Sacred spaces at home

  • Cheryl Fox meditates each day at the altar in her bedroom. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Cheryl Fox has created several altars and devotional spaces in her Greenfield home. This one is in her dining room. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Cheryl Fox has created several altars and devotional spaces in her Greenfield home. This one is in her dining room. For the Recorder/Gillis MacDougall

  • Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener in the Temple Israel. STAFF FILE PHOTO/Paul Franz

  • Rev. Kate Stevens in the First Congreegational Church of Ashfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz PAUL FRANZ

  • Rev. Kate Stevens of the United Church of Christ taking a walk outside her Charlemont home. Staff FILE PHOTO/Paul Franz

  • Rev. Kate Stevens of the United Church of Christ at her Charlemont home. Staff FILE PHOTO/Paul Franz

For the Recorder
Published: 12/22/2020 5:00:57 AM

Had her great-grandmother not cried out, Atta Kurzmann, of Gill, might not exist today. When the Volino family emigrated from Italy in 1895, 5-year-old Philomena — who later became Atta’s grandmother — slipped over the ship’s upper deck railing, plummeting toward the lower deck.

Philomena’s mother screamed and, with only a split-second’s notice, a fellow passenger looked up and caught the girl.

At age 12, Philomena dropped out of school to work in a lace factory, and her co-workers renamed her “Florence” to abbreviate or perhaps anglicize her given name.

“As a toddler in Potenza, Italy, Grandma had played with a boy named Roxy Amundo,” Kurzmann said of her grandparents. “They reconnected after Roxy emigrated in his teens.”

The couple lived in an apartment behind their mom-and-pop Bronx store with their five children. “During dinnertime, when they heard a bell which meant a customer had entered the store,” Kurzmann said, “the kids took turns. Only after serving a customer could they resume eating their ravioli.”

Recalling her grandmother, Kurzmann added, “She and her mother went to Catholic Mass every day and, at home, displayed great devotion to Jesus, with religious pictures in every room.”

Dorothea Sotiros, of Greenfield, a bookkeeper and avid gardener, likewise recalls a grandmother’s devotion.

“My Yia-Yia, after whom I’m named, had an altar at home dedicated to Theotokos, which means ‘Mother of God.’ She had votive candles and a beautiful icon. As I got older,” Sotiros mused, “I realized Yia-Yia had a female deity. I suspect she found it comforting in contrast to the patriarchy of our Greek Orthodox Church.”

After emigrating from Episkopi, Greece to San Diego, Calif., Theadora Vosiniotis learned scant English. “She missed her sisters terribly,” Sotiros recalled, “and was very dependent on my Papou, her husband Anastasios Rigopoulos. Her life wasn’t easy, so I like thinking about Yia-Yia’s devotion as a type of goddess worship. It was one empowering thing about her life.”

Like her Yia-Yia, Sotiros maintains a special space in her home. “Nothing overtly religious,” she explained, “just a place where I keep candles and stones.” She considers the out-of-doors sacred space and spends a great deal of time enjoying the natural world.

Atta Kurzmann noted that, despite her ancestors’ religiosity, her own parents were “basically agnostic.” When she was 16, a tragedy led to years of spiritual seeking. “My boyfriend — my first love — drowned while at summer camp. The loss made me want to sit quietly inside a church.” In college, she studied religion, philosophy, psychology, and mysticism, subjects she’s taught at high school and college levels.

Like others in Franklin County, Kurzmann has a special spot at home where she displays meaningful symbols and spends time in meditation. “The objects change from time to time,” she noted, “with candles and mementos from my years living in India.” Kurzmann values multi-sensory approaches, including incense, singing bowls and bells. 

Humans have tended sacred spaces for millennia, but the practice may be growing as many spend more time at home and crave spiritual and emotional nourishment in a challenging era. Musician and peace activist Cheryl Fox, of Greenfield, has maintained home altars for decades and currently has at least five.

“I’m inclined to transform just about any flat surface into a devotional area,” said Fox, the former director of The Mediation & Training Collaborative. 

What started in 1980 as a bench and table with a Buddha statue has become “very eclectic, as I am — spiritually welcoming of many manifestations of the Divine. I’m equally comfortable with Jesus and Buddha, and we raised our four kids with wisdom that includes pagan and Wiccan philosophies, as well.”  

Nina Gross, of Greenfield, maintains a home altar to focus on loved ones needing support. “Today, my altar contains symbols of a friend whose family is dealing with urgent health issues. It helps me to walk by the special space and think of them.”

