Candles and incense

The Episcopal church I went to as a child was a small building with a small congregation, but it was irrepressibly High Church. We had the Eucharist every week, long before that became standard practice for Episcopalians, and we called it “Mass”, which is still a Roman Catholic designation. Our rector wore damask chasubles in green or purple, red or white with gold; we had a tiny chapel dedicated to Our Lady; we included a good deal of Gregorian chant in our services. As a child, I was fascinated and awed by the space inside the communion rail, where Father celebrated the Mass. We had the consecrated Bread, the Blessed Sacrament, kept in a tabernacle on the altar, which required everyone to genuflect when we passed in front of it. I attribute the crap condition of my knees today at least partially to a devout High Anglican childhood.

It wasn’t lost on me even as a kid that while only Father went into that special sacred space right in front of the altar and its tabernacle and celebrated the Mass, the altar guild ladies routinely went there every Saturday to clean and prepare for the Sunday liturgy. I saw them on Saturdays in Lent when I went round to church for Stations of the Cross. I think those Saturday morning Stations were held mainly for the benefit of the elderly ladies who didn’t want to be out late on Wednesday evenings, when our main Lenten services were held, but they attracted a small group of kids, too. Except for me, most of those kids had grandmothers in the altar guild, but it was actually a social thing for us, and a religious thing, too. We liked our Stations of the Cross.

Nowadays you couldn’t get me to sit through a service of Stations, let alone stand or walk in procession and genuflect when you’re supposed to. But I have never lost my feeling for having sacred space. What a sacred space looks and feels like, for me, has a lot more to do with my childhood church than with casting a circle. You must light candles. You must burn incense. You must have images of sacred things and prayers that you say regularly before those images.

Having a shrine to the holy powers in my home was not an idea I learned from paganism. I did it spontaneously as a teenager, without any particular example of it in my tradition. I had a statue of Kuan Yin doubling as the Virgin Mary, a plain cross, a candle to light. I sat in bed and said the Daily Office morning and evening facing that very simple shrine. It was not a hard transition from icons of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints to print-outs of pictures of Antinoan statues, and images of gods and ancestors.

My shrine occupies the mantel of the fireplace in my apartment and the far end of my dining table, which is lined up underneath the mantel. It includes, among other things, a thangka of the Medicine Buddha, holy cards of Jesus and Julian of Norwich, several buddha statues, the six-pointed star symbol of the Tetrad++, and a triptych of Antinous that I made myself with my dormant art skills, such as they are. On the lower level are pictures of my grandmother and great-aunt, rocks, feathers, and seashells, my lararium plaque, a blue scarab from the museum store. Here I light candles, burn incense, say prayers, and make offerings of milk, water, wine, hot tea, and food. Sometimes I light a candle before Antinous and let it burn through the night, so that if I wake up, I see his face illuminated and remember his presence.

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2 thoughts on “Candles and incense

  1. The Anglican stuff I did when at Oxford was not high church, except for the time we went to Christ Church, the smallest cathedral in England. (I later also went to York Minster, the largest, and briefly to Salisbury, the tallest!) But, in certain ways, low church evensong on a weekly basis was even higher church, so to speak, than the American Catholicism I largely grew up with. Strange how that all works…

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    1. My mother, a Methodist who sang for eleven years in an Episcopal church choir, was shocked at the baccalaureate Mass my Catholic college held, in our rather impressive archdiocesan cathedral, Our Lady of Art Deco. No bells, no smells, not much organ but rather guitars. “That was a Mass?” Your experience is not unique.

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