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Melissa Portan LMSW, MEd

Writer & Sexologist

Melissa is a 5th generation spiritual guide who specializes in helping others find their own spiritual path. She is also a sex and relationship therapist practicing in NYC.


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The Altar

The idea of having an altar, because the word altar has heavy and religious connotations, may seem daunting to many. At the sound of the word altar, someone may think of Satanic worshiping and red, dripping candles, with bones scattered on a pentagram-clothed table. Or, or, someone may think of the cavernous church altar, complete with a kindly priest. But an altar can be many things and it is one of the most intimate aspects of a spiritual practice.

For many who have found their spiritual path and left the church, an altar may seem like a thing that has been left behind in the reverberating, white marble walls of an old building. A person going through this sort of situation may feel a quiet disconnect, like forgetting something without knowing what it is. Perhaps they have in their minds the idea that only churches can be holy and only churches can have altars, and that whatever else is outside of the church is sacrilegious and evil. This is not true. One can have a sacred place in the privacy of one’s home.

A glimpse of my altar; includes angels, Lord Ganesh, Buddha, and at the forefront, the Moon.

How your altar is shaped depends on your practice. The reason it may be overwhelming to create an altar is because you may have preconceived notions of what an altar is supposed to be. But if you are exploring your beliefs or leaving behind beliefs, then what is on your altar will change, and that is okay.

An altar is not about who you worship or what you have. It is not about having ornate tables with rare crystals. It is not about fancy daggers, feathers, or oils. Having an altar is about connecting with divinity, both within yourself and the universe. An altar is a sacred space not only dedicated to your deity/deities, but also to yourself. This is your sacred space. This place is yours, yours to be free, yours to learn, and to explore. An altar doesn’t even have to be dedicated to one specific deity. If you don’t believe in any of the Gods, regardless of which path, and if you don’t believe in a single God, then there is no requirement that your altar be dedicated to one. It is all up to you and there really isn’t a wrong answer.

Depending on your spiritual practice and beliefs, your altar will be different. For example, Wiccans; their altars must always have two lit candles dedicated to the God and Goddess, respectively. The Goddess candle must be black and the God candle must be white. If the main Gods of the worshiper are the Sun and the Moon, then it is preferred that the candles be silver and gold. But silver and gold candles are hard to come by and more expensive. So people get creative. Perhaps instead they have white candles for both Gods and instead have them adorned with the colors representative of each. And on top of the color requirements there are positioning requirements; for example, the altar must face east and the candles, athame (a type of dagger), the chalice filled with water, the bowl with dirt, must all be placed in specific areas of the altar. This is for traditional Wiccans and even then, these parameters may feel too constricting for some.

Regardless of your practice and beliefs, here are few things to keep in mind when creating your sacred space:

  1. Choose a place where your altar will not be disturbed, where you won’t dump anything extra like mail or keys. This space is special, dedicated to your spiritual practice, and should be treated with respect. Wherever you choose to set your altar, be sure that you will be comfortable enough to practice freely.

  2. Cleanse the area with incense and declare the space sacred. You can do this through a ritual with candles, or you can do it by just cleaning the place and listening to music. However you do so, it is your intention that will begin to cleanse the energy surrounding you and open the connection you seek. It happens gradually, so don’t feel disappointed if you don’t feel anything at first, if you don’t feel the comfort and warmth of Spirit. It takes time to grow, to make a strong and palpable connection. (If you don’t have incense or candles, that is okay. You can still set up a sacred area with your mind and your words. It will be more difficult, but all you need is focus and will. You don’t have to chant anything; you can say the words within yourself. Still, organize the area to your liking. The key to establishing this area as sacred is repetition. You repeat to yourself, whether out loud or internally, that this place is your sacred space for connecting with divinity. As you add to it the objects you connect to your practice, as you continue establishing a connection, you will feel the connection.)

  3. Whatever tools you use for your practice, never use them for mundane reasons. For example, if you have a pen you use to write spells, do not use it to write anything else.

  4. Always-lit candles are not mandatory but they do make a difference. Some spiritual paths require that your altar always have candles going. Having candles always burning provides warmth and a more intense connection. These candles also provide protection. Find what works for you. Maybe you don’t like having candles burning all the time or at all; crystals are a great alternative so long as you know how to use them.

The beauty of having your own independent spiritual practice is that you are free to worship however you like. You are free to challenge your beliefs and change them according to what you learn. The essential part of spirituality is to always keep learning. As you learn and grow, it is reflected in your altar. Your altar will eventually mirror your philosophy, your practice, and your personality.




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