An Altar in the World: Book Review

She signed, “to Karie, with love” on my book that was later splashed by Peach Chardonnay and Deep Creek Lake. The wine and water damage remind me of a much needed vacation and of the holiness found in ordinary objects. I think Barbara Brown Taylor would approve.

The chapters in this book can be read in any order but I have to admit I liked the way she ordered them, it felt like a structured worship service. While reading it I felt grounded in my faith and yet, free from the in the box thinking that a traditional church building typically holds. It’s a beautiful box, and I love it very much, but sometimes spirituality needs to be found outside of the usual sanctuary, especially when I can not be in the building because of the COVID-19 shut downs.

In each chapter I found a spiritual practice I could do no matter my location, although it was especially lovely to practice on vacation, outside of my usual comfort zones and spiritual places and explore the idea that, “The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or social company. All we lack is the willingness to image that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.” (introduction xvii) In other words, I do not have to travel to my church building, or purchase an expensive ticket to a spiritual retreat, to commune with the divine. Those things are nice, but the divine is all around us all the time, what is lacking is awareness. “The longer I practice prayer, the more I think it is something that is always happening, like a radio wave that carries music through the air whether I tune in to it or not.” (p. 190)

After reading the second chapter, I practiced reverence by observing a pine tree for a long time. And I wondered why I don’t observe more of the world with reverence and adoration. I hope to make more time for that. It wasn’t until a few days later I remembered that a preaching professor had given similar instructions for our writing journals and a few times asked to observe and not write. The practice encouraged more descriptive writing and perhaps the spiritual discipline of reverence.

Her thoughts on encountering the stranger were beautiful as she compared hospitality, or philoxenia (love for stranger) to xenophobia (fear of stranger). I would love to add this chapter to a discussion on immigration and/or racism.

As for vocation, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered.” (p. 110) Other gems from this chapter include, “Kindness is not a bad religion, no matter what name you use for God.” (p. 115) and a quote from Irenaeus of Lyons “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (p.118) to explain the dual nature of Christ. She includes this helpful story, “When I ask people to tell me how Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine, they often describe a kind of laminating process, in which his humanity was encased in divine plastic. The last thing to occur to most of us is that to be fully one is to be fully the other” (p. 118).

As if I wasn’t already in love with this book, “I am a failure at prayer” (176) made me feel seen and loved, and not so alone. Traditional teaching about prayer, what to say, and how to hold your hands, never really “worked” for me. I resonated with “Brother David was the first person to tell me that prayer is not the same thing as prayers. …. Prayer, according to Brother David, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alter to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something that I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know I am in The Midst.” (p. 178) Being aware of God’s presence is so much easier than saying the right words at the right time whatever that means. She talked about waiting, gratitude, and taking in simple pleasures as ways of connecting to God in prayer. And after expanding the boundaries of prayer she affirmed traditional set prayers too, “I stay curious about all of the different ways to pray set prayers, since those particular practices strike me as the stitches that keep the quilt of prayer in place.” (185) I would love to curl up in that quilt and listen for God, wouldn’t you?

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