An Altar in the World

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-12-11
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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The critically acclaimed author of "Leaving Church" continues her spiritual journey by revealing how she learned to encounter the sacred everywhere in the world.


Altar in the World, An
A Geography of Faith

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 the crashing 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.

Altar in the World, An
A Geography of Faith
. Copyright © by Barbara Brown Taylor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
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