Saturday, January 7, 2012

An Altar in the World (Book Review)

When I read books ~ or articles, or blogs, for that matter ~ these days, I am looking, with some urgency, for answers to questions about how to live.  The cumulative effect of the past three and one-half years is that I don't live at all the way I used to.  Well, any one of the things that have happened would have accomplished that result, but all together?

The suicidal death of a child, ordination, and breast cancer.  Seriously?  Am I a woman who longs for a child she will not see again, at least not in this life; or a woman who celebrates the Eucharist; or a woman whose body has been rather significantly deformed as a consequence of cancer?  Oh, wait ~ I'm all three.

No wonder I read with an eye toward how to live.  I'm looking for ways of leaning into that word I chose for the year: Patience.  And its friends:  Sight.  Hearing.  Waiting.  Watching.  Absorbing.

I like Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World because she offers some clues, without insisting that her clues are necessarily yours.  I've heard her preach during the summer "season" at the Chautauqua Institution countless times and so, as I read, I hear the gentle southern lilt of her voice flowing out of the Ampitheatre, over the trees and across the lake, under the blue summer sky and across the brick walk.  She sounds like the friend who might have an idea, a non-obtrusive idea, about those how-to-live questions, as you walk and talk across the Chautauqua grounds early in the morning en route to yoga class, or late at night after the orchestra concert.

If you're not familiar with the book already, it consists of a series of short chapters focusing on a number of spiritual practices.  But these are not spiritual practices as you may have come to know them if you are a Christian churchgoer.  These are not practices like "reading the Bible" or "fasting."  These are practices like "Walking on the Earth" or "Feeling Pain" or "Carrying Water."

I should probably admit that I had a practical reason for re-reading this book over the past couple of weeks: I am planning a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices and I want to step away from the traditional ones on at least a couple of Sundays.  I haven't been feeling terribly original lately, though, and I thought that BBT might give me a jump start.

But in the end, it all comes back to:  How shall I then live?  A couple of suggestions:

"This is how faith looks sometimes:a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence" (from "The Practice of Feeling Pain"), and

"My hope is that if I can practice saying thank you now, when I still approve of most of what is happening to me, then perhaps that practice will have become habit by the time I do not like much of anything that is happening to me" (from "The Practice of Being Present to God"),

I think that if you are trying to revive or renew your spiritual life, it might be possible to travel a good long way by glancing at a sentence of two in this book each evening and letting those words become your prayer for the next day.


  1. We discussed Altar at our church book group this morning. I think you're quite right about the way it might be used as devotional material. I read it some time ago and didn't re-read it for today as I had hoped, so it lies waiting for me on my Kindle.

  2. I've not read this one. Will need to. A portion of what you write reminds me of a saying in AA - "Fake it 'til you make it." that idea has kept me praying, and talking into the silence of God when all felt futile, even ridiculous. But the process of acting, being, and doing as if a person of faith has kept me growing into my faith through some pretty bleak years. Love your Lenten ideas.