For a few weeks during my senior year of college, I stayed up later than my studies required to do two things – write in my purple, spiral-bound journal every day and to read a chapter of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.
The first practice was prompted by my infatuation with a man who journalled every day in tiny, tiny handwriting. I soon abandoned it. (I journal still, just not meticulously anymore.)
The second practice I’ve kept up – off and on – for the past almost 20 years. Now, though, as I’ve grown to be the morning person I’ve always sort of been, I read a chapter each morning.
The past two weeks, I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, one chapter at a time each morning. I am split open by the book.
Not since I read The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris have I so resonated with a book. It’s almost as if Brown Taylor took the ideas half-formed in that murky, true part of myself and rolled them out like tapestry before me. I’m not sure, yet – having just finished the book this morning – how all the threads of this work will pluck at my own, but here’s one way I know this matters.
For the past almost three years since Mom died, I have struggled with church. I have battled with the way church becomes so easily about “rightness” and with the way it often – at least for me – ends up being about rules more than compassion. I love (and need) the community of church, but sometimes it seems that being a part of the community as I can be right now is not enough. Sometimes, it seems that attendance at that Sunday morning service is what is required to be a part of that community, and truly, I haven’t been able to do church that way in a long time.
Because my understanding of my faith – which has never wavered, even when I railed at God for allowing so much pain and struggle in my life for the past six years – is so entangled with my understanding of church, I have carried a lot of guilt about needing the time away from a formal church body. I feel like I’m failing or like I’m “not doing it right.”
But Brown Taylor’s book gave me the grace I needed to show myself, the space to own my time away from a church body, the voice to the way that the natural world sings to my soul in a way church has not for a long time. Her book gave me permission to still love God deeply even if I don’t step into a formal church building for a long time to come.
People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for pay.
Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture. What is true is what happens, even if what happens is not always right. People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a love affair or a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.
Oh, how I needed to have this affirmed in me. How much I needed someone to say, “Andi, it’s okay. Find God everywhere. It’s really okay.”
And I needed to hear her words about the value of the human body – my body. I needed her words about presence, her reminder about Brother Lawrence. I needed her quotes from the Upanishads – “God is described as ‘Thou Before Whom All Words Recoil.'” I needed her thoughts on busyness and rest. I needed this book.
And that, that in itself is God’s gift, the graciousness of an all-powerful being taking the spirit and mind of one woman and handing it – inked on tree life – to another.
If you are feeling like God is far, like church hurts, like you need more space, more compassion, more you, more love . . . this book, yeah, this one.
A chapter at a time.