An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

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by Barbara Brown Taylor

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In her critically acclaimed Leaving Church ("a beautiful, absorbing memoir."—Dallas Morning News), Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about leaving full-time ministry to become a professor, a decision that stretched the boundaries of her faith. Now, in her stunning follow-up, An Altar in the World, she shares how she learned to

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In her critically acclaimed Leaving Church ("a beautiful, absorbing memoir."—Dallas Morning News), Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about leaving full-time ministry to become a professor, a decision that stretched the boundaries of her faith. Now, in her stunning follow-up, An Altar in the World, she shares how she learned to encounter God beyond the walls of any church.

From simple practices such as walking, working, and getting lost to deep meditations on topics like prayer and pronouncing blessings, Taylor reveals concrete ways to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see. Something as ordinary as hanging clothes on a clothesline becomes an act of devotion if we pay attention to what we are doing and take time to attend to the sights, smells, and sounds around us. Making eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store becomes a moment of true human connection. Allowing yourself to get lost leads to new discoveries. Under Taylor's expert guidance, we come to question conventional distinctions between the sacred and the secular, learning that no physical act is too earthbound or too humble to become a path to the divine. As we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go, in nearly everything we do.

The eBook includes a special excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.

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Editorial Reviews

A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
"Holy troublemaker" Barbara Brown Taylor offers comforting guidance for those who seek to lead spiritually rich lives outside church walls.

For many people, authentic spiritual experience and practice doesn't begin or end inside the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World serves as a beacon and counsel for those "unchurched" faithful who see themselves not as religious, but as spiritual. In this evocative, wise book, the author of Leaving Church describes how she learned to encounter the God who does not live in the church. An exploration that is both memoir and spiritual guide.

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An Altar in the World

Chapter One

The Practice of Waking Up to God


The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.
Mechtild of Magdeburg

Many years ago now I went for a long walk on the big island of Hawaii, using an old trail that runs along the lava cliffs at the edge of the sea. More than once the waves drenched me, slamming into the cliffs and shooting twenty feet into the air. More than once I saw double rainbows in the drops that fell back into the sea. The island had already won my heart. Part of it was the sheer gorgeousness of the place, but the ground also felt different under my feet. I was aware of how young it was: the newest earth on the face of the earth, with a nearby volcano still making new earth even as I walked. In my experience, every place has its own spirit, its own character and depth. If I had grown up in the Arizona desert, I would be a different person than the one who grew up in a leafy suburb of Atlanta. If I lived by the ocean even now, my senses would be tuned to an entirely different key than the one I use in the foothills of the Appalachians.

On the big island of Hawaii, I could feel the adolescent energy of the lava rock under my feet. The spirit of that land was ebullient, unrefined, entirely pleased with itself. Its divinity had not yet suffered from the imposition of shopping malls, beach homes, or luxury hotels. I caught its youthfulness and walked farther that day than I thought I could, ending up at a small tidal pool on the far southwestern tip of the island.

After thecrashing of the waves, the sanctuary of the still pool hit me with the sound of sheer silence. The calm water lay so green and cool before me that it calmed me too. Nothing stirred the face of the water save the breeze coming off the ocean, which caused it to wrinkle from time to time. Walking around the pool, I came to three stones set upright near the edge where the water was deepest. All three were shaped like fat baguettes, with the tallest one in the middle. The other two were set snug up against it, the same grey color as humpbacked whales. All together, they announced that something significant had happened in that place. I was not the first person to be affected by it. Whoever had come before me had set up an altar, and though I might never know what that person had encountered there, I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God.

At least that is what Jacob called the place where he encountered God—not on a gorgeous island but in a rocky wilderness—where he saw something that changed his life forever. The first time I read Jacob's story in the Bible, I knew it was true whether it ever happened or not. There he was, still a young man, running away from home because his whole screwy family had finally imploded. His father was dying. He and his twin brother, Esau, had both wanted their father's blessing. Jacob's mother had colluded with him to get it, and though his scheme worked, it enraged his brother to the point that Jacob fled for his life. He and his brother were not identical twins. Esau could have squashed him like a bug. So Jacob left with little more than the clothes on his back, and when he had walked as far as he could, he looked around for a stone he could use for a pillow.

