Book Review- An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

by Mark Votava

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This is a wonderful book!  The thing I love about this book is how Barbara Brown Taylor emphasizes experiencing our spirituality through what are the ordinary physical activities of life in the real world.  Waking up, paying attention, encountering others, feeling pain, being present, saying no, incarnation, groundedness and getting lost are some of the important themes in the book.  Highly recommended!

  • Wisdom is gained by practice

“…it is wisdom we need to live together in this world.  Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right.  Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.  Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act.  They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know…”

  • The practice of paying attention

“The practice of paying attention really does take time.  Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.  We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable.  Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods.  If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods – if only we could find some way to do more faster.”

  • Encountering another human being

“The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  All you have to do is recognize another ‘you out there’ – your other self in the world – for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself.  To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to yourself.  This can be as frightening as it is liberating.  It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.”

  • Engaging the most ordinary physical activities

“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from bodily experiences of human life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”

How can I encounter another human being as someone who I do not try to use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control?