An Altar in the World

By Barbara Brown Taylor

A couple of my New Year’s Resolutions this year have to do withmy blogs. One has to do with writing, and keeping up with the number of actual posts: at which I’m doing fairly well. The other has to do reading, and actually finishing 15 books this year. I’m going to try to write about each: and this is the first.

An Alter in the World was very good book, this exploration into the spiritual side of life emphasizes the reality and the casualness with which we can approach spiritual experience. Written by a woman who has experienced many vocations in her life, I could relate to many aspects that she spoke of. I enjoyed her perspective, including some of her stories that served to illustrate her points excellently… and often in the extreme.

I started this book a few weeks back: reaching the mid-point about the time I was going through my “pinched nerve” ordeal. Lying trapped in bed by the pain that wracked my body, it was often difficult to think of the spiritual side of life. I was having trouble dealing with the physical. But this book helped me in ways I’m not sure the author expected.

The fourth of her “practices” was “The Practice of Walking on the Earth”. At one point she said, “Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all. All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however, counterintuitive that may seem… Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are.” (pg. 56) At the time I was reading this, I was stuck in bed and wondering if I would ever walk again. It was difficult to get comfortable, and I was trying to figure out what I might be able to do to help my “pinched nerve”. After a moment’s grumpiness (“I might be one of those who is not able to walk…!”) I recognized my self-pity and remembered words from my friend Laura, who I had gone to school with twenty years ago. She had said something a bit shorter, but with essentially the same idea: “Wherever you are, be fully there.”

Among others, there were the spiritual practises of: “paying attention”, “wearing skin”, “getting lost”, “living with a purpose”, “saying no”, “carrying water” and “pronouncing blessings”. In each case, she made connections to Scripture and to history, providing authority and perspective. But she also emphasized, in each case, that these are not practises that need to be carried out by priests or rabbis or pastors. They are not only appropriate for each of us to participate in, they are essential for our spiritual growth. I agree with her in that respect. Jesus’ actions when he was here, living his life, were not intended to separate us from the world or to give us a spiritual perspective that is “from above” or different from our everyday life. He came so that we could be completely human, and in that humanity we can enjoy each other, and our world, and God, in their full depth: not necessarily changing anything, but understanding better.

One of my favourite quotes from the book: “If Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (pg. 131). We often speak about how the Old Testament reveals God’s character to those of us who consider ourselves under the New Covenant: we are not bound by the laws enacted in those ancient books, but they illustrate God’s relationship to the fledgling human race and the early nation of Israel. As such, many of those laws reflect on our relationship to each other and our environment through commerce. Much though I do not feel bound by the Laws of Leviticus, they do illustrate how wrong people can be when they pick and choose the laws they find easy to obey… and create a god who is of their own making.

 

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One Response to An Altar in the World

  1. Pingback: Stop the Cuts Toronto | The Geographer's Corner

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