A Meditation on Shrines & Self


The sin I have committed is the sin of adoption. I have adopted a different set of beliefs from the beliefs I was raised to obey.

Leaving one orthodoxy means leaving all orthodoxies.

-Terry Tempest Williams

I struggled with leaving the church. I didn’t have the language to describe why, to others or even to myself. I haven’t admitted to leaving. To anyone who asks, I’m inactive or taking a break. I like to think of myself as a lapsed Mormon, for Mormonism is tucked into the heart of my identity.

My friends are Mormons or lapsed Mormons—mostly lapsed. The people I knew at BYU, the peers from my home ward in Richmond, the friends from my married ward in Boston—all mostly gone from the records or the pews. I can’t say if this is coincidental or generational, if this speaks to a larger movement or dearth of faith, if this is correlated like some relational domino effect of influence, or if our individual paths would always have led us to where we are. It probably doesn’t matter. Life is the process of asking ourselves questions and coming up with answers we didn’t expect. Rarely, I think, do we end up where we planned.

One of the big reasons I’ve struggled with leaving is family. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I’ve felt intense shame that I am not the daughter my parents would have wanted, not choosing the path they most wanted for me. I have abandoned the God I was raised to pray to, and I know it. I am a covenant-breaker. I can know that about myself and simultaneously accept that those are hard words to own.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the idea of shrines. A shrine is a place of relics, a place where things are kept in remembrance, a place hallowed by its history.

Within Mormonism a frequently touted idea is that bodies are temples, but I’d rather think of them as shrines. The nature of aging seems to lend itself to gathering varied experiences en route to becoming who we are. Shrines encapsulate this gathering.

I’ve noticed that a couple of girlfriends have shrines in their homes. On a mantelpiece or side table they have a collection of candles, knickknacks, figurines, images, sometimes quotes—their own versions of constructed shrines that say something about who they are and what they find important.

I’ve been captivated by this idea. The creation of a personal shrine as self-reflection, as an art act, as a meditation on life, as a gathering of memories or bundling* of found or inherited artifacts. It seems like an act of worship, not of self, but of life and the mind, of the complex ability to think and create that we were given.

A friend told me that her shrine includes three candles. That each one represents something she struggles with, such as shame or fear or anxiety. She lights a candle and gives that thing physical representation. For her, it’s a way to give those things a voice and then let them go.

This resonated with me. I have long carried my own shame, my own fear, and my own anxiety. But I’d like to let them go.

I don’t know why the notion of shrines has become so moving to me. It’s probably related to my need for self-reflection, my reverence for any act of worship. I think it mirrors to me a Mormon idea that I’ve never put down: that our burdens could be placed upon an altar while we walk away.

My spirituality has changed and remained the same. It is the new relic of my history, as expansive or narrow as the time I devote to it. I have not stayed true to the gospel I was raised to be a part of, but I have also never abandoned the gospel of loving-kindness. It is a loving-kindness I have always directed to others. It is a loving-kindness I am learning to direct to self.

Courtney is a law librarian living in NYC. She likes poetry, bikes, and Ethiopian food. 

*  Thanks to Page Turner for an introduction to the concept of bundling.

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4 Responses

  1. Olea says:

    Courtney, this was refreshing and lovely, and spoke truth to my soul. I love that you’ve been able to accept and stay true to the parts that you honour, and I pray you will be able to place the burdens of shame and fear and anxiety on that altar, and walk away. It’s okay to check in on them, but you’re right, that you don’t have to carry them with you.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with us 🙂

  2. Sheila says:

    Oh, I’m so glad I read this! My story is somewhat similar, but it hadn’t occurred to me to create a shrine. What a great idea.

  3. Courtney says:

    Thanks Sheila!

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