An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (Plus)
by Barbara Brown Taylor
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
There's a lot more to the Christian publishing world than the frankly evangelical, condemnatory, judgmental, and didactic. Scott Cairns's lovely meditation The End of Suffering is a case in point. So is Harvey Cox's magnificent, and very different, The Future of Faith. This is the real thing in spiritual reading: meaty, challenging, and insistently calling us to live our lives in a more devoted, more truly religious manner. This is what I look for; this is what I get from at least a few books each year. And, when I stumble across something new that meets this high standard, I rejoice.
Imagine my pleasure, then, when I found myself encountering such an experience in Barbara Brown Taylor's newest book, An Altar in the World, just out in paperback from HarperOne.
Taylor's book is a marvelous series of reflections on different practices of the engaged spiritual life. Her chapters -- there are 12 of them -- cover subjects as diverse as "The Practice of Paying Attention," about reverence, "The Practice of Wearing Skin," which addresses incarnation, and "The Practice of Paying Attention to God," which focuses on prayer. Each is tightly and elegantly crafted, a real treat for eye, mind, and heart. Taylor's prose is gorgeous, ardent, and filled with light, spilling out on the page like so much spiritual honey. Take, for example, this paragraph from the chapter entitled "The Practice of Encountering Others":
What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches us that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get -- in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing -- which is where God's Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead.
While unabashedly rooted in Christianity -- Taylor is Episcopalian and was once a priest in that denomination -- An Altar in the World is refreshingly open to other religious traditions. Buddhism, Vedanta, Islam, and Judaism are all drawn from in these pages, and Taylor's not shy in using the practices of others to explore ways in which we can expand our own awareness and joy at the gift of life. In what often seems to be an increasingly xenophobic and narrowly black-and-white culture, An Altar in the World is a stirring invitation to embrace religious diversity, and to truly open our hearts to, and be transformed by, the experience and traditions of others.
Chapter ten is called "The Practice of Feeling Pain" and covers the art -- can you call it anything else? -- of addressing this; the art of being present for the dying, the seriously ill, the grieving has produced in her an almost palpable compassion. This has to be one of the kindest books I've ever read. Taylor not only counsels gentleness and acceptance in our relationships with others, but, perhaps more importantly, in our relationship with ourselves. After all, in the end, God loves everyone, and we are equally beautiful and necessary and welcome in His sight. We are forgiven.
Taylor is also informed by a profound and reverential relationship with the natural world. Her walks in fields, her struggles in the garden, her encounters with deer and other inhabitants of the woods around her house, and her willingness to "get lost" both in her car and afoot in order to open herself up to a deeper union with the divine present a marvelous antidote to the cloistered and stifling reality of this age of shopping malls, rush hours, and instant messaging.
At heart, An Altar in the World is an extended discourse on building, maintaining, and strengthening our sacred relationships with ourselves and all of existence, both the seen and the unseen variety. As such, it triumphs, calling us forth to embrace our better selves. Could anyone ask for more?