When I recommended “An Altar in the World” a few days ago, I mentioned that I was looking forward to re-reading it (and taking it to heart) when I got to Laurelville. I decided to get a jump-start this week. My goal is to experiment with the practical suggestions that Barbara Brown Taylor gives for incorporating spiritual discipline into everyday life. At least, I thought she gave suggestions – that was my recollection/impression when I reached the end of the book the first time through. But when I went back to chapter one, it surprised me.
In chapter one, Taylor is describing the practice of waking up to God. ‘Vision’ is the word she suggests for this practice. So as I was reading, I was looking for ways one might learn to see God. But I didn’t find answers – at least, not the kind of concrete suggestions I was looking for. And then it occurred to me that this was the point of the whole chapter. We create events for God to attend and structures to serve as God’s dwelling. But Taylor notes that the whole world is the dwelling of God, and she asks, “What if the gravel of a parking lot looks as promising to God as the floorboards of a church?” Like Jacob we gradually wake up to the realization that “the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28.16)
If there is a switch to flip, I have never found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did not make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away…
And she continues by describing how she can respond to a “vision of the divine”:
I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is…
… I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.
As I anticipate my new job at Laurelville, I have been keenly aware that this is a very dramatic change in my life. It isn’t realistic to think that I’ll ever return to science, at least not in the way that it ordered my life for the last eighteen years. And yet, during these months I have never had the sense of these years being wasted time. Everything in my life, each community and place, has led to this moment, contributing to what comes next.
So I thought it was appropriate to be reading chapter one this week and to pause to “set a stone or say a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.” I needed to clean up some geocaches* that my daughters and I had placed around the suburbs. As I did this yesterday, I decided to take some time at each place to offer thanks and a blessing…
* For those of you unfamiliar with geocaching: geocaching.com.
Eaton Preserve is less than a mile from our Plainfield home. It has a park area, a few acres of prairie, and a small out-of-the-way wooded corner. It was in that corner that Oldest Daughter hid her geocache. You have to work to get there. But once there, you find yourself in a quiet spot to watch the stream pass by.
Black Partridge Woods
Black Partridge Woods is just southwest of where I work at Argonne. There aren’t any groomed trails; subsequently, few people know that it exists, let alone visit. Middle Daughter chose a hollow tree for hiding her geocache – a kind of rebirth for the tree (to invoke the music of Rich Mullins). Her cache was also close to a stream. Our family seems to like these riverside locations.
The Sag Quarries lie beside the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel and are just to the southeast of my work. There is no more quarrying; the area has been converted to a county park. I spent many lunches here. Like the other two locations, you can find a spot that almost no one visits. This is where I had hidden a geocache. Yesterday, as I started out to retrieve my cache I was greeted by a flash of orange: a Baltimore oriole welcomed me to the path. Cardinals and chickadees also kept me company.
At each of these places, I thanked God for being present with my daughters and I, even if we hadn’t recognized it at the time. I said a blessing for the plants and animals that had witnessed our presence and God’s Spirit in that place. I even placed my hands on the hollow tree as I blessed it and created an altar of rocks like the one at the top of this post.
What good did any of this do?
Heaven knows. I’m just learning to wake up to God.