An Altar in the World

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Article Reviews
By Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2009)

 

"If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say ‘I am spiritual but not religious,' then I might not be any wiser about what it means-but I would be richer," starts this book.Well, if I had a dollar for every book about spirituality in everyday life, I'd be rich, too. Just don't make me read all of them.

But this one is by Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest once named one of the 12 best preachers in the English-speaking world and the author of Leaving Church (HarperOne, 2006), a memoir so honest and compelling that I bought copies for several friends who are, well, spiritual but not religious.

In An Altar in the World, Taylor describes how she encounters God in simple acts like walking, carrying water, and blessing things and people. In my favorite chapter, "The Practice of Getting Lost," she admits, "I know it is a stretch to call this a spiritual practice, but perhaps that is the point. Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way-once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way."

But Brown's essays are not superficial ponderings about God's presence in every little mundane happening of her life. Although she has left full-time parish ministry for academia, Taylor is still a fine preacher and is able to connect her 21st-century experiences to scripture, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and wisdom figures from other religious traditions. She brings a fresh perspective to traditional Christian practices such as prayer, fasting, and finding your vocation.

Without denigrating altars in churches, Brown helps us discover and honor all the "altars in the world"-the red Xs that mark the spot, but that we cannot see because we are standing on them. She does so with a depth that readers will appreciate and savor. This is no everyday "everyday spirituality" book.