When I wrote To Set Against the Dark, I focused on the little Quan Am I brought back from Hoi An. But she has company on that shelf. Over to the left, too dark to see in this photo, is a bird’s nest I found one year in a Christmas tree. To the right is a framed copy of the Madonna and Child page from the Book of Kells, a Brigit’s Cross in front of that and, to the right, a votive candle holder from Wales. When I say I will light a candle – someone is traveling, or going through a hard time, or grieving – I mean it and this is where it is done.
I learned to make this kind of space over the years. At first everything had to be symmetrical or there had to be a theme or a change every season. Lately, though, I have grown accustomed to its serene disorder. The juxtaposition of the Christian Madonna, the Buddhist Quan Am, and the Celtic goddess/saint works for me and over time I have come to understand that it works for them as well.
I have had this space, or one like it, for many years but it has become more meaningful since I saw how often prayers are offered with candles or joss sticks or shrines in Viet Nam. Sometimes this happens within pagodas, but even there the ritual seems woven into the ordinary (see Sacred Housekeeping). Often the shrine sits on the floor where there is much coming and going, causing me to rethink my ideas about sacred space. At the Catholic pilgrimage site of Our Lady of La Vang an enormous sand-filled cauldron stands on the steps of the outdoor altar. The day we visited My Lai there were preparations for an honoring of the 45th anniversary of the massacre. The candles sat on ordinary pieces of sheetrock in the hedges or hung from the branches of trees. In all these places and in others there and here, each candle, each joss stick, each offering weaves a net between living and dead, seen and unseen, earth and heaven.