Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Altar on the World - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

An Altar on the World by Barbara Brown Taylor takes a meditative look at how we divide the sacred and the profane. Taylor encourages the reader to view the world as an altar, a place to encounter God, a temple without boundary. She encourages us to do so with frequent reminders of biblical passages – Jacob encountering the ladder out in the wilderness, Moses stopping on holy ground to speak to God in the form of a burning bush, and Jesus asking us to consider the lilies of the field. In a series of chapters about different practices or senses that should be awakened, the author hopes to show us that we have everything we need within us and around us for a fruitful spiritual journey with God.

Taylor’s spiritual practices might not be ones of which you’d readily think, but they show the depth of a person who has tried to find ways to dedicate her whole life to God. She cover practices like “Paying Attention”, “Getting Lost”, “Encountering Others”, “Living with Purpose”, and “Saying No.” Her chapter on encountering others is a prescription for people to overcome their differences by seeing God in each other. She quotes Jonathan Swift who said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make use love one another” (99). As Christ’s followers, we must love both God and our neighbor, because we are all created in God’s image (105).

I resonated with her chapter on prayer, because she admits to feeling like a failure in this area. I have often felt like my way of praying is not how others pray—to stop and stare at the sky and marvel at creation, to become enraptured at watching a National Geographic special about another culture and be thankful for the diversity of God’s people, to be silent and still, or do some sort of action trying to live out the example of Jesus. I’m not a spontaneous pray-out-loud kind of person. To hear her feel like a misfit in this spiritual practice reaffirmed my calling, and reinforced to me that everyone has their own way to come before God. She states, “Prayer is more than my idea of prayer and…some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer” (176). I love the idea of prayer being both contemplative and a way of life or actions we choose to take.

She ends the book with a chapter on blessings, encouraging everyone to take the time and opportunity to pronounce blessings on one another. Taylor encourages us to realize that everyone can do this, not just clergy or certain types of people. She points out that “pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get,” because you “learn to look with compassion on everything that is” (206). Taylor encourages us to imagine a world where more people are eager to do this.

The strength of this book is the uniqueness of the spiritual practices she covers, which are readily accessible and encourages the reader to look for God in everything from gardens to dumpsters. This book is an inspiration to adopt a sense of mindfulness in the world and be ready to, as God told Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (pg 66).

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