The first time I went to Europe by myself, I spent a lot of time walking alone through churches, quietly delighting in all the art.
My favorite stops were the altars. I loved to think about the lives of the artists who had lent their talents to depict scenes from the Bible there. I was grateful to the officials of the early churches for supporting these artists' talents, because I knew that without a livelihood, an artist couldn't survive.
I also enjoyed thinking about the worshipers who had knelt at all these altars in heartfelt prayer over the centuries. I felt as if I were joining this continual round of hope and goodwill. Sometimes, I participated by lighting candles to commemorate the accomplishments of people I deeply loved.
But long before the great churches of Europe were built - long before there were altars like these - the Hebrew patriarch Abraham worshiped God in the barren beauty of the desert. The Bible says that directly after God spoke to him, this good man "removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the Lord" (Gen. 13:18).
Nowadays, newspapers report that many people don't go to a temple or a church to pray. I like to think that altars suitable for the worshipers of today can go up just as immediately as Abraham's did - and be just as portable - and that no one needs to be in a particular place before feeling the special peace that prayer brings.
In fact, although I didn't kneel in prayer this morning in a particular building provided for that purpose, I did stand before an "altar" and pray. In my prayer, I praised God and asked for the blessing of the good, great Parent of all, not only upon the day I was about to begin, but also upon the lives I'd touch throughout my day.
In this case, the altar I stood before was a ledge on my kitchen window, where, as the worshipers in some of those European churches do, I always keep a vase of fresh flowers. (Right now, it's a red poinsettia.)
Other symbols on my window shelf also remind me of God's love. A beautiful blue antique bottle - "discovered" in the yard of a little house where I used to live - affirms for me that wherever I go, I carry my temple, or spiritual home, with me, and that I can no more separate myself from that firm base than I can separate myself from God's great love. I've moved a lot, so that's an especially comforting symbol to have.
Another jar on my kitchen "altar" holds seashells and beach glass I've collected over the years. When the sun catches the colored pieces of glass, they remind me of peaceful moments I've spent by the ocean with my family, renewing the best of the unselfish love that ties a man to a woman, a parent to a child. I know that this kind of love - a love that can give and give and give without demanding any reward in return - has its source in the one God, who is divine Love itself.
Actually, as I think about it, I have altars all over the place. Beyond my kitchen window is a rock garden I've built up during the last few years. Every spring, I cover the ground with bright impatiens. Birds and squirrels eat from a feeding station nearby, and drink and bathe in the old moss-covered birdbath I acquired second hand. Last spring, I added a statue of St. Francis of Assisi to the rock garden. St. Francis was a gentle, spiritually-minded man who worshiped God, and who loved birds and flowers as I do. I go sit in that garden sometimes to thank God for all the good that's in my life.
I even have altars at work. Once in a while, I close my office door and get down on my knees, with my hands folded on top of my chair.
I find all these stops at my different altars refreshing. I never come away without feeling in some small way that I've been transformed. I feel I'm participating in the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8). I like to think that all my days and places are holy, since God gave them to me, and it's my job to keep them holy.
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, described church in part as "the structure of Truth and Love" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 583). I've come to see this structure in many places, even if it's an altar by a kitchen window.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society