My mother kept a shrine in the kitchen. It was not a very big or very grand affair.
A flame in a glass, in front of an icon, on
top of the kitchen cupboard, in the far right hand corner.
The flame was in a small drinking glass. Clear, with vertical grooves running halfway up its length. Water filled most of it, topped with oil. A small metal disc with a tiny wick through the middle floated in the centre of the oil. The wicks were white, bubblegum pink or blue.
The oil lamp on my mother's shrine was kept burning day and night. Water, oil, and wicks were replaced from time to time, but without ever letting the flame go out. On replacing wicks or cleaning, the flame would be transferred to a candle, and then back to the wick. Because the flame was Sacred. Holy Fire, originating in Jerusalem. Sent annually to all the Orthodox Christians around the world at Pascha or Easter.
Now Easter is the greatest celebration for Orthodox Christians. Days of worship and ritual culminate in Holy Saturday, Easter eve, when people the world over, overflow from their churches into the gardens and the streets, waiting for Easter to be announced.
When midnight strikes, the priest announces, 'Christ has Risen', and producing the Holy Fire, which has been flown in that very day, he will ignite the candle of the person nearest him. That person in turn will light the candle of his neighbour, on and on, until all people have the Holy Flame. This, they take home as a blessing, and for their altars, to be kept burning until the following year.
All the years of my childhood, I remember walking home in the silky darkness with my parents after midnight on Easter eve, carrying a simple white candle, pierced through by a piece of white cardboard, to shield the flame and collect any drips. (My father spent much time fine tuning this flame shield every single year. Minutely adjusting it's size, material and shape.)
Through the liquid darkness I walked, staring into the flame, mesmerised. The fire was captivating, and I shielded it with cupped hands, this way and that, to ensure it was not extinguished before we got home.
Others walked in front and behind us, creating a tapestry of twinkling stars. The air felt still and numinous as we hummed or sang the chant from the liturgy, which seemed to echo around us. It was magical, and very sacred.
Once home, we would eat magiritsa. A delicious lemony soup served only at Easter time. I won't put you off by telling you the ingredients – let's just say it's not for vegetarians. Nor those whose vivid imaginations tell them how things should taste before they've tried them. Though I am now vegetarian and have not tasted magiritsa in decades, I wonder if I would be able to resist it?
Getting back to the sacred, Holy Flame though...and its origin. What an extraordinary thing! It is a miracle, which continues to manifest annually, at the same time and in the same place, since the fourth century. Some say even before then, since the first.
Every year, on Holy Saturday at 1pm, in what is considered the holiest place on earth, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, (a chapel within a church and the place where Jesus resurrected) in Jerusalem, the Sacred Fire spontaneously manifests from a rock inside a sealed tomb, at the conclusion of prayers by an Orthodox Archbishop. Often, the fire simultaneously appears in various places outside the tomb, where it ignites the candles of the pilgrims.
At the start of this ritual, and to ensure authenticity, the tomb is searched by local authorities. It is then sealed, creating total darkness, with the Archbishop inside. The priest, on his knees, in the darkness speaks the ancient, age old prayers. The Sacred Fire suddenly appears, emanating from a rock, in an etherial blue white colour which does not burn when you touch it. The Archbishop lights candles from this fire and emerges to spread to the congregation and from there the world. Where in days gone by, I recall it was flown in by Concorde.
This miraculous event has been happening every year, at the same date and time, for centuries. Bear in mind Orthodox Easter falls on a different day each year. It's a truly extraordinary modern day miracle little know or spoken about outside of Christian Orthodoxy. Definitely it is something that keeps the sense of the sacred alive.
You can see pictures and read the full story here http://www.holyfire.org/eng/.
Getting back to my mother's shrine though... before I am branded an Orthodox zealot...
And yes, I know I seem to be running a Hellenic theme this year – but I am after all Greek born and bred. So, what can you say?
So my mother kept this very simple shrine, maintaining the Holy Flame. Every day, of every year, the shrine was a focal point for the sacred. She would make the sign of the cross each day before it, giving thanks. Sometimes offering supplications and prayers. Mostly though, the sacred flame in front of the icon burnt, as reminder of the holy, the sacred, and the divine within.
As I was cleaning the shrine in my meditation hut this morning, I was reminded of my mother and her shrine. Of how I grew up surrounded by acts in praise of the sacred. I thought how we need more connection with the sacred, especially in today's world.
In almost every religion and tradition, shrines and altars have been maintained since the beginning of time as a tribute to ancestors, God, Spirits – in other words to propitiate something above the ordinary – something sacred and Divine. Even today, many cultures and religions continue this practice around the world.
The size and complexity of the shrine or altar does not matter. It can be a simple candle, a photo, or a rock. What matters is that a space has been made for the sacred. An anchoring point has been provided for the extraordinary to exist. An invocation for the invisible to become visible and take form has been sounded out upon the ethers.
And this focal point for the sacred, more often than not involving a lit candle or fire, ensures that the sacred flame keeps burning. Not only as a physical activity, but as a metaphorical and spiritual one too. As we tend the sacred flame, so we keep the sacred burning in our hearts.
A sense of the sacred means a sense of awe and reverence. It's the acknowledgement that there are things that are unexplainable, mysterious. That there are powers greater than us, things we cannot control and forces that are vast, invisible and filled with wonder.
And whether that sense of awe and reverence is aimed at nature, angels or higher beings. Whether our shrine is set up to guardian ancestors, deities, God, or Hestia, the goddess of hearth and home, I don't think matters.
What matters, is to have a space in our lives for magic to be anchored. A space which can reflect the deep stillness that sits within our core. Because as we allow the sacred to breathe outside of us, so it reflects back the sacred inside us. Our divine spark. Our golden heart. Spirit.
The names do not matter. What matters is to recognise that we do not need to know and understand all the mysteries of life. That if there are things that we cannot explain or understand, it does not make them any less valid. That's it's okay to not know. Also, that, as I recently read, 'even if you know how it works, it's still magic'.
In our quest for technology and knowledge, it's easy to lose sight of the sacred. That thing or being or power that we must bow down before, humbly. Putting our forehead to the floor.
Acknowledging that there exists something greater than ourselves, while also bowing to our own divinity. Thus we maintain the essence of sacredness not just around us, but in the world.
For much like the fairies die when we no longer believe (yes, they do!), so does the shimmer in the gold of sacredness become tarnished and diminished without our regard.
Sacredness is not only about shrines and veneration of the holy, sacredness is about harmony and beauty too. It's about living elegantly. It's a texture and colour of beingness. which celebrates the deep rhythm of the earth, and respects and embraces all life forms upon it. Sacredness is gentle, compassionate and kind. It is uplifting and heart expanding.
It is good to reflect on what we hold sacred in our life. What inspires awe in us? Towards what or whom do we feel reverence? Awe?
When we touch on that knowledge, we touch deep within our hearts. For the sacred is intricately interwoven with the softest whisper of the Beloved. It is that whisper that opens our heart.
And here I must definitely say 'Yia sou mama mou' – a Greek greeting to the memory of my mother.
'Do not worry if all the candles in the world flicker and die.
We have the spark that starts the fire'. Rumi