An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor


“Spiritual but not religious” is one of the newer and increasingly common ways people describe themselves. But what do they mean and what does the phrase mean for those of us struggling to keep the Church — at least, organized religion — relevant?

These are the central questions in “An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, a religion professor who was a parish priest. 

‘Spiritual’ may be the name for a longing – for more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. … They know there is more to life than what meets the eye.  They have drawn close to this ‘More’ in nature, in love, in art, in grief. They would be happy for someone to teach them how to spend more time in the presence of this deeper reality, but when they visit the places where such knowledge is supposed to be found, they often find the rituals hollow and the language antique.

People aren’t as interested in being told about God as they are in experiencing God.  Taylor offers 12 practices for building an altar in the world, for experiencing God.  Most of them are variations on the “mindfulness” theme — being aware of yourself, your feelings, your surroundings, those around you — strangers as well as friends — even your own pain. Because of the pace at which most of us live today in our culture, we are rarely truly present in the moment as we dash from deadline to deadline and crisis to crisis, unaware of God’s presence and the opportunity to experience it.

Reverence, Taylor says, is an important part of Paying Attention (practice #2). While our culture reveres money, power, education and religion, philosopher Paul Woodruff argues that true reverence is by definition “the recognition of something greater than the self — something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.”

Taylor asks, “What awakens awe in you by reminding you of your true size?” This is where and how you will experience the divine More.

She also advises Getting Lost (practice #5) as the only way to find unexpected treasures and blessings, and Feeling Pain (practice #10), for the world’s great religions all grew out of pain.

The practice that took me by the throat and left me breathless was #8 — Saying No.  Much has been said in many contexts about the pitfalls of our over-scheduled lives, but Taylor makes a strong case for the extent to which this lifestyle separates us from God.

“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is a commandment, she points out,  just like “Have no other Gods before me,” “Do not commit murder,” “Do not bear false witness,” “Honor your parents” and “Do not steal.”  When did we decide it was optional?

Think about THAT for a moment.

Certainly, there are people for whom Sunday must be a day of work — those who keep us all safe and healthy. But what about the rest of us? Does Sunday need to be a day just all the others except for 90 minutes in the morning?

My husband, Martin, and I talked about this at length and decided to try to keep the Sabbath during Lent. We knew it would be challenging, but as of January 15, we are both retired and no longer have Monday morning deadlines to worry about.

Traditionally, those who keep the Sabbath also avoid things that cause other people to work — so no brunches or suppers out, no movies, no shopping.  We have to plan ahead to have food prepared that can be simply put in the oven or crockpot and offer left-overs for reheating for supper.  Anything that will need to be ironed for church must be ironed before bedtime Saturday night. The coffee is made so we only push a button Sunday morning.

For purely sanitation/health reasons, we do put dishes in the dishwasher on Sunday, but unloading must be done on SaturdayDusting, sweeping, folding clothes, picking up — all attended to on Saturday or they go undone until Monday.

With all that time on Sunday, we breathe.  We breathe in the sunlight or the shadows, the warm or the cold, the snow or budding trees, our cardinals and now our robins, each other’s presence and the Holy Spirit.  We pray, we talk, we read things that help keep us centered on the Sabbath. In the interests of full disclosure, March Madness was allowed; but strangely enough, the despair over losses didn’t provoke the depth of feeling we usually experience around here. They were games, and we were aware of the joy of playing at this level.

As the weeks have gone by, I’m finding I enjoy Saturdays more. I’m busy getting ready for Sunday with a real sense of anticipation!

We are talking about continuing the Sabbath after Easter. Martin had concerns about golf, but I think play should be allowed, especially when it’s outside in God’s creation. We hope to spend more time with family and friends on our Sabbaths — when we can find some who aren’t too busy with “things.” Call us, if you are so moved.

One other thought: Taylor says the rabbis she knows tell her their people who keep the Sabbath also tend to keep the other commandments.  Seems the Israelites were really onto something!

by Ronda Menke Haas


One thought on “An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s