Barbara Brown Taylor ranks as one of the most popular writers we’ve featured among the hundreds who have visited ReadTheSpirit. In 2009, we discovered that every single day readers from around the world came to our Web magazine to read our earlier interview with Barbara—suggesting that many of you already trust her as a guide in your spiritual journeys.
As her book title suggests, she’s a guide to rediscovering wellsprings of spiritual meaning outside the bricks and mortar of religious institutions. That may sound like an odd vocation for a woman who has been both a parish priest and a religious educator.
What strikes readers first is her daring honesty that welcomes us into her life—like an old friend sharing a cup of hot tea across a kitchen table.
For more on Barbara, here’s a link to that 2009 interview that was such a hit with readers.
On Monday, we published a brief excerpt from her book, “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.”
AND, to order paperback copies of her book for Lenten reading, click here and you’ll jump to Amazon.
Even if you’re not Christian, which is her religious affiliation, you still may enjoy this book. In her book, she writes that far too many people need saving “from the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.” Hmmm. Now that is a different perspective. Consider these universal themes as we share …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION
WITH BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR (2010)
DAVID: It’s always wonderful to talk with you, Barbara. I’m saying that on behalf of all the readers who visited our magazine just to read our previous interview with you about “An Altar in the World.”
BARBARA: It’s good to talk with you again.
DAVID: This time, I want to organize our interview a little differently. I’m going to point out key passages in your book—and I’d like you to update us about how you’re approaching these themes in 2010. Sound like a plan?
BARBARA: I just recorded the audio version of the book, so I spent a lot of hours with it and I know every good part—and every flaw.
DAVID: I didn’t find flaws. In fact, I found way too many terrific passages. I had to limit my questions to just a few.
Here’s the first passage: You recommend that people focus on spiritual practices to guide them. You write, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.”
So, in 2010, what practices are especially important to you?
BARBARA: When I talk about practices, I’m talking about giving myself lots of opportunity to fail because, in many ways, those are the most helpful experiences—and the ones I fear the most. In this arena of practice, I have to give up concerns for success and failure.
What mean the most to me right now? I stand in a tradition of faith that commends certain practices that have worked over a great deal of time for many people in many places, so those are great starting points.
The one I fail at most often but seems continually most important is the practice of Sabbath, or I might describe it as the practice of “saying no” or “resistance to the materialism, consumerism and busy-ness of my culture,” which includes the busy-ness and consumerism of my own soul—the way I tend to bite on all of those things that come my way.
Sabbath becomes not a monthly or yearly opportunity but a weekly opportunity to pay attention to that. So, Sabbath is regular for me. I think I agree with the rabbis who said that if you engage the practice of Sabbath you really cover every thing else.
And then there’s encountering the other. When I don’t know where to start, I always revisit the Book. The Book says love the neighbor—but it also says love the stranger.
The stranger presents me a way to engage with the face of God even when I don’t feel particularly ready for that.
Prayer also is important, although I often fall short on that as many of us do. I’ve had to redefine prayer not as something I do with my hands folded on my knees, but as something I do when I place myself consciously in the presence of the other.
DAVID: That’s a fascinating start to a list. I want to follow up on “the stranger.”
I’m running into a lot of important new voices talking about the absolutely essential need to hospitably welcome and engage the strangers in our midst. That’s one of the major themes of the writer Samir Selmanovic, who we also listed this year along with you in our “10 Spiritual Sages to Watch in ‘10” list.
You write about this in your own book. I like this line: “The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over.”
BARBARA: We like to paste labels on strangers all too quickly.
We do this every day, because we’re so fond of starring in our own dramas. If I drive into a parking lot and I start cutting across the yellow-marked spaces, which I’m not supposed to be doing, and then someone almost hits my car, I think:
“She almost hit me!” I’m angry at her. I’m pasting labels on her.
Well, think about it: I was driving across the yellow lines, not following the lanes. But, we think of ourselves as the stars of our own dramas, so she was at fault, not me.
Of course, a lot of this is brave talk! I’ve met some really scary strangers in my life, but 9 times out of 10 they’re not as scary as I took them to be and a whole lot of them turn out to be helpers.
