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Faith column: BBT finds an altar in the world

May 19, 2010

Latest faith column by the inspiring Barbara Brown Taylor, author of the An Altar in the World.

Here’s the full text of the Q&A:

In her new book, “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith,” the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor discovers the sacred in daily experiences – from acts as seemingly ordinary as hanging the clothes on the line to making eye contact with a grocery store clerk. For Taylor, whose acclaimed memoir “Leaving Church” detailed her departure from pastoring an Episcopal church to become a professor, the world beyond the church walls offers a wealth of opportunities to deepen one’s spirituality. The author of 12 books, Taylor is a professor of religion and spirituality in Georgia and will be discussing “An Altar in the World” at BookPeople on Tuesday.

American-Statesman: You see a longing among people – whether they are weekly church-goers or `spiritual but not religious’ – to have a deeper experience in everyday life. As someone who has lived both a traditional religious life as well as a more free-form spirituality, can you identify where this longing springs from?

Barbara Brown Taylor: I think of longing as a holy thing, not something to be fixed – because it keeps a person open to other people and to new ways of living his or her own life. Where does it come from? Theologians have long debated whether there is a “God-seed” planted in every human being, which may be watered or not. Longing for God would be one of the fruits of such a seed. But I am not sure religious language is necessary. Anyone born from a woman’s body is going to have an ancient memory of being in unity with an Other, long before that Other’s name was known, and may long to experience that kind of unity again. At the most ordinary level, I think people have some sense of what gives them life – more rest, more love, more safety, more meaning – and they never stop longing for more of those life-givers. Longing is only a problem if we’re taught it must be satisfied – that there is something wrong with us if we continue to long for things that are not presently in our reach. But I have always found longing very sweet – not just a reminder of what matters most to me but also a source of connection to other people who feel it, too.

‘An Altar in the World’ offers suggestions on how to find the sacred in everyday experiences. One of them is making eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store. How can these very basic actions transform people?

Since basic practices like these work differently for the different people who try them, the best answer is probably, “Try it and see for yourself.” Here is what I notice: I get so many things from machines these days that I sometimes forget to notice when it is an actual human being handing me my cash, my prescriptions, my mail or my groceries. In my hurry, I have reduced that person to a cog in a transaction, which turns me into a cog, too. Taking just a moment to recognize another human being – to make eye contact, to say thanks, to notice our hands crossing the distance between us, even if it is to give me my change – this makes me feel more human, too.

You admit you are a prayer weakling, that you have trouble keeping straight the different types of prayer (intercession, praise, petition, etc.), but you’ve discovered new ways of praying, such as eating a fresh tomato and feeling grateful. Does your prayer life feel more satisfying now?

I am an eldest child, so I doubt I’ll ever be satisfied with my level of accomplishment at anything. But where prayer is concerned, I really have decided that gratitude is the most basic form of prayer – and that I can express my gratitude dozens of times in the course of an ordinary day. Even people who don’t believe in God tell me that gratitude softens them up and helps them see their lives in different ways. I wouldn’t force them to call that “prayer,” but I do believe that the regular practice of gratitude is a great antidote to bitterness. I also ask for things in prayer, and remember people I love in prayer, and fall silent in prayer. All of these are very satisfying.

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