Sometimes as a spiritual practice we say, ‘This is not my heart; this is the altar of God.’ Without doubt the phrase is beautiful, suggesting the heart as a sacred place in our being, but is there more to it? What does it imply for our inner life? And to begin with, what do we mean by an altar?
Many traditions, though not all, use alters in their ceremonies and rituals. The word ‘altar’ originates from a term meaning ‘high,’ perhaps because characteristically altars are physically elevated. Ancient Jewish altars, in common with altars throughout the middle east, were built up from the ground using earth or stone, and what is more, were often situated on high places such as hilltops or mountains. If one lived in a valley, a visit to an altar would involve physical effort and an investment of some time, bringing one to a distinctly different environment. (We can think here of Hazrat Inayat’s observation that in India, the religiously prescribed method of approaching certain temples requires circumambulating them a number of times, with the effect that the visitor has time to forget about their mundane life, and attune to a higher ideal.) Similarly in the architecture of the temples of classical Greece and Rome the devotee approached the altar by scaling a sometimes long ramp of stairs; the psychological effect of the climb could be accentuated by steps of larger than normal proportions, perhaps so that the devotee could feel again like a child before the imposing presence of the divinity. And we cannot forget the Mayan sacred architecture, which placed altars on top of very large pyramidal structures. Obviously, the elevation of an altar is symbolic as well as physical, intended to have an effect on the consciousness of the believers. Regardless of the tradition, altars encourage us to rise ‘above the denseness of the earth.’
The altar serves as the place of various activities, depending on the belief structure; it may bear scriptures of divine origin, or offerings, ‘sacrifices,‘ meaning things made sacred through the ritual, or it may be a place of metaphysical transformation, as in the sacrament of the eucharist, but in every case, it is the focus of actions of worship–and this brings us to another question: what do we mean by ‘worship’?
The English word ‘worship’ means to ascribe worth to something (‘worth-ship’). (The word is not exclusively related to religion, for in Britain it can be a form of address for a mayor or a judge. In this case, saying ‘Your worship’ does not imply that we think the official is closer to heaven than the average person, but simply bearing an office worthy of respect.) In a religious or spiritual context, then, to worship means to raise the object high, indeed, to the highest point in one’s estimation. We have the related word, ‘adoration,’ but in English the verb ‘adore’ is slippery and has skidded sideways in its meaning, so to speak. It now is often used to mean ‘to love,’ even in a trivial way, as for example, ‘I adore that wall paper,’ or ‘She adores chocolate.’ In its origin, though, ‘ad orare,’ it means ‘to speak to’ or ‘to pray to.’ To adore the Lord would mean to offer our words, our prayers, to Him. ‘Word’ in this case refers not only the sound shaped by the lips, but to the meaning shaped by the heart and carried by the vital energy of the breath. Hazrat Inayat speaks about this with great insight in volume II of the Message Series, in the section called ‘The Power of the Word”: By ‘word’ is not meant a word which is audible to the ears; by word is meant all that is conveyed, that is expressed, and that comes as a revelation…life’s mission is to convey something, and everything that it conveys is a word. Obviously such an understanding of ‘words’ gives a much wider view of adoration than the mechanical repetition of prayers. We could ask ourselves, in our worship, in our adoration, what ‘word’ do we convey? What are we expressing, and what are we raising high?
Returning now to the starting point, it is clear that saying our heart is an altar does not automatically make it so. We should first endeavour to put the heart in a proper condition, clearing away the shadows of selfishness that can accumulate there, and lifting it up towards our ideal. This can be a long and arduous work, but it cannot be omitted, no more than Moses could avoid climbing the mountain when he wished to converse with the Divine Presence.