I’m about halfway through Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, and I must say, I feel like I’ve found a friend. Throughout the book, Taylor discusses various spiritual practices she’s encountered and loved, and right now, her words are fitting like puzzle pieces into my own life. Drawing from her experiences as a pastor and then as a professor of religion, Taylor takes the ritualistic parts of religion and applies them to everyday life, breathing new life into actions that so often fall flat. She fills with color these simple acts: doing laundry, grocery shopping, being in our skins. She talks about churches, too, but only peripherally–and I’m more interested in the rest of the world, anyway. (The ratio of church time: everywhere else time in my life is a little bit sad sometimes, but this book is a nice reminder that when we say God is everywhere, that can mean that worship is everywhere, too.)
The chapter I finished last night talks about “the practice of encountering others.” Taylor talks about our need for others and the power of recognizing others as just as human as we are. “If you have ever spent a Saturday volunteering at the Special Olympics, taking Meals on Wheels to the elderly, or picking up trash with the Riverkeepers, then you know you can arrive back home dirty and tired but also oddly refreshed, with more lift in your heart than you could have gotten from a day at the beach” (91).
This one feels particularly familiar to me. I’m the kind of person who makes friends with the third shifters at the local diner, who knows her bank tellers, and who cracks jokes with cashiers everywhere. I like to think I’m good with people, with carrying on conversations, and with engaging perfect strangers in the tiny kinds of conversations that make people smile, even at the ends of their shifts. (I definitely get this from my dad.) I like to talk to people (most of the time), finding some way to connect and see a glimmer of shared humanity–but that sounds kind of inflated, doesn’t it? Really, I like to make people laugh. People checking out my groceries are rarely in their dream jobs, and the hours I keep mean that they’re rarely excited to see my face. But I like being reminded of how many individual people are walking this place we call home, and I like that this reminder makes me smile at fellow customers even when I’m feeling kind of crabby.
I’m a creature of community as much as I am of habit. My own favorite spiritual practices have been those that are centered on community, wrapped in other people, and yet still full of the stillness of God. Singing in a sanctuary full of voices, reading scripture in a group, or even finding just the right tenor of discussion in class can create within me that holy feeling Taylor talks about seeking out in our own lives. I value the power of a community, especially as it provides an atmosphere for study and discovery. The Divine Office, a weekly practice of prayer and scripture read in litany I’ve come to love, provides this communal quietness for me lately. Since we don’t have to discuss our opinions about each verse, and since the incense we light serves as a symbolic denotation that this time is holy, I’ve yet to leave this time or space feeling as empty as I sometimes arrive. The permission to delight in the Word and hear verses given voice is something the rest of my life sorely needs.
An enjoyable moment occurred in the middle of my (solitary midnight) reading last night as I absorbed new but familiar words and noted marginalia. I like borrowing books from friends, if only to see which lines they couldn’t leave unmarked. This book is my mom’s, and I’ve enjoyed seeing how similar our note-taking styles are and stopping to savor the lines she liked best. One of these: “What we have most in common is not religion by humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get” (102). It wasn’t a line I might have picked out on my own, but something about seeing a thin pencil line below and knowing that my mother likely underlined it at a similar hour, with a similar feeling in her chest–that feeling was exactly the kind Taylor talked about, but this one had nothing to do with eyes and everything to do with words.
It’s easy for me to forget that my parents were vital, vibrant people before my siblings and I came along and made getting out the door take so much longer. Considering how each passage in this book reaches into my own life, into my own problems, and makes me catch my breath–and then considering my mom having similar-but-such-different experiences–is a whole different kind of “encountering,” and I love it.
It’s refreshing to find a writer that reads as simultaneously completely familiar and completely innovative, and to discover that the reader before me has left her own palimpsestic touch is just one more thing for me to love.