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Home Sanctuary

According to one study, more people would rather have a space for meditation or contemplation than a computer. Some see it as a need for a haven from chaos.


Maria Shufeldt's altar does not feature traditional religious icons of Jesus, Buddha or the Hindu gods. It is a Victorian-style vanity with a hand mirror, anointing rose water, a basket of self-blessings, photos of herself and her mother and a journal resting on top.

But like many of the other creations in a Santa Monica exhibit of altars, Shufeldt's work is seen as a powerful tool to help women affirm their divinity, and to heal self-images bruised by societal standards that define female beauty as being thin and young.

Shufeldt's altar represents one function of sacred space: transformation of self, circumstance or even mood. From the eclectic creations of feminists, to the somber altars of Japanese Buddhism, to colorful Mexican Day of the Dead displays, altars are used as a means of honoring deities, as memorials to ancestors or other loved ones, and as forms of sacred art.

Whatever the purpose, experts detect a growing, even overwhelming, desire for sacred space in the home. A 1997 poll by House & Garden magazine showed that 82% of readers surveyed viewed a space for meditation or spiritual contemplation in the home as a necessity--far higher percentages than for a home computer, two phone lines, a home security system or freshly cut flowers. The response startled editors, said Dan Shaw, the magazine's senior feature editor.

"The home isn't a castle, it's now a sanctuary," Shaw said.

The deep desire for sacred space is reflected in the mainstream interest in the Chinese art of geomancy known as feng shui and in robust sales of candles, incense and religious artifacts. The Paulist Press Book Center in Costa Mesa has registered an increase of nearly 40% in the sale of icons and other religious artifacts over the last five years, according to store manager Patty Broesamle.

"It's all part of a broad growth of interest in living a sane and serene life in the midst of the chaos we perceive is going on around us," said Joan Duncan Oliver, director of the One Spirit Book Club. "There seems to be an urge for people to create an external world that reflects a desire for peace inside."

Influence of Many Cultures

Jean McMann, author of "Altars and Icons," said the surge of interest in altars also seems to be fueled by greater exposure to the religious customs of immigrants or cultures encountered in foreign travels. Some of her friends, she said, created their own altars after being inspired by Day of the Dead displays, or after travels to places such as India, where they may have picked up icons of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant deity known as the remover of obstacles.

"This has been called the post-traditional age, where people have discarded their traditions," said McMann, a Northern California writer and photographer. "But I think many people feel that loss tremendously and often long for something their grandmothers did."

That longing for spiritual tradition resurges in cyclical patterns, said Sabina Magliocco, an assistant professor of anthropology at Cal State Northridge. The first generation often bring their altars with them to the new land. McMann found in a research project on immigrants that most wanted to create a new American home shorn of influence from the old country with one exception: 90% of them kept their altars.

But Magliocco said that their American-born children often lose the tradition, either deliberately in a quest for assimilation or as a casualty of the frenetic pace of modern life.

Noriaki Ito, a Buddhist priest, and Victor Aleman, a Latino Catholic newspaper editor, illustrate that phenomenon.

Ito's family altar, made of gold leaf and black lacquer, is called onaibutsu, or "the Buddha within," and features as its central object of reverence the Amida Buddha, or deity of wisdom and compassion. The altar is adorned with a candle of self-illumination, a flower representing the impermanent nature of life, incense of purification, a register of ancestors and a bronze statue of a crane atop a turtle. "Overall, the altar symbolizes the world of enlightenment and serves as a daily reminder to live according to Buddhist teachings," Ito said.

Ito, born in Japan but raised in the United States, recalls that his father would gather the family each morning and evening to chant before the Buddhist altar, now prominently displayed in the living room of his mother's apartment in Little Tokyo.

"It was as important as having a glass of milk before going to school," Ito said. But because of busy schedules, he has not carried on this tradition with his own children and he estimates that only 40% of the members at Higashi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo have the once-essential feature in their home.

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