Making Altars in the World

This weekend my wife and I watched Andy Goldsworthy‘s Rivers and TidesWhat a beautiful sabbath! This is a clip of my favorite part of this docudrama:

What I find so beautiful about these natural installations is their memorial function:

“People make small piles of stone to mark pathways in hills, mountains in Scotland and, I think, all over the world. …So all the cones are related in some way and they have become markers to my journeys in places that I feel an attachment towards. And then it has a quality of this guardian, the way that it stands and feels as if it is protecting something. …I like the connection that the form has with the seed, very full and ripe. I think to look at stone and find growth as expressed in the seed within stone is a very powerful image for me.”

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book An Altar in the World about her experiences of “Waking Up to God” in Hawaii:

“I came to three stones set upright near the edge where the water was deepest. All three were shaped like fat baguettes, with the tallest one in the middle. The other two were set snug up against it, the same color as humpback whales. All together, they announced that something significant had happened in that place. I was not the first person to be affected by it. Whoever had come before me had set up an altar, and though I might never know what that person had encountered there, I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God.”

She is referencing Genesis 28:10-22, where Jacob dreams of angels descending and ascending on a ladder to God, and when he wakes up, he sets his rock-pillow upright and anoints it and names it Bethel (House-of-God). All of this ensures that Jacob will remember this place, where he encountered God.

This practice of marking significant places with altars, these carefully arranged piles of stones, is still a significant way for us to remember and catalog our experience of God. I have on my bookshelves a few fist-sized rocks that I picked up from a beach on Whidbey Island after clear moments of God’s close presence. My wife and I collected handfuls of small, smooth pebbles from a beach on the Mediterranean, after a beautiful day together in God’s world.

I am not apt at remembering. My memory needs to be trained, and building these “altars” is one of my favorite ways to do this.

2 thoughts on “Making Altars in the World

  1. “Too many unknowns…” He uttered after the first attempt failed. After the second one collapsed I expected him to become more exasperated than the first time, but instead he offered a beautiful thought, “each time I got to know the stone a bit more. [the alter] it grew in proportion of my understanding of the stone. My art is trying to understand–obviously I do not understand it well enough, yet.”

    This line comes right before the one you highlighted. I could not imagine how long it took him to finally succeed after so many attempts. It seems that he had to come to know the place and rock before he was finished. I wonder how many times he recounted the memory that caused him to build an alter in the first place. The memory was perhaps like a fine diamond he held up to the light and gazed upon from all sorts of angles. I am sure such an experience is one of unique growth. From then on, whenever he passes by that place or “seed” there is an internal connection to an external reality; so that whether distance may separate or tide may come, the alter remains to him a present reality. And not only that, but persons who pass by then stop and wonder: what is this thing? And why is it in this place?

    Thank you for this post, it was a delight to receive.

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