When I was little, I lived on the side of a mountain in Montana. By May, the snows had finally melted for good (except for that rare July storm, of course) and the hillside was spangled with wildflowers—shooting stars, bluebells, yellow bells, Indian paintbrush, and bitterroot among others. I would walk the steep trail behind our house, gather a fistful of the fragile blossoms and bring them back to decorate the May altar I set up in the corner of the dining room--a statue of Mary, a doily and a water glass with blooms that were replenished whenever they faded or I felt like climbing the hill.
I’m not entirely sure why I created a May altar each year. As a young girl, deeply influenced by the story of the Blessed Virgin, part of it was to honor Mary, but I’m guessing at least some of the less noble motivation was to wander in the spring sunshine and pick wildflowers. Regardless of the reason, it was one of the things that I did year after year in my childhood, and it has cemented my love for images of Mary (as well as wildflowers).
Setting up May or Mary altars isn’t much in fashion these days. Certainly many parishes make a special effort to put flowers in front of any statue of Mary in the sanctuary, but having a private shrine isn’t something I see very often. That’s why I’m suggesting that we resurrect this old custom as part of our own spring spirituality.
The beauty is that the altar can be as elaborate or as simple as we want. It doesn’t matter if Mary is represented by a hand-made Italian sculpture or a picture cut out of a magazine. All that is essential is a place (the side of your desk, a windowsill, the top of a filing cabinet), an image of Mary, and some sort of floral decoration (even silk flowers are fine.) A candle is a nice additional touch if it is allowed in your office.
The idea behind the May altar is, of course, to pay tribute to Mary during her special month, but beyond that, such a mini-shrine is a great way to energize our spiritual devotions. What better time to start something new than the time when all the earth itself is being renewed!
Take a moment and look at what you have around your desk. If you are like most of us, you have a picture or two of loved ones, a few mementos, a coffee or teacup and assorted miscellany that has found a semi-permanent home. If you do have some symbols of faith, like a crucifix or a rosary or a prayer card, odds are that they have become part of the décor and you no longer “see” them. That’s where a May altar comes in. By bringing something different into your space, you simultaneously create a new awareness. For example, if you set up your May altar in the area where you normally place your coffee mug, each time you go on coffee mug auto-pilot, you’ll be subtly alerted by the presence of Mary.
Hopefully the slight change in your routine will inspire you offer a quick prayer, or to remind you to hold your tongue or resist that doughnut or whatever it is that you need to do at the moment to make your faith into a living and creative endeavor.