This was an absolutely, thoroughly enjoyable book — both stimulating and satisfying. An Altar in the World is a meditation on making spiritual practices out of everyday life — things like being present in the natural world, doing manual labour, being with other people, or taking a Sabbath rest from our everyday routines. It is a guide to finding God, not just in Scripture or formal prayer or corporate worship, but in everyday experience.
This is an idea that I am better at in theory than in practice. I have always believed that we are meant to “practice the presence of God” in the everyday, in the style of Brother Lawrence, but in reality I get into the middle of the everyday routine and get so caught up in it that I forget God. It took some reading of non-Christian, particularly Buddhist, writers to help me realize that what I was doing wasn’t really getting caught up in the everyday, but ignoring the everyday — living so much in my own head and my own thoughts that I was actually not present in the moment-to-moment reality of my life.
When I have tried to be more present and attentive, my crazy brain usually thwarts my best efforts. Take nature, for example. I didn’t need to go to far-out Eastern philosophies to know that I’m supposed to find God in nature — I’ve been told that ever since I was a child. The Bible is God’s first book; Nature is His second, and you’re supposed to be able to go out into nature and sense the presence of God.
Except that any time I went out into nature, my mind was divided — one half complaining about how cold it was or how the flies were buzzing around my head or how this rock I was sitting on was hurting my butt; the other half trying to pray and think Deep Spiritual Thoughts, and chastising itself for constantly getting thrown off track by the whiny silly half.
Now I’m starting to think — partly as a result of reading this book — that just being there and being aware of what’s around me is enough. Not trying to come up with Deep Thoughts worthy of the lovely landscape: just to notice. The trees, the sea, the wind, the flies — to really be there and be in the moment. God can’t meet me if I don’t show up, and I haven’t really shown up if I’m mentally scrambling around, trying to come up with spiritual insights that are impressive enough to get His attention.
I’m coming to believe that practicing the presence of God, and simply practicing awareness, are very closely linked — that simply paying attention to what I’m doing, being present in the holy, somehow consecrates the moment. Or at least creates a space in which holiness can happen, if I am attentive and alert. An Altar in the World gave me lots to think about in terms of how to pursue that ideal, in simple, ordinary, yet transcendant ways.