"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown Taylor

As some of you know, my family has a book club. Every year, one of us picks a book for the rest of the family to read during the year. When we get together at Christmas, we all sit down and discuss it. This year, it was my turn to choose, and I picked An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.

The book club rules (as defined by my sister) stipulate that the person who chooses the book is supposed to have completed it before choosing it. I had forgotten this rule and was only a couple of chapters in when I made this selection. But now that I’ve finished it, I think I got lucky. This is a good book!

The other day, my friend, Stephanie, and I were discussing how hard it can be to embrace spiritual disciplines. In my own life, discipline seems to come and go, and I’m not always sure why. But I’ve gotten really energized by reading this book, because it takes a very practical approach to spiritual discipline…

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.

(from the introduction)

I freely admit that it is a bit odd for me to quote this passage at the precise time when I’ve pulled up the tent pegs and have settled on a new life and career. (In fact, some of you may recall that this same quote appeared over a year ago in one of my many angst-filled blog posts.) Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to slowly re-reading this book at Laurelville, and deliberately exploring its down-to-earth wisdom.

Many people are familiar with the some of the “classic” spiritual disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, simplicity, solitude, worship, and so on. However, what I really appreciate about An Altar in the World is that it re-frames the disciplines in a way that explicitly ties them to our life here and now. In this way, the book appeals to my sense that for faith to be meaningful it needs to see and embrace the Kingdom of God as a present reality, and not some future hope.

So, for example, it sets out these practices:

  • Waking up to God
  • Paying attention
  • Wearing skin
  • Walking on earth
  • Getting lost
  • Encountering others
  • Living with purpose
  • Saying no
  • Carrying water
  • Feeling pain
  • Being present to God
  • Pronouncing blessing

Wearing skin? Walking on earth? Feeling pain? I already do these things! How did they become disciplines?

This is the beauty of this book. Taylor isn’t trying to get us to do anything strange or new. She’s just trying to nudge us to pay attention to what we’re already doing, to do it deliberately, and to discover the holiness that is already present.

Anyway – I highly recommend this book, and I hope to find the discipline(!) to reflect on it more thoroughly in the coming weeks and months.