I hardly pride myself on having good taste, but I am very fortunate to have friends who do or at least should. So when one of those friends, particularly my tall Dutch friend, recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, I felt like the responsible thing to do was read it. And I’m glad I did.
Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left 20 years of parish leadership for a life that is now split between farming and academia in Georgia, wrote this book as someone who had grasped “religion” but was now trying to understand “spirituality.” Could the presence of God be experienced outside church walls?
She cites the biblical story of Jacob’s dream in where he thought was the middle of nowhere, and what actually could have been just an ordinary dream without supernatural intervention led Jacob to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob proceeded to take the stone that he used as a pillow and planted it into the ground, poured oil on it, and called that middle-of-nowhere place “the house of God.” Jacob’s “altar in the world”, significant for many reasons, becomes the foundation of Taylor’s book.
Although Brown talks about this-worldly spirituality using Christian language, it is completely accessible to non-Christians. Instead of taking the preacher’s role of how Scripture informs our worldview, Taylor uses the book of the world to uncover what can we all can know about experiencing the divine. This puts her book in the same genre as the Indian thinkers Buddha and Kabir, both of whom she cites at least once. This is why some of the spiritual practices she describes, like the labyrinth or prayer or the sabbath, will be familiar to Christians; while others, like “paying attention” or “carrying water” might catch us by surprise.
One of those chapters, “The Practice of Getting Lost” more than resonated with me. It was eerily like the short mediation I wrote in June on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost“, down to the tirade against GPSes we both made. Although Taylor is much more eloquent than myself, I took some surprising joy in knowing that somehow the 21st century has affected me and a Southern Episcopalian priest, now in her sixties, in much the same way. (Perhaps I’m not all that crazy, or at least I have a worthy companion in the crazy-den.)
That said, there were some things in the book that made me flinch. For example,
“I use paper, and I know it has to come from somewhere. I just hate thinking that a whole forest came down for one run of a mail-order catalog, especially since I saw so many copies of that catalog in the trash at the post office. From there, they will go to the landfill, where wastepaper is the number one problem. The sacrament of the catalog creates more than reverence in me; it creates painful awareness of my part in the felling of the forest. It weaves me into the web of cause and effect, reminding me of my place in the overall scheme of things.” -p.31-2
There actually is nothing wrong with this (well-worded) quote itself. The problem is that Taylor didn’t go where I expected. I found myself wondering: “Where is the call to action? Where is the prophetic fury against the powers that be, which are causing this literal mess?” Taylor was content to feel the “pain” of brokenness, and I could not help but wonder why this “pain” did not directly result in some sort of burning desire to change the world.
But now, after journeying through Taylor’s book, I realize I was trying to impose political fury on a list of personal practices. My own tendency towards problem-solving was getting in the way of problem-feeling. Similarly, whereas I wanted to know how to make the broken world beautiful, Taylor was teaching me how to pause to the beauty in the world, stubbornly shining through brokenness.
Granted, as far as books written from the Christian perspective go, this hardly gets to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is not romantic but radical. Living life well is quite different from losing one’s life.
But these aren’t contradictions. One example from Christian scripture: Song of Solomon, a book that is undeniably about proper orientation to a particular aspect of our physical existence, and Isaiah, a book undeniably about proper orientation to the divine and divine justice, sit right next to each other in the biblical canon. In that tradition, then, An Altar in the World can coexist with, say, the missional-minded The King Jesus Gospel of Scot McKnight, my former professor (who, it just so happens also wrote a book on living life well, One.Life.)
There was a moment, back during this late summer, when I was about half-way through Taylor’s book, and I had just spent the afternoon trying to figure out my working situation come autumn, on websites like craiglist and idealist and npo.net and indeed.com. And while I told myself I was being productive, I realized that all I was doing was browsing career porn, doing more fantasizing about vocation than actually applying to anything.
It was high-season for blueberries back in the Pacific Northwest, and we had a number of them ripe for the picking in the backyard. Frustrated from looking for a job in Chicago while in Portland, I went outside with a large bowl and just started adding berries to it. The sun was just beginning to set, creating the brilliant orange and purples of the summer sky. About twenty minutes later I had to go back inside for a second bowl.
There was something cathartic about picking berries, about grasping by the hand the potential productivity that lay in the immediate moment, in the immediate vicinity. There were no paychecks involved, but there were blueberries. It was neither perfect nor ideal – some berries were still a touch green while others were so ripe with juice they had exploded all over themselves – but it was real and fulfilling.
It was at this time that I began taking Taylor’s book seriously. Not just as a recommendation from a friend, or a somewhat sophisticated version of a self-help book, but exactly as what Taylor said she set out to explore.
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. – p.xvi-xcii