Everyday Altars and Local Gods

From late elementary school through my teenage years, I served as a altar boy in the various Catholic churches I attended, and I still hold fond memories of it. Whether I welcome rituals because I was raised Catholic, or whether Catholicism appealed to me because I have an innate love of ritual, I don’t know. But I do know that everything about the Mass—the candles, the incense, the light through stained-glass windows, the vestments the priest and we altar boys wore, the deliberateness and symbolism of each act, the sense of stability to the entire celebration—made me feel at home.

Even now, I can close my eyes and feel in my hands the heavy glass of the vessels that held the water and the wine; I can see the light glint off the gold surface of the chalice; and I can taste the texture of communion bread placed on my tongue—either the thin almost pasteboard of the circular, flat wafer or the hearty weight of the homemade bread that you actually had to chew (something that some adults told us never to do with the wafer).

At the Catholic high school I attended, only a block or so away from my house, every day a priest held Mass in a small chapel before school; some mornings I would walk over early to read or serve. I liked the quiet of the school in the early morning before most of the students had arrived, and the small altar only a few steps from where a few nuns, older adults, and a student or two sat. I felt at home there.

That feeling did not last. Many years ago now, I left the church for doctrinal, political, and moral reasons. Nothing has changed to make me regret that decision. But the absence of Mass had left a hole in my life that I don’t know I will ever fill.

I suppose that’s because I still believe in the value of altars, in the idea of a place and a time where you bring your whole self, the best and the worst of you. I believe in stepping outside the swift stream of everyday life and concerns into the calm, slight quavering waters of a pool quiet in darkness or splashed with light. A place where, for a while, your only task is to be in the peace of the stillness, to be who you are and to know that you are accepted. At some point, I no longer felt that acceptance in the church, but I always felt it at Mass, at the altar.

Thankfully, you don’t need a Mass or a church or even a religion to find or make your own altar. It becomes more difficult when you can’t say to those who would make demands on your time, “I’m going to Mass.” But eventually, wherever I go for that refuge, it falls to me—just as it did on those early mornings—to commit myself to making my way to my own circle of peace.

One of my favorite plays and films, Equus, Peter Shaffer wrote: “Look, life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods… spirits of certain trees, of certain curves of brick walls, of certain fish and chip shops if you like. And slate roofs, and frowns in people, and slouches… I’d say to them, “Worship all you can see, and more will appear.”

And so, since my fall from the One True Church, I have been on the search for everyday altars and local gods, whom I suspect reside in me, searching for sanctities small enough for me to look directly in the eyes and carry off with me.

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