From the Heart: The Altar


The beginning of a new year offers a poignant opportunity to set the priorities that will carry us through the year. We succeed or fail based on what we hold dear. Choose meaningless priorities, and you become the heir to pain. Live from what you value, and your life becomes a celebration of purpose.

A Japanese coaching client told me that her father had bequeathed his children a home that contained the family altar. Then her brothers started to fight over who would keep the family altar in their home. My client was upset by the family fighting and wanted to know how to resolve it.

I told her, “It’s not worth fighting over, or you getting involved in the fight.”

“But the altar is the doorway to our ancestors’ graves,” she argued.

“No, the altar is not the doorway to your ancestors’ graves,” I told her. “Your mind and heart are the doorway to your ancestors. The altar is a material object. It is inert, neutral, and has meaning only by virtue of your belief in it. The altar is holy only when it is used as a vehicle for love. When it becomes an object of contention, you have superimposed fear over faith. Your family relationships are the real altar to your ancestors. When you harmonize with each other and choose love as the foundation of your communication, you are honoring your ancestors in the highest way. Let go of the physical altar and worship at your spiritual altar, which is within you.”

A Course in Miracles asks us to remember, “I have given everything I see all the meaning that it has for me.” When we project meaning onto objects that uplift us and draw our mind to heaven, we are making the best use of the material world. When we imbue objects with meaning that drags us down, we are misusing them. At that point we must either reframe them in the service of Spirit, or let them go.

We get into trouble when we confuse stuff with Spirit. Stuff was created to serve spirit. When spirit serves stuff, we have fallen into idolatry. Someone at a Course in Miracles conference observed a woman who had accidentally dropped the Course in Miracles book on the floor. Flustered, she picked up the book and kissed it reverently, as if she felt guilty and was apologizing to the book. The observer complained to Judith Whitson, publisher of the Course, that the idea of kissing a book was childish; the person who did this had made a god out of an inanimate object. At a later conference, Judith walked onstage to give her lecture, tossed a copy of the Course on the floor, stood on it, and gave her lecture from that position, noting that the purpose of the book is to live its teachings, not bow to the object that contained the teachings. The book is just paper and ink. Its lessons are eternal. The truth far surpasses the container.

A similar story rings from Japanese history. When Christianity came to Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate government was threatened by the new religion, and waged an inquisition against Christians. As a test of faith to the government, officials threw a picture of Jesus Christ on the floor and required citizens to step on it. If, out of allegiance to Christ, the person refused to step on it, that person was tortured or killed.

Upon hearing the story, I wondered what I would have done if I were faced with such a challenge as a Christian at that time. I would have stepped on the picture. Not out of disrespect for Christ, but because my life is more valuable than pandering to the whim of an idiot who threatens me with death for stepping on a graven image. I serve Christ better by being a light to the world than arguing over a symbol. I imagine if you chose to die in such a situation, that would have been a statement of faith. But I believe you would have done better to live for Christ, which is an energy, than to die for a painting, which is a thing.

What will you and I live for during the coming year? Fear, or love? Stuff, or Spirit? Symbols, or their source? All of these choices spring from one fundamental question: Are you, and is life, based on form, or is it based on energy? On objects, or on thoughts? On things you can touch, or on truths you can experience. Things are the result of energy. When you remain established in the source of life, things take care of themselves.

Ultimately you are the altar of love. Great Spirit wants you to retain the power invested in you, not give it away to external objects. Fighting over a thing is missing the point. Using things to join is the point. Every moment of this bright new year offers a choice between making the point and missing the point.

The only purpose of the material world is to serve as a launching pad for spiritual awareness. Every other use leads us away from joy. Everything you touch either serves healing or separation. Objects are not powerful. Belief is. Respect symbols, but go beyond them. Use your life to magnify the truth that cannot be contained in any object. Then this year will lay its divine gifts upon the altar of your heart.

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Alan Cohen
Alan Cohen is the author of many inspirational books including A Course in Miracles Made Easy. Join Alan for his life-changing Holistic Life Coach Training beginning September 1, 2020. For information on this program and Alan’s books, videos, audios, online courses, retreats, and other inspirational events and materials, visit


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