The professional musician and writer also keeps objects on a shelf to honor her African American and Native American ancestors. “I brought a small ball of red clay back from the hills of Tennessee — Paint Rock in Loudon County — where my mother is from.” Gross’s grandfather carved wood, a craft he learned from his own grandfather, and a piece of his handiwork sits near the ball of red clay. “My grandfather wanted to honor our Cherokee heritage.”

Amy Meblin, of Greenfield, is descended from Russian Jews from Belarus, but grew up “pretty non-religious. My dad was a science guy. I think his parents and many others who emigrated needed to leave places behind and start over.”

Her mother’s family was of German Catholic stock, but Meblin’s mom “rejected what she saw as rigidity. Instead, my parents revered the natural world. When my kindergarten teacher asked what religion I was, I went home and asked Mom. She said, ‘We’re pantheists. God is in nature.’ Honestly, (the E.B. White book) Charlotte’s Web was like the Bible for us.”

Meblin’s father gently instructed his children about two dangers near their home in the foothills near Menlo Park, Calif. “When I was 5, he described rattlesnakes and black widow spiders and said if we knew what those looked like and left them alone, we could go off on our own and enjoy all other beneficial snakes and spiders and critters.”

Meblin maintains several reverential areas at home, which she “tweaks as needed.” Objects include “shells, rocks, bark, a beaver-chewed stick — nothing fancy. I celebrate the liberty my parents gave me to explore, honor and protect.”

Rev. Kate Stevens, of Charlemont, meditates each morning with a view to the east, and several places in her home are dedicated to mindfulness. “I have an area with beads and sacred objects, some of which I took with me on a pilgrimage I made through the southern U.S. a few years ago as I traveled with the intention of learning about issues related to civil rights.” 

She displays photos of loved ones who’ve died and maintains an “ever-going candle.” She added, “I’ve long done this to focus on people experiencing hardships. When wildfires burned in Australia earlier this year, I focused on that crisis. COVID has made my sacred spaces take on a whole new significance.”

Stevens was pastor of the First Congregational Church in Ashfield from 2004 to 2017; before that, she served a Conway congregation for six years. She finds being outdoors a sacred experience. “Weeding in the garden can clear my mind like few things can.”

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Greenfield, reinvented how she conducts services in the COVID-19 era. “There’s a spot in my dining room with light on two sides, and a shelf that provides good placement for my computer (for Zoom services). But sometimes I prefer my living room, where I keep musical instruments.” 

Though she doesn’t maintain an altar, Cohen-Kiener cites the Friday evening Shabbos table, where participants observe the weekly Sabbath, as a deeply sacred space. “There’s lots of preparation, ritual food, and candles. It’s a sacred gathering in the home.”

In light of pandemic limitations, Cohen-Kiener encourages her congregants to establish space where they can “establish muscle memory during prayer.” For example, she often prays while looking out a window at a certain tree, and “when I see that tree, it brings me back to that frame of mind, helping me absorb the restfulness of the practice.”

Cohen-Kiener added that “sacred spaces in Jewish traditions — temples, synagogues, tents — represent the place where human hearts meet, or where heaven and earth meet. Gardens, or any space that’s approached with a prayerful attitude, can be considered sacred.”

Patrick Bensen, his wife and three children have shelves in their Greenfield living room where they keep their Quran (the Islamic sacred book) and other items like beads and prayer rugs. Most important, Bensen says, is to keep the prayer area clean. “We pray five times a day based on cycles of the sun. We believe the entire earth has been made a mosque and can pray anywhere that fulfills the conditions of cleanliness.” 

Muslims remove their shoes before entering a home to prevent street grime or animal waste from de-fouling interior spaces. An adherent may use a special rug, given that their forehead comes in contact with the floor or ground. A professional writer, Bensen brings a prayer rug to his office, and while traveling factors in the need to stop in order to honor prayer times. “It can be a park, along a roadway, even a gas station parking lot.”

Bensen said of the 2020 coronavirus era: “There are lots of online resources and classes, yet there’s really no substitute for the physical proximity that’s a hallmark of our faith. We literally rub shoulders during group prayer.” 

Some Franklin County residents have had to multi-purpose their homes beyond what they’d ever dreamed necessary. When a home must be not only shelter but office, classroom, and even quarantine space, it can be hard to find joyful calm. Perhaps these glimpses into sacred spaces people have created at home might inspire others to carve out serene spaces as we approach the new year.

Eveline MacDougall welcomes comments: eveline@amandlachorus.org




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