Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, professor of religion, and author of LEAVING CHURCH, a book that resonated with many of us, in her latest work, AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, does what she does so well: she gives advice and counsel to those both inside and outside the church on how to become more human and have a richer spiritual life. She reminds us that we need not travel to the shrines of seers in foreign lands but rather that we cannot see the red X that will free us because we are standing on it. In 12 chapters the author covers vision, reference, the Sabbath, physical labor, vocation, prayer-- a different topic for each chapter. One of the things so endearing about Taylor's writing is that she is so brutally honest about herself, revealing details about her life that many people would never talk about: that she shakes hands like a man, that she may like Bombay Sapphire gin martinis too much, that she is a "rotten" godmother, for instance. The most surprising thing I learned about her is that Taylor considers herself an introvert. I would never have suspected that. In addition to her forthrightness, Taylor, an English major somewhere in her studies, always writes eloquently so it is easy to wallow in her words. She is just as much at home quoting Wendell Berry or Rumi as the Old Testament character Job. There are so many beautiful passages here chockfull of truths: her account of when she was seven, watching falling stars with her father from whom she learned reverence as well as her description of the first church she loved, in the Ohio countryside, where the pastor "was the first adult who looked me in the eyes and listened to what I said. He was the first to tuck God's pillow under my head." (You can tip your hat to that image as it is so beautiful!) Many of us were fortunate to have such a person in our lives as well. And we could pick out of a church lineup-- or maybe not-- the lone woman Taylor encountered polishing silver in the sacristy at a church in Alabama merely by Taylor's description of her as a "pulled-together woman."
Although the author gives a whole litany of the things that Episcopalians bless ("The Episcopalins are fools for blessing things"), she left off pets and fleets of ships. (I'm not sure, however, that I'm ready to bless my bathroom or read a poem aloud to a tree yet.) But Taylor is not about words but practices, encouraging her readers to get off the porch-- except on Sabbath-- and do something. She is dead on in her comments that we should at least make eye contact with the grocery store cashier (we don't have to invite her to dinner) and learn to say "no," in my favorite chapter: "The Practice of Saying No: Sabbath." Her admonishment that we do absolutely nothing on the Sabbath, not even driving our cars or turning on our computers, is well worth trying to do. We are so busy that we miss what is really important. Finally, Taylor via Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine, "recognizes the sacramental value of a homegrown tomato sandwich." For that statement alone, they both can be my spiritual advisors.
Whether you worship within a community or, in the words of Emily Dickinson, "keep the Sabbath staying at home"-- or keep the Sabbath not at all-- you will find much truth here, that if followed, should make you come closer to being a human being, or as Taylor says, "should "give you more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life."
AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD cries out to be mulled over again and again. Of course reading this writer is always a joy.
The author is a well-known Episcopal priest, teacher, and author. She was recognized in 1996 by Baylor University as one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world and received the Emory medal in 1998 for distinguished achievement in education. She is a remarkable story-teller and I have always enjoyed her sermons.
Her most recent writings have a very different feel to them and are more like collections of essays than the sermon collections of the past. Taylor wrote a memoir of her shift from parish ministry to teaching in a book entitled “Leaving Church,” and her latest work is “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.” These later works seem to target the “spiritual but not religious” segment of the reading public and are filled with the same skilled prose that marked her earlier writings.
“An Altar in the World” reviews a variety of spiritual practices with the laudable goal of showing the reader that “the treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company.” For the author, “there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on the earth.” She states, “If you have run out of breath yourself—or out of faith—then this book is for you.” Her hope for the book is that it will help the reader “recognize some of the altars in this world—ordinary looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”
Taylor is very comfortable writing about themes in spirituality from a progressive viewpoint. In an interview given in 2000, she observed, “I am on the edge of Christianity, and I expect to get a letter telling me I’ve been kicked out any day. But my choice, at this point in my life, is to practice the religion of Jesus instead of the religion about Jesus.” And yet I perceive that by moving to what she calls the “edge” she has lost some of her distinctive voice and fallen in with the largely homogenized voices of progressive Christianity. By striving to become edgy she has become—somewhat ironically—conventional.
