Saturday, May 10, 2014

An Altar in the World

by Barbara Brown Taylor
Harper One  2010
240 pages     Spiritual

An Altar in the World is a book about spiritual practices, but not the sort you find in esoteric spirituality. Taylor discusses the spiritual practices of the everyday. Taylor is a woman of great wisdom; her life has made many twists and turns, but she remains true to her Christian roots. A pastor once asked her to preach on what was "saving her life" now. She says: "What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. . . What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world." She claims no distinction between the secular and the sacred—every moment is a sacred moment to Taylor.

In twelve chapters, she focuses on sacred practices that requires a body as well as a soul. She discusses living with purpose, paying attention and being present to God, encountering others, feeling pain, and practicing Sabbath. This practice she calls "the practice of saying no." This chapter was especially meaningful to me as I attempt to disengage myself from activities that wear me out rather than build me up. This is a project that I am not very good at, but Taylor says that in our culture, not too many people are very good at it because "being busy is how our culture measures worth." So, therefore, I am consciously practicing Sabbath frequently.

Yesterday, we were supposed to have been driving to visit a son and family in West Virginia, but at the last minute the trip was called off. My husband and I declared it a day of Sabbath. We had already said no to everything that we were committed to doing, so we had a delightfully free day. We ate lunch and dinner out; we went looking for a new couch; we watched a movie; we took naps, and drank wine. And we woke up this morning refreshed. We celebrated a Sabbath, even though it was Friday.

Another practice I appreciated was the practice of valuing the people around you and finding the face of God in each person. When I was driving my friend home yesterday, we came upon the garbage truck in her neighborhood. She said, "You see that garbage man! He is the most pleasant fellow. He knows the names of each family, and speaks to everyone. He even knows our dog's name." Now, here is a person who recognizes the worth of all the people around him. And my friend recognized the worth as well, because she acknowledges his worth as a human being and not just as her garbage man. Taylor says that Jesus was the prime example of a person who appreciated those around him and acknowledged their worth. 

For the past six months, a group I belong to have been studying ancient spiritual practices using a book by Ruth Haley Barton called Sacred Rhythms. Taylor's approach is more earthy and earthly, but the message is the same. Spiritual growth comes from living life true to yourself, which also makes your life true to God.

Time Magazine named Taylor one of 2014's 100 most influential people, and then the very next week (April 28) she appeared on the cover with a review of her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark. The magazine calls her "a centering voice in the wilderness." She is the author of 13 books. I think I need to read them all.

The Time Magazine review of Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor's website:

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