An Altar in the World
by Barbara Brown Taylor

Harper One, 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-37047-2.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 06/25/2010
Review of the Month, July 2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

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."

Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in rural Georgia, the area where she makes her home with her husband on their working farm. She is also an adjunct Professor of Spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary. The author of twelve books,and a former Episcopal priest, she is now the at-large editor for The Christian Century and is sometimes heard on Georgia Public Radio. Learn more on her website.

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