I just finished a most nourishing book, heart-filling, aha-making, soul-connecting.
When my nephew Owen was here a few weeks ago to take the Illinois Bar Exam, he gave me a book his wife Vivien had picked out for me and sent along: An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
I was quite touched that as they start their new post-law-school life in Atlanta near Owen’s parents, and are at that ‘living on a dime’ stage that Viv had bought me anything. The book’s subtitle is “A Geography of Faith” – I got my hopes up. It’s actually fairly rare for people to buy me books that are EXACTLY me. I read a lot and in a rather limited number of genres and you would think that would make it easy. But it’s kind of like dating – yes, there ARE plenty of fish in the sea, but that doesn’t mean they’re all suitable, ya know?
So I was not only delightfully surprised that my niece (as an aside, isn’t your nephew’s wife your niece? I hope so because it’s just too wordy to always say “my nephew’s wife and Viv FEELS like a niece to me!) got me a book, but that in picking one out that was PERFECT for me, that the bigger gift is having felt seen – she GOT me. Sweet!
Anyway, this book by Barbara Brown Taylor, is about seeing the sacred in our everyday life. I loved one of the quotes on the cover: “Not a page-turner, it is a page-lingerer. I wore out a highlighter making passages I want to read again.” – Ditto! I mean, my pen is still functioning, but it got a workout.
What I loved about this book was that this woman, a former Episcopalian priest, now a professor of religious studies, is so very real. She has profound insights on life and God and love and suffering and prayer – but none are sanctimonious or proclaimed from on high. As was true in the book I read right before this one: Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World
by Mary Pipher (see my blog entry on Seeking Peace) it was the author’s authenticity, vulnerability and honesty that made it so deeply meaningful.
Barbara Brown Taylor is a great writer and she’s funny as all get out. Just her way of wording things can bring a smile: “While many of his present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it. Jesus was a walker, not a rider. He took his sweet time.” – I just love that last sentence – she makes Jesus more real, as she does everyone and everything else in the book.
She divides the book into twelve “Practices” – much as Judaeo-Christianity has the Ten Commandments or Buddhism has the Four Noble Truths – it’s nice to have an orderly way with one’s spiritual practices. To each of these practices she ascribes a spiritual virtue. They are:
- The Practice of Waking Up to God: Vision
- The Practice of Paying Attention: Reverence
- The Practice of Wearing Skin: Incarnation
- The Practice of Walking on the Earth: Groundedness
- The Practice of Getting Lost: Wilderness
- The Practice of Encountering Others: Community
- The Practice of Living with Purpose: Vocation
- The Practice of Saying No: Sabbath
- The Practice of Carrying Water: Physical Labor
- The Practice of Feeling Pain: Breakthrough
- The Practice of Being Present to God: Prayer
- The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings: Benediction
What I liked was the “being in the world” nature of these practices. The acknowledgment of our incarnation. One of the many things I underlined was “God loves bodies. I mean that in some way that defies all understanding, God means to welcome risen bodies and not just disembodied souls to heaven’s banquet table. The resurrection of the dead is the radical insistence that matter matters to God.”
I love also her juxtaposition of the practices and virtues – they’re sometimes surprising to me until I read what she has to say about them. The Practice of Saying No = The Sabbath? Really. Yes, really. And it makes a lot of sense once I read it.
I was particularly touched by the end of the book. The final chapter was on benediction. She mentioned how in our culture we expect clergymen to be those who bless us – with one exception. We think it’s appropriate for parents to bless their children.
When I was a child, after we had our baths and brushed our teeth and asked for another glass of water and our Mommy read us our story, we would say our nighttime prayers: “God bless Mommy and Daddy and Jean and George and Pier and Grandma….etc.” Then our mom would make the sign of the cross on our forehead and put her hand on our sleepy head and pronounce a beautiful benediction. So comforting, that. Mommy. God. It felt very safe and good.
My absolute last encounter with my mother – leaving Princeton Hospital to go home as she lay dying (our parents never exactly said “we want to be alone for this” but it came through and so we went) – I went to her room, alone and I told her I loved her. And then said “Give me your blessing, Mama”. She started out much as she did when I was a child but her speech soon became unintelligible – at least to my brain. But my heart heard her loud and clear. And it was good.
This book is beautiful. Evocative. Thought-provoking. Funny and human. Sacred, really. Like the world in which we live, embodied. She ends with a Rumi quote and I will end this with that same quote. He’s one of my favorite poets, and this has always been one of my favorite Rumi poems:
“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.”