Life, Death, And a 'Reservoir Of Hope'

June 25, 2008

Author: Jonathan Beasley

Source: Harvard Divinity School News and Events

In early May, an enthusiastic HDS staff member walked into offices in Divinity Hall to let people know about a community altar that was being constructed on the building's third floor. Those of us who could spare a moment were invited for an informal viewing. This altar was, apparently, unique in some way, worth leaving any email messages we were writing to dangle in mid-sentence.

After a moment of internal debate—Did I really want to leave my desk to go look at an altar?—I walked down one flight of stairs for a glance, although I'd already made up my mind that this unique altar would, in fact, not be unique. At best, I thought, it might be mildly interesting. To my surprise, tucked inside of a small conference room, stood something remarkable.

Sea shells, beads, candles, pictures, flowers, a doll, a set of keys, a wheel used for steering a ship—these were some of the items immersed within the altar, which stretched over 12 feet along the window sill, trickled down to the floor, and extended onto a shelf and then over to a large meeting table. This was an altar like no other I'd ever seen. It was colored with the shades of the sea: foam white, ocean blue, and aquamarine. The typical religious overtones I was familiar with had been mostly replaced by other religious icons, such as a Yoruba goddess and Sedna, the Inuit deity of sea mammals.

The altar was conceived by Maria Cristina Vlassidis, a ThD candidate at HDS, and Cemelli de Aztlan, who recently completed her second year in the master of divinity program, as part of their work for Professor Kimberley Patton's course "The Deep: Purity, Danger, and Metamorphosis." Vlassidis explained that the altar, named "The Deep," was not simply symbolic of the ocean. Rather, the deep also represents the psyche.

"Our wounds and pain, they are also deep," Vlassidis said. "But so is our reservoir of hope. In our spiritual, indigenous tradition, life and death go together; it's a constant cycle."

For years Vlassidis has helped to create community altars, which encourage people to interact with and participate in the altar-building process. Aside from receiving her MDiv from HDS in 2007, Vlassidis has a law degree and worked as an immigration lawyer in New York. She is passionate about lessening human suffering—as is de Aztlan—especially for women who have been victims of abuse and violence. The altars are one way of facilitating the healing process.