Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Intent to Change; The Purpose and Benefit of Personal Altars

A personal altar can include any number of items.

No matter what's included on a personal altar, the key is to first clearly define the intent to change. The benefits are are numerous as the intentions.

There are moments when a person may realize that change is required in order to achieve a certain level of satisfaction with life. While knowing there is a nagging “something” that needs to change, that person may or may not be able to identify what that “something” might be. Creating a personal altar is a great way to both discover and initiate that type of change. Ultimately, the daily use of a personal altar can lead to positive life changes.

An Altar Begins with the Intent to Change

Whether or not the maker of an altar knows exactly how to identify the type of change he or she is seeking, one thing is clear: Creating an altar begins with the intention to change. Whatever type of change that may be, the benefit to a person’s life is in the intention to change.

Both Denise Linn in her 1999 book, Altars; Bringing Sacred Shrines into Your Everyday Life, and Peg Streep in her 1997 book, Altars Made Easy; A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Sacred Space, agree that a person’s intention for creating an alter is an essential element. Linn writes that the items, placement, and arrangement of the altar will change based on a person’s intention (p. 86). Streep writes that intentions are what separate altars from mere and accidental groupings of items (p. 3).  

Consequently, if a person is having a hard time identifying what type of change is needed in order to reach a better place in life, creating an altar may be the next step in discovering the right path. For example, the combination of knowing “something” needs to change in her life and knowing she has lately been drawn to reminiscing over photographs of estranged family members, might help persuade a woman to create an altar in her home for these memories and photos. In this act of creation, she may be able to come to terms with how or why these family members are so distant, and it may help her begin the steps needed for reconnecting or reconciliation. In this example, this altar’s grouping is certainly not an accidental grouping of items but rather a manifestation of a subconscious desire to change a situation.  The act of choosing items can help define a personal challenge or identify a nagging situation.

An Altar’s Purpose

According to The Herder Dictionary of Symbols, an altar is “a raised place . . . that serves the purpose of sacrifice and other sacred acts in almost all religions” (Matthews, 1993 p. 5). The making of an altar does not conflict with a person’s religious views, but rather enforces whatever belief system a person my already have. Sacrifice, though the word may conjure images of horrible, medieval acts, can simply mean “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy” (Jewell & Abate, 2001, p. 1499).

Perhaps placing a mobile device on an altar for an entire day might demonstrate a need for introspection and solitude?

Every altar is set up to reflect the change one wishes to see in one’s life by the deliberate placement of items and the making of speech acts. When the maker of an altar places an item on an altar, that person is offering that item to something greater, no matter an individual’s spiritual or religious beliefs. The intent is sacrifice and remembrance. The same principle is true when one makes a speech act at an altar. A speech act, otherwise known as a performative utterance, is defined as something a person says that also denotes the intended action, like a promise or a vow. A speech act made at an altar is a vow to change, or to give up one thought or activity for another.

To continue with the example of the woman who realized her desire to reconnect with distant family members, her altar now serves not only as a daily reminder to strive toward her intended change, but it can also be a place where she can ruminate, meditate, or pray about her situation. To be more specific, she could use her altar as a place to make performative utterances, affirmations about why she wants to reconnect, or she may need to take time at her altar to strive to forgive herself or her family for whatever it may have been that caused them to grow distant. When she spends time at her altar, she spends time devoting herself to something greater by sacrificing hurt and distance for love and acceptance. Although it may take time, the benefit to this woman could be a connection to her family she may have never felt before.

The Benefits

One way for a person to initiate a change in his or her life is to sacrifice time, thoughts, and meaningful items in the creation and use of a personal altar. Although life changes can always be made without the creation of an altar, by seeing the altar every day in a dedicated, physical space, a person will be reminded of the intention behind creating the altar and maintain the motivation to change.

The additional benefits for the creators of altars are as varied as the intentions behind the creation. The benefits can be emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, or behavioral. No matter what the ultimate benefit, however, it all begins with the intent to change.

Want to read more about altars?  Try

Personal Altars in Celebration of Holy Week

How to Pray the Rosary


  • Jewell, E.J., & Abate, F. (Eds.). (2001). The new Oxford American dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Linn, D. (1999). Alters: Bringing sacred shrines into your everyday life. New York: Ballentine Wellspring.
  • Matthews, B. (Trans.). (1993). The Herder dictionary of symbols. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.
  • Streep, P. (1997). Alters made easy: A complete guide to creating your own sacred space. New York: Harper San Francisco.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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