DAVID: You also write, “What we have most in common is not religion but humanity.” So, how does that work out on a daily basis? How do you get past all the things that automatically separate us so we can get to our humanity underneath.
BARBARA: That’s hard, especially when I’m engaged with a fellow Christian whose point of view is polar opposite from my own. I actually can feel my blood pressure go up! Or, if I’m talking with someone who’s very sarcastic about my faith—that’s hard!
What I try to do is go for something that we have in common: What’s your favorite food? What do you do when you’re not working? Where did you grow up? It’s important for me to find some place where I can meet the other person—and they can meet me.
That’s my gimmick. I keep dropping down through category after category, allowing myself to be looked at by this person—and to look at this person until we finally find a base and we can begin to work upward again. That seems far better to me than just standing up on the 12th floor and shouting at each other about abstract concepts.
This is especially important to me when I’m in other households of faith. When I visit, I don’t start with theology. I start with foods and ways we celebrate and ways we grieve. Those are far better entry points in conversation than: What do you think about God? That’s too big to start a conversation.
DAVID: You love the natural world. You write that one of your life’s most important realizations is: “I do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia tree.” In other words, God is in the Bible, God is in formal worship—but God also is in the natural world.
I wonder: We’re so focused on the threats to nature, right now, are we in danger of missing out on actually appreciating nature’s beauty?
BARBARA: I don’t think this question is un-related to our conversation about the stranger a moment ago. There’s this saying: We do not save what we do not love.
To save nature, we have to love and appreciate nature. The best way to stay engaged in the work of healing is to love what I’m engaged in healing in an ongoing way.
I tell you what: It’s sometimes painful for me to love the river, because I look at what’s floating down that river. I see the way people are destroying the river by what they throw into it—or maybe because they’ve just cut down all the trees along the river bank to get a better view of the water from their new home.
In situations like that, I can feel the river’s pain! Am I starting to sound like a Druid? (laughter) But I mean it. I can feel the pain.
I’m surrounded by what Native Americans call medicine—which is all the stuff around us in the natural world that is healing. That begs me to intervene in the healing of the natural world, as well.
I don’t think you can separate love of nature from caring about nature.
DAVID: I’m going to jump to another passage in your book that may seem jarring to some readers, but I was fascinated to learn that—in addition to all your other talents in life—your father taught you how to care for and carefully clean a rifle. You describe this as part of learning a “reverence in human life, paying attention, taking care, respecting things that can kill you, making the passage from fear to awe.”
I’m struck by that image of Barbara Brown Taylor taking apart and cleaning a rifle—and this idea of respect for things that can kill us.
So, here’s my question: In this new decade, what strikes you as demanding our respect because it can kill us? Where does this kind of awe take you now?
What should we respect that can kill us?
BARBARA: I love that question so much that I just hate to try to answer it.
The first thing that comes to mind is: I just want to sit and think about that question for the next hour. Maybe we should end the interview right here.
But, I’ll try to respond. The first thing that comes to mind is the thing I’m most aware of—the ways in which my own patterns of living participate in the killing of other people and other creatures in Creation. There are some ways that people feel powerless about that. We can feel: My vote doesn’t count. I don’t have a voice. I can’t get my book in print. Whatever the reason we give—so many people feel powerless.
But part of what we’ve discovered in the past year is that money really does connect us. Who would have thought that the economy of Iceland would collapse because people couldn’t pay their mortgages?
I have power every day in the way I spend the money I have at my disposal. I need to spend a little more time being reverent about the resources at my disposal that I don’t think I think enough about. I stay in this realm of—I want, I don’t want, I need—but I don’t think about the larger way my hand is on the trigger every day.
That question you asked is fabulous: What am I called to be more reverent about that really does have that power of life and death? What am I perhaps even afraid of—but I should turn to in awe and think more about? I’m going to think about that for a while.
DAVID: I love your chapter about coming to terms with our bodies and the way a long life has reshaped our physical forms. You write about scars and accepting even the scars we carry on our bodies.
I especially love this line you write: “Here I am. … I live here. This is my soul’s address.”