I think that a certain text from this work provides a litmus test of how you will feel about the book. Take a look at the following extract from the essay, “The Practice of Wearing Skin”:
“One of the most remarkable conversations I have ever had about the physics of divine love took place in a far country, where a male colleague and I were involved in a month-long service project. We were done with our work for the day. We were enjoying a good dinner over a bottle of equally good wine. After two glasses of it, the conversation turned to our physical attraction—not for each other, but for God. Sometimes, he said, when he was preaching a sermon he really cared about, he grew so aware of God’s presence that he became physically aroused. He rose to God’s presence as to the presence of the Beloved. His sense of spiritual intimacy flowed straight into his sense of physical intimacy. They were not two but one. He was not two but one. He and God were not two but one.
“Inspired by his divine audacity, I allowed as how I had experienced the same thing myself, although with different physical equipment. Sometimes when I was praying, my body could not tell the difference between that and making love. Every cell in my body rose to the occasion, so that I felt the prayer prick my breasts and warm my belly, lifting every hair on my body in full alert. Body and soul were not two but one. I was not two but one. God and I were not two but one.”
If you find this passage to be exciting and in the best tradition of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, then I think that you will like this book very much. If you are more skeptical about this bit of sharing and think it has more in common with “Eat, Pray, Love,” than with the biblical spirituality of, for example, the Song of Songs, then I recommend that you skip this book in favor of the author’s earlier work.
My goal for this review is to alert the potential reader of this book that the author is in a very different place than when we first met her in “The Preaching Life” or “When God was Silent,” and I am not yet persuaded that this represents a good change. I, for one, lament the loss of the “homiletical restraint” espoused in the author’s earlier work. I know that I am swimming upstream with this review! If you are tempted to move the cursor toward a “not helpful” vote for this review, please consider leaving a comment instead and begin a conversation with me about this author. Or do both. I frequently revise my reviews in light of reader comments and welcome the interaction.
on February 24, 2009
In recent years, Christians have become more aware that theirs is a faith based in practices--the things we do in the world for the sake of God's beauty, justice and love. In this book, Barbara Brown Taylor opens the language of practice to extend far beyond the walls of the church and directs us to the practices that frame everyday human experience. She finds the divine in all things and invites her readers to intentionally participate in the interplay of the sacred in daily life. In many ways, it is a contemporary version of Brother Lawrence's classic book, "Practicing the Presence of God." As such, Barbara Brown Taylor models how theological reflection is not an arcane or ivory tower exercise. Rather, thinking theologically about our bodies, the ground on which we walk, the laundry that we do, is a holy calling for all people. This is a lovely book, one well-suited for personal growth and for reading groups.
on May 22, 2009
In her memoir called Leaving Church; A Memoir of Faith (2006), Barbara Brown Taylor told her story of how after ministering for nine years on the staff of a large Episcopal church in urban Atlanta, where she had lived half of her adult life, she moved to Clarkesville in northeast Georgia, a town of 1,500 people and two stoplights. The prospect of serving Grace-Calvary Episcopal with its tiny sanctuary that seated 85 people was a dream come true for her, or so she thought. Her passion and competence spelled success, and after five years the church had expanded to four Sunday services. In the process she nearly lost her soul, and so she resigned, left church, and in 1998 took an endowed chair of religion at nearby Piedmont College. Since then she has lived with her husband on a working farm, become a regular speaker of note on the Christian circuit, and continued to write.
For those who might wonder, Taylor might have left church but she has by no means left the faith, and in this book she self-identifies as a Christian. This is an important point because her newest book is not exactly or particularly Christian. This is not a criticism but a simple observation. One of her goals is to abolish the distinctions we make between church and world, sacred and secular, spirit and flesh, body and soul. Any place or thing can mediate the sacred, and so we can make an altar in the world as well as in the church. Taylor draws upon her Christian experiences and tradition, but she also incorporates her knowledge and expertise from having taught a world religions course at Piedmont College for ten years--the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path, the Muslim notion of pilgrimage, rabbinic wisdom from Judaism, or the Sufi mystic poet Rumi. She uses the word "God," but also a semantic range of synonyms like the Real, the Really Real, the Sacred, the Holy, and the divine More.