When he had found one the right size, Jacob lay down to sleep, turning his cheek against the stone that was still warm from the sun. Maybe the dream was in the stone, or maybe it fell out of the sky. Wherever the dream came from, it was vivid: a ladder set up on the earth, with the top of it reaching to heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending it like bright-winged ants. Then, all of a sudden, God was there beside Jacob, without a single trumpet for warning, promising him safety, children, land. "Remember, I am with you," God said to him. "I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

Jacob woke while God's breath was still stirring the air, although he saw nothing out of the ordinary around him: same wilderness, same rocks, same sand. If someone had held a mirror in front of his face, Jacob would not have seen anything different there either, except for the circles of surprise in his eyes. "Surely the Lord is in this place," he said out loud, "—and I did not know it!" Shaken by what he had seen, he could not seem to stop talking. "How awesome is this place!" he went on. "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."1

It was one of those dreams he could not have made up. It was one of those dreams that is so much more real than what ordinarily passes for real that trying to figure out "what really happened" involves a complete re-definition of terms. What is really real? How do you know? Can you prove it? Even if Jacob could never find the exact place where the feet of that heavenly ladder came to earth—even if he could never find a single angel footprint in the sand—his life was changed for good. Having woken up to God, he would never be able to go to sleep again, at least not to the divine presence that had promised to be with him whether he could see it or not. What really happened? God knows. All Jacob knew was that he had to mark the spot.

An Altar in the World. Copyright (c) by Barbara Brown Taylor . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Kate Campbell
“This book is the most practical but everyday mystical book I have read on spiritual practices.”
Nora Gallagher
“An Altar in the World is about how faith can be both practical and sensuous.In Barbara Brown Taylor’s hands, the old division between heaven and earth is healed and both come alive. Your mind, your body and your soul will be well fed by this wonderful book.”
Phyllis Tickle
“This is the most completely beautiful book in religion that I have read in a very long time. Gentle, humbly crafted, lyrical, and deeply wise, Altar is Barbara Brown Taylor as she was meant to be, a pastor who understands that knowing God occurs in a place beyond theology.”
Marcus Borg
“Elegant, wise, and insightful, this book is also sacramental: it mediates the life it describes.”

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Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
TheUtleyReader More than 1 year ago
A profound book about the spirituality of every day activities. As a pastor I found myself soaking up the promise of connecting with God and other people through ordinary means. The chapters are organized around particular common practices that could serve the weekly purposes of a book club, small group, or class setting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite Barbara Brown Taylor's books. She so beautifully moves through the various walks of faith and deals with each one a very personal way. Her use of humor and intellect are unparalleled in writing about spiritual practices. Taylor reaches the reader with her wisdom of the language of scriptures and her experiences in world religions. With grace she describes her own journey of 'getting lost' to allowing the blessings of the world around us to touch our everyday lives. It is obvious that her change in careers has allowed her reach deeper into her own faith journey and she brings the reader along for the ride. Thank you Taylor for sharing this with us. I recommended this to our Women in ministry book group and it was a huge success. Everyone was touched and felt connected in their faith journey in some way by her story.
Kpg78 More than 1 year ago
Such a great book. I moved to Albuquerque from Boulder last year. I read this book with my mom. We read one chapter a night over the phone. Was a great bonding time, and way to still feel close. Also, she is Roamn Catholic and I am..Christian with questions..this book was a great middle ground for us. The author spoke of the subject in such a language that we both responded and learned from it. I believe that even someone who is not religious could get alot from this book...its basically about being a good person, loving yourself, your neighbor, and the world around you and she gives you the tools and practices to make that task easier. I loved it and would read another book by her in a heartbeat!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read many of her books, however Barbara Brown Taylor hits home with this book. Essentially, it is a book on spiritual practices for the everyday and relates to things that everyone does. I would recommend it to anyone looking for the spiritual connection found in the everyday and for anyone who would like to do a book study about spiritual practices.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not good writting reviews and such but I will tell you if I like a book. Usally I find a good book I will follow up by looking at all the books written by that auther. As was the case here.
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Andrea Hammer More than 1 year ago
This is an awesome book. A book that you will reread over and over again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My words will not do this book justice. I was so absorbed into it, I missed my train stop. Buy it and see for yourself why I love this book. I'd also recommend that you buy "When God Stopped Keeping Score," which is an intimate look at the power of God in forgiveness. It's on sale here on BN. You will love it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago