the people who created it, and why.

Lewis Carroll coined the term "portmanteau word" to describe a word loaded with meaning; this cross is a portmanteau cross. It may not always remain in exactly the same place, but it will be a major focus of my prayer life. I just wish I could meet the glassmakers who created it -- people who've been told their entire lives that they're "nobodies" -- and let them know that they're somebodies to me. And, I suspect, now to you as well.

My altar-in-progress: "Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome..." Posted by Picasa

My "Untouchable" rainbow crosses, which are actually much more colorful than they look here Posted by Picasa


Rachel's Big Dunk said...

Oh, Yeah, LC!

What a beautiful altar. I think I might just have to set one up in my guest room!


Inheritor of Heaven said...

I love the Christ Pantocrator icon. Have one hanging in my room. I once was looking at it and thought, there is the judge of the world holding a book (law? gospel? book of life?) and looking at me. What is he doing? Blessing me. Passing his peace onto and within me.

Chris T. said...

I like the altar!

And thanks for the mention of A Greater Gift. I will check it out.

SingingOwl said...

I will too. I love the crosses, from what I can see. I once had a prayer space...a small room. Looking at your little altar reminded me. I have no obvious place to put something like this now, but I am pondering...

Kathryn said...

That's just beautiful.
And a really good thing to have,too. Since ordination, because I say Morning and Evening prayer in church most days, I hardly use my prayer corner in the study (no space for an altar per se) but I can chart work/life imbalance by the muddle that surrounds it. If I can't get to my prayer stool if I want to, I know things are well out of hand, and it's time to stop and spend an hour tidying the study and getting things back in perspective.
May your home altar be a place of encounter and blessing xx

Elizabeth / roaming said...

I'm glad you were able to support the fair trade companies. Thank you for sharing the photos. You've got an interesting blog, I'll be back to read more on a regular basis :-)

Karla (ThreadBndr) said...

I goggled on "Christian home altars" and yours was one of the links that came up.

My goal for this Lent is to try several different prayer styles/routines (one each week) with the goal of permanently including the one or ones that I like best into my spiritual life after Easter.

I'm thinking of setting up a home altar. You've given me lots of ideas.