Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Altars in the World

Last week I had a great lunch and discussion at Seton Cove, a local center for spirituality and renewal. If you haven’t discovered it yet—and it’s not easy to find (and if you go, you need to go early to find a parking space)—check out some of the goings-on at setoncove.net.

The program focused on a question from Barbara Brown Taylor’s recent book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Taylor, an Episcopal priest and seminary/college professor, is quite possibly the best Christian writer in the business today. Her theological instincts are impeccable and her style is so elegant and wise.

Some years back, Taylor was asked to speak at a church in Alabama. The topic was intriguing: come tell us what is saving your life now. Each chapter in the book is a tentative answer to that question. Taylor’s quest takes her beyond the usual spiritual practices into a world filled with altars and worshippers.

“I do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees. God can come to me by a still pool on the big island of Hawaii as well as at the altar of the Washington Cathedral. The House of God stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I will never know.”

Taylor’s reflections took me back to an altar that sustained me through my turbulent teenaged years. Our family summer cottage on Lake Simcoe. I’m not sure I saw it so at the time, but now as I look back, remembering days lost in wonder and play, I’m seeing a ladder and all of the divine traffic moving up and down.

Beyond church and church camps, where have you found an altar in the world? What is saving your life now?


  1. This is a hard thing to think about, let alone write about. I struggled with what to say: what does save me? In the past I think it was something always external: food, drinks, pleasure, money. And in the end, those never really did much except make me more miserable. I have spent more time lately meditating (my very first altar would have been at church camp where they taught us--sixth graders no less--how to meditate) on the God that is inside of me. Perhaps this is heretical, I'm not sure...but I find if I can say that God lives in me then my own altar is really inside my mind and heart. And I can at last say that I'm really saving myself. Not that it always works. My personal demons still get the better of me at times. But where God is, grace flourishes. And that also applies to me. Excellent tricky question, Pastor John.

  2. My altars tend to be outside, where I feel most connected...these would include several trout streams in the mountains, winter sunsets (anywhere), Panama City Beach with my family growing up, hiking and backpacking anywhere away from the crowds, and long stretches of empty interstate.

    Focusing on gratitude always saves me.