The Art of Building Shrines

In my house I have various 'holy places', reminders for myself that I am trying to lead a spiritually focused life. These places usually have a statue or painting or some other symbol of an aspect of god. Many of the symbols in these small shrines are so personal, so idiosyncratic, so discreet that very few other people would recognize their purpose, which is how I prefer it to be. You don't need to know why that stone, that arrangement of dried grass, that spray of berries, or that old envelope are there. I need it there because it speaks quietly to me, and reminding me of my intention to be more aware, more prayerful, more grateful in some aspect of my life. None of these small shrines are there permanently - all of them change as my needs and intentions and path change, and yes, even as I change myself.
These are my 'domesticated' shrines. They are about my daily life, and I suspect that they are often limited in their work and function by my own limitations, both mental and emotional. There is a certain calculation involved in them. I tend to think about them, plan them carefully, considering the fung shui of their placement and, in general, I make something of a project of their creation. And this is all right, it's needed in my life as I consider and reconsider what I'm doing, where I'm going.
In addition to my personal holy places at home and in my garden, I sometimes visit community holy places - churches, stone circles, et cetera. These are places that many others besides myself have worshiped and done inner work. Because these places are energized by that worship and work, they may carry an energy that can help me to do what I need to do in that moment - and in turn I will be adding energy that may be of benefit to others in time. Prayer work that I do with these shrines is limited by the focus of the place, as I perceive it. The place will already have certain qualities, a certain emphasis, a particular focus. When that suits my needs, it becomes a very good place for me to be.
So these two types of sacred spaces are useful, but there is also a third that I create, which is of great value to me - wild shrines. These may be in the hills, in the woods, in the desert, wherever I feel a need for a focused intention and intensity of a transaction with the Powers That Be. Everywhere is holy, anywhere will do, but some places have more impact(?) resonance(?) potency(?) for me personally, and I might build a wild shrine in one of them for any (or all) of several reasons:

    because something has just happened in this place and moment and I wish to express my gratitude,
    because something has just stopped happening in this place and moment and I wish to express my gratitude,
    because I have just learned something and wish both to express my gratitude and to impress this learning even more firmly into my being,
    because I have just now realized that I need to change, to transform something, either in me or in the world (I know from experience that changes that I think are needed in the world often turn out to be changes needed in me - but not always), and building an altar/shrine to this purpose is one way of setting the energy of change in motion,
    because I need (or at least, want) a miracle, a something I can't make or control the happening of, and I want to ask the Powers That Be for their help, askind politely and, with focus, awareness, and expectant gratitude - and with both commitment to and acceptance of whatever comes,
    because I need guidance now,
    because I am simply feeling joyous and/or grateful, or filled with expectant gratitude, and I wish to express that,
    because I'd like to bring a focus of healing energy to this place,
    because I need to think about where I am in my life, or
    because I fancy building a shrine - perhaps for no more reason than it feels an appropriate and joyful thing to do right now, which may be the best reason of all.

The key to this is about spontaneity, about being fully, prayerfully, consciously here and now. For myself, I find that the act of spontaneously building a wild shrine, with whatever happens to be at hand, catches me up in the energy of this second, this place, this sacred present moment. It is a surrender to the process of being alive, growing, changing, moving in spirit. I can get much too far into my head, too filled with thoughts and ideas, ungrounded, even fragmented, and this kind of gently active being-in-the-now helps me in too many ways to begin to list.
In the assumption that this process might be both helpful and enjoyable for you as well, I offer a few suggestions for the building of wild shrines. These are some of the things that work best for me, but of course, ultimately you will have to find what works best for you.

Wild Shrine Building

Some Very General, Very Loose Guidelines:

    It's the energy that counts - focus and intention. We don't need exotic materials or even exotic ideas. It's usually most appropriate to build the shrine out of what we find there, on the spot, because the natural energy of the natural materials is often an important part of the process, a part of the reason why that time and place is appropriate.
    Clarity of purpose and intention is important. A wild shrine can be a place to make an offering, a place to pray, a place to play and experience joy, a place to express gratitude, a place to ask for help, an acknowledgement of a miracle. It can be anything you need - but to work best for us, it needs to be exactly what we need. Part of the value of building it is that it helps us to clarify our sense of who we are and what we need at this moment.
    Give the shrine a focus. It is the clarity and focus of intent that gives a wild shrine (and us) power. The intent, as mentioned above, needs a symbolic vehicle to act as a clarifying focus. This vehicle can have visual, symbolic, and energetic attributes. For example, one might choose to use a flat stone as an altar, a platform and container for other symbols. The symbols placed upon it might be things you have picked up on the beach, off the ground, from the roadside. Appropriate things, apt symbols of inner processes, make themselves available to us when we begin to look for them. The tricky part here is in letting nature provide what we need (which she will do beautifully) rather than trying to impose our ideas upon her about what form the symbol should take. In other words, you can let the symbol choose itself rather than you choosing the symbol. It is just a matter of being open to the possibilities and then seeing what catches your eye - it might be a particular stone, a stick, or any found object at all. At different times I've even included things like an old shoes washed up on the beach - it was a very appropriate symbol for my need of the moment. God/dess provides.
    'Wild' means not domesticated, not tamed, not controlled. See what happens when you just follow the thread of energy from concept (which may be as simple as 'that rock would make a good altar'), to clarifying intention, to choosing a physical vessel, whatever happens to be at hand, to symbolically hold that intention, to building the shrine as a spontaneous act of worship.
    Sometimes, very rarely, it may be appropriate to bring something with the intention of building a shrine and placing it on the altar, but often these things may be more appropriate for our altars at home. A pre-planned shrine is not a wild shrine, and while sometimes useful to build, it does not do the same things for us or invoke the same kind of energy. They involve different inner processes.
    Appropriate ritual naturally occurs. We don't need to plan a ritual for a wild shrine. If we are truly focused in the energy of the experience, everything we do will be apart of the total act of devotion and will have the numinous quality of the best ritual. Each action, each movement, each breath becomes impregnated with light. Building the shrine can in itself be the ritual. However, it is important to avoid setting it in amber, doing the same thing again and again. We need to keep it a living, breathing, changing, transforming experience, entirely following the flow of the moment - spontaneous.
    Be open to letting the process teach you something. Stay awake. This is not about thinking and analyzing (which tends to disrupt the flow), but about noticing the insights that come, listening, listening, listening as you build - listening to the wind, listening to the stones, listening to the spirit of the place, listening to your inner priest or priestess, listening to god.
    Keep it simple. Avoid complications. We don't get extra brownie points for making life difficult. The physical objects and structure are only a vehicle for the energetic intention. The more effort one puts into complications, the less focused energy seems to go into the shrine itself,and to resonate and work within us. A shrine can be as simple as one stone placed on another stone - and still be potent with energy and healing.
    We need to remember that we don't know it all. We need to approach the process of shrine building with an open heart and mind. We need to build each new shrine as if it were the first and the last we might ever build - as if we had this one chance to really get it right. We need to let the process itself teach us about building shrines, about talking to god/dess, about listening to god/dess.
    Building a shrine is about sanctifying the path, not about making a monument. Think about this: when you build a shrine and set up an altar, you focus energy into it, a particular kind of energy of healing and gratitude and trust. When the wind blows it down or the flow of water disassembles it, that energy is released to work in the world.

Let's say, for example, that you want build a shrine to the Crone, the letting-go, liberating aspect of the goddess. You might choose to put this on the beach below the tide line at low tide so that the incoming tide can wash it away. You could place things on the altar that symbolize what you want to release. As the tide comes in and breaks up the altar, it is also breaking up and releasing whatever it is in you that you want to release. (Remember, everything is one, the universe is all one piece.) The Crone takes the energy, dissolves and transforms it, and releases it into the world, to be born as something new.
Let us further say that this shrine was built as an act of devotion, as a gift to the Crone, the liberator, the freedom-giver. It is then also a focus of the energies of love, devotion, and gratitude. When the physical structure of the shrine is dissolved by the water, these energies are also released to act in the world.
That potential, that energy of what might become, of love, of devotion, of gratitude is now in the water. If it has dissolved into a stream, it will move into the sea, enhancing and healing the energies within the stream and sea. All seas are connected to one another, so the energy flows worldwide. The sun lifts the sanctified water up to become even more energized and potent before falling as rain. The rain falls everywhere, and every drop is enriched with this devotional, healing energy.
Energy travels fast, so fast that, for all practical purposes, it seems to travel virtually instantaneously on the Earth. The interesting thing is that it doesn't dilute, it just spreads. That means that the water you drink now is permeated by the power all of the shrines ever built. Since you have special resonance with shrines built by those who are kindred spirits to you, the energy-intention-love-devotion from those particular shrines will be especially powerful for you. Every drink of water brings that power into you, permeating every cell of your body. And it's in the air, in every breath you take.
The only reason the entire world is not aglow with sacred energy is because people also do cruel and miserable things, which contribute their own energies to the pool. Everything we do bends the energies of the biosphere one way or another. It is something to think about.
These concepts also cast added illumination on ancient celtic references to the physical body as the 'soul shrine'. What we do, the intentions we have, the actions we take all affect our own energy fields before flowing into the world. This, too, is something to think about.
The implications are mind-boggling.
Building your own shrine is a part of making your personal spiritual life an integral part of your everyday life. We are continually exposed to ready-made, off the rack religion, often in a limp and dying state. We need to rediscover and reclaim our religious activities as something we do as the spirit moves us, as a living and breathing, all-permeating flow of energy within our lives.

This originally appeared in Otherworld Arts, 1995
© Copyright 1995 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
Your comments will be read with interest.

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