So, here’s the question: What scars are you especially aware of carrying into this new decade?
BARBARA: Ha! At my age, my whole body is becoming a scar! (laughter)
I think one of the gifts of becoming an older woman in this culture is that you have no choice but to become less attached to how people view you. You’re not going to match any cultural standards of beauty, but I have come to appreciate what my body represents. There’s a fabulous story that goes along with every scar.
You know, I did one workshop where I put people into small groups and, you know how you always want to start with a question to get people talking? I asked these people to each show one scar that they felt comfortable showing—without taking your clothes off, you know (laughter)—I didn’t want it to get out of hand!
And, in less than 10 minutes, people went very deep—from cesarean sections in the birth of children to falling off a bike that was held by someone’s father who died just recently. People just connected so fast on this deep level and the whole room was talking!
So, I hallow scars as a sacrament that says: Great pain often comes with a great story that offers possibly great meaning, especially in the telling and the listening.
For me, Meryl Streep is a saint! She’s a great help to me because she is aging visibly and publicly! She’s someone who has been and continues to be beautiful. And Sam Shepard, too.
Thank God for people who have stayed in the public eye and who have allowed themselves to age visibly. We need more people willing to be there with their wrinkles and their pain!
DAVID: You write about the ancient, timeless value of getting lost. One of the central stories in your book is the ancient patriarch who gets lost in the wilderness, encounters a life-changing visitation from God—and wakes up in the morning to declare, “God was in this place and I … I did not know it.”
There, he sets up a rock as an altar.
So, you actually advise people to—to get lost! You say that even if you enjoy taking walks in the fields or woods, you ought to venture off the beaten paths and get lost. You write, “If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course?”
I love that passage, because it’s what I find myself doing over and over again. I spot something I want to get “lost in,” even when I’m not sure how it can possibly relate to the rest of my life. Then, I find my way back.
For instance, this year, I’d like to get lost in Indian food, in comic books, in the spirituality of Alzheimers, in fairies. How do they relate to religion? To my “day job”? I don’t entirely understand it.
My question is: Where do you want to get lost in this new year?
BARBARA: Oh golly! What a great question!
I can say right away: I keep chickens. I do that because I’m interested in things that happen in the barnyard that I can’t control, so I keep chickens.
Let’s see. I like your list so much that my list is going to be terrible compared to yours. But I’ll try:
I’m very interested in old printing presses. I’ve found myself looking online for old antique letterpresses. I see people who make beautiful cards by pressing plates together—I’d love to know more about that.
I think there are a number of physical things I’d like to do that still carry some risks because I won’t be able to take a lot of physical risks much longer. I have tried rock climbing and hang gliding—but I’d like to take up contra dancing. I’d like to leap in the air a bit.
And I’m reading about this author who describes getting onto the Internet and typing some ridiculous word into a search engine, then he goes down to the third entry and follows that—to see where it leads him.
That strikes me as a great exercise to try.
But here’s the most important thing about your question for me: How many of us don’t even allow ourselves such curiosities, because they’re not useful and they don’t immediately lead anywhere? How often do we surrender our curiosity to safe pathways?
What you’re helping me remember is how important it is to hallow that fallow curiosity about things. Creativity, the actual academic study of creativity always comes down to the collision of previously unconnected planes of information that come together in brand new ways—whether it’s Einstein’s theories or humor or art—it’s the collision of planes.
How incredibly important it is to let ourselves go there and not to get back on the path too quickly just because we feel we need to be productive and sensible.
DAVID: Well, I’ll let you have the last word today—once again from your book. You say that it’s important to be out there exploring the world around us, because that’s where we’re likely to encounter sacred moments.
You write, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our sins on altars.”
BARBARA: This year, I am trying to pay attention more and more to the quickening impulse within me—or maybe we call it intuition or some would call it the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I’m trying to pay more attention to things that happen under my intellectual radar. Maybe a decent image for what we’re talking about is a Geiger counter. I want a detector like that with the sound, the static, turned up high enough so I can hear things I’m overlooking.
I want to develop my altar detector this year. And, if I’m more attuned to that, who knows what sorts of altars will turn up?
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