An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this with my small group (six women, including two widows in their 70's/80's and four "empty nesters" in their 50's and 60's) over the last six weeks; each week, the six of us would meet to discuss two chapters. This is the second book we've read together, so we knew a little about each other before we started. The conversations we had over this book have made a deep and lasting impression on me.
As has this book. It is beautifully written, with just the right mix of Taylor's own thoughts - wow, this woman can write a sentence - illustrations from others (she includes poetry, prayers and other meaningful quotations from a host of "wise" people across centuries) and warm hearted humor.
She says in the introduction "...my hope is that reading [this] will help you recognize some of the altars in this world -- ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God."
For me, she certainly succeeded.
I read this with a pencil; most pages show at least a few underlinings, stars, hearts and other marginalia. Looking back over all those pages, I'm struck anew by the power of Taylor's writing. I started reading the book a few pages each day, but soon found I wanted to keep going and had to make myself stop when I'd finished the reading for the week. But when I reached the last two chapters - on prayer and blessing - I didn't want to finish. I read that last chapter just before heading off to my meeting. I loved it most of all. (While I was reading, I also ordered two of the poetry books she cited on those pages - gotta love Amazon on your phone.)
Two days later, the passages I marked on those last pages still evoke the emotion, clarity of understanding and simple grace I felt when I first read them:
"I could argue with myself on this, but I am not sure that you have to believe in God to pronounce a blessing. It may be enough to see the thing for what it is and pronounce it good. For most of us, that is as close to God as we will ever get anyway."
"God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not."
"That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars."and finally - from the very last page:
"I hope you can think of [at least a dozen] more ways to celebrate your own priesthood, practiced at the altar of your own life. As the love poet of all time reminds us both,(that last bit is from Rumi and that's one of the books I ordered.)
Today like every other day we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
I'm confident I'll feel the same way two weeks, months and years from now. All of this might be a little much for some, but it was just what I (and the other women in my small group) needed. If it sounds remotely interesting to you, please read it. I think you'll love it, too.