From these sources and her own experiences Taylor commends twelve spiritual practices, but to call them "spiritual" can be misleading, for most of all she commends a fleshly, embodied spirituality. She writes one chapter each on vision, reverence, incarnation, groundedness, wilderness, community, vocation, sabbath, physical labor, breakthrough, prayer, and benediction. Taylor's book raised a cluster of interesting questions for me. Does an authentic Christian life look any different than a Muslim or Buddhist or deeply spiritual atheist? Should it? Beyond obvious similarities, what are the significant differences? People who follow these twelve spiritual practices will live richer lives, and if that's the case then what, exactly, does the Gospel offer them? More of the same, or something that they cannot hope for anywhere else? I appreciate whatever intention Taylor had to write a "cross-over" book to people who want to be spiritual but not religious, but in the end I wondered if this was just another self-help book by a deeply Christian pilgrim. "Welcome to your own priesthood," she says in her introduction, "practiced at the altar of your own life."
This is probably the most beautiful book about spirituality I have ever read. The experience of moving through the gorgeous, delicious writing was pure joy. I cried at the end. I was profoundly moved.
The book discusses and the spiritual practices of living, of being alive, in a way that will speak to people of any and every faith, and most especially to people who are more spiritual than religious. Each chapter is a separate essay that can stand alone---written on such things as the Practice of Wearing Skin, the Practice of Getting Lost, the Practice of Pronouncing Blessings, and so much more.
This book will woo you away from being dry and dead and and stuck and bored and open you to being more alive. I seldom say this with such certainty, but I know that it will do the same for you.
on July 9, 2009
Barbara Brown Taylor is a magnificent writer. Her previous book was one of the best ever. It was a deep look into living the called life of a minister. It was called "Leaving Church." Every minister would relate to her. This book is not as good as "Leaving Church" but it is a great one. It deals with spiritual disciplines, but not the major ones that everyone talks about. It deals with the art of slowing down, the goal of blessing others, of taking walks and doing dishes. It is a book of reflective thought on the Christian life. The book deals with the common to make it an uncommon experience of walking with God. Not more time away from life, but more time placing God in life. You routine will be sanctified through this book. Her words have air to them and her thoughts can melt away years of forced spirituality. I love sitting in a corner and reading from this woman.
on September 30, 2009
In a recent talk at a book festival, Barbara Brown Taylor said this book was for those who were "church hurt," meaning people who are alienated or even wounded by traditional religion but who nonetheless are looking for spiritual expression and validation.
Those who are weary of empty religious rituals, doctrinal infighting, and exclusive claims to truth will find a sympathetic voice and a reliable guide to an alternative spirituality in Brown's book.
Brown's message that God and spirituality can be found in the practices of everyday life is not new. Her unique perspective comes from having been an Episcopal parish priest and a professor of religion at a small Georgia college. The reader gets the feeling that he is talking with a wise friend in these pages who is descriptive about her own journey rather than prescriptive. Brown does not so much criticize traditional religion (in fact she borrows heavily from her own Christian experience) as much as offer a related but alternative path to some of the same fruit. Thus, a walk in the woods can be as holy as sitting in a church bathed in the glow of stained glass. The strength of the book comes from elevating our awareness, gratitude, and reverence for "everydayness" to that of any traditional worship.
Each chapter,(with titles such as "Reverence," "Community," and "Physical Labor"), is meant to be a set of practices for realizing the divine in ordinary life.
