An Altar in the World (book review)

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 216 pages.


Where do we encounter the divine? Have we created a false dichotomy, partitioning God off into a corner, away from our daily lives? Do we try to contain God in a building or to a day of the week in order to keep God private and separated from our lives? In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that just because we categorize things into the sacred and secular, God doesn’t. God created the world good and thereby we can encounter the divine anywhere, especially in the ordinary. “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars,” she proclaims (15). This book is sprinkled with examples of how we might wake up to the divine. Taylor looks at things we do every day: waking up, walking around, getting lost, encountering others, going to work, saying yes and no, experiencing pain, and finally to being present to God in prayer.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest. For twenty years she served in the parish and for the past two decades taught at Piedmont College in north Georgia. Although she writes out of her Christian convictions, Taylor draws from theologians, those in the pews, as well as from other traditions: Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim. She writes this book for both those inside the church who need to see God’s presence in all of life as well as those who are outside the church, but who seek to be spiritual and need to see the blessings of experiencing the divine in other people. I recommend this book to both the religious and those who think of themselves as irreligious!  Where will we encounter the divine?

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours?” (9)

“I am a guest here, charged with serving other guests-even those who present themselves as my enemies.” (13)

The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore.” (33)

“Deep suffering makes theologians of us all.” (42)

“’Solviture Ambulando,’ wrote Augustine of Hippo…. It is solved by walking.” (61)

“The Desert Fathers, a group of early Christians whose practice of community did not include a coffee hour… the deeper reason they needed one another was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency.” (88, 90)

“Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen…” (95)

“The point is to find something that feeds your sense of purpose and to be willing to look low for that purpose as well as high” (120)

“‘God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.’ -Meister Eckhart” (121)

“No one who is not in pain is allowed to give advice to someone who is. The only reliable wisdom about pain comes from the mouth of those who suffer it.” (169)

“Anyone who recognizes the sacramental value of a homegrown tomato sandwich can be my spiritual director.” (178)

“To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.”” (176)

“I think it is a big mistake to perpetuate the illusion that only certain people can bless things.” (193)

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