This book succeeds as a warm, wise, and humble reassurance that, as Brown explains, we can find the red X that marks holy ground because we are already standing on it. "An Altar in the World" helps us discover what we are standing on.
on January 6, 2010
I always love Barbara Brown Taylor's writing style and this book was no exception. It was thoughtful, witty, honest and engaging. In general, I appreciated what she had to say. However, within the first few pages I was thinking to myself that I could tell this book was written by an introvert. The disciplines she covered were mainly meant to be experienced alone. Even her chapter on community was mostly about the desert fathers, hermits who spent most of their time alone! As a strong extrovert, the book did not resonate as deeply with me because of this aspect, although I still enjoyed reading and thinking about the ideas presented.
on June 25, 2010
I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God? (p. 4, An Altar in the World)
Thus it is that Barbara Brown Taylor begins finding altars in the world as places where even the most reverent or the most jaded among us can encounter a living God, or creation, or whatever it is that we define as this planet we inhabit.
For over twenty years, Taylor had worked within the structure of organized religion as an ordained Episcopal priest. She loved her churches and her congregants but came away feeling that something was missing, something not quite right. Were Sunday and weekday religious services enough? What about the world outside of the church buildings? That was a lot of world, and wasn't it all God's? Brown eventually left the active ministry, and began teaching religion. Her favorite of her courses was Religions of the World, a course which fascinated her, but made some of her first-year Christian seminary students a bit nervous. As they visited and participated in the services at mosques and synagogues and Masjids, they were forced to look at the world and religion through new eyes, and came away wondering if perhaps there was more than one way to God.
For Taylor, it followed that not only was the God of the World worshipped in buildings other than churches, He could also be found in the world He created long before buildings came to be. God, she reasoned, did not intend to live in a box.
Taylor's "altars" are not places but rather practices that make one aware of the Earth and all that inhabits it. One of her favorites is simply Walking on the Earth. Walking with no agenda, no destination, but rather with eyes and mind and heart wide open to receive the beauty and sacredness of Creation. She suggests doing it barefoot at least part of the time! The desired outcome of this spiritual practice, and others, is "to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know--about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God."
In other words, an altar is about being in relationship. Her other altars reflect this theme: The Practice of Waking Up to God (vision), The Practice of Paying Attention (Reverence), The Practice of Wearing Skin (Incarnation), The Practice of Getting Lost (Wilderness), The Practice of Encountering Others (Community), The Practice of Living with Purpose (Vocation), The Practice of Saying No (Sabbath), The Practice of Carrying Water (Physical Labor), The Practice of Feeling Pain (Breakthrough), The Practice of Being Present to God (Prayer), and The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction).
Taylor is a Christian, but her focus here is catholic, in the true original sense of the word--universal in scope. She draws on wisdom from not only Christianity, but also Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism; she cites the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah. She finds wisdom in the words of the Desert Fathers, Brother Lawrence, Wendell Berry, Rumi and various rabbis. Everyone we meet, she says, we must assume to be a face of God. What we have most in common is not religion, but our humanity.
Whether being practical (cleaning toilets) or mystical (walking a labyrinth at Chartres), Taylor wants us to know, to really feel, that the world, this Creation, and all of its people are to be treated with respect and honor and humility and awe. The issue is never a ritual, but the relationship. It is living outside of oneself. It is being intentional about all that we do--to walk through our day days causally, not casually. In Taylor's words, it is "to get over yourself." "It is living so that 'I'm only human' does not become an excuse for anything." It is knowing that whatever we do, menial or grandiose, becomes a sacred act if we treat it as such, and to realize that our true shared vocation is to love God and neighbor. Any place we might be is holy ground, hallowed ground, if we but acknowledge the Creator of that place.
This is a small book that carries a big impact. It is not preachy but it informs and teaches. It does not proselytize but rather encourages relation with Creator and created World. In this time, when Earth is reeling from natural disaster, war, and man-made catastrophes, Taylor encourages us to slow down, to really look and see and listen--to be in relationship with everything and everyone around us. Each of us is this Earth's best hope. She fittingly closes with the words of Rumi:
"Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
by Susan Ideus
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
on June 3, 2009
For anyone reflecting on what it means to practice Christianity in modern times, Altar in the World, An: A Geography of Faith is a must-read. In language that is nearly poetic, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks from the heart on her personal experiences and reflections as a person of faith. In reading the book cover-to-cover (twice), I was mesmerized, transformed.