The Red Couch: An Altar In The World Discussion



To learn more about An Altar in the World, please read the introductory post. Don’t forget to peruse The Nightstand, which contains resources for those wanting to read more on the topic.

There are books that feel like an instant and perfect fit in your hands.  You seek them out, and hold them in a firm grasp, in part because so many people you love and trust have told you to ingest their words.  You’re also drawn to the title, and a few vivid paragraphs from the introduction.  You remember the specific moment  you turned to the first page, and couldn’t put it down.  You vacillate between devouring the words almost immediately, and forcing yourself to go slowly, so as to prolong your first read through from cover to cover.

An Altar In The World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor is one of those books.

I first learned of it when reading a blog post by Sarah Bessey, in which she wrote out her answer to a question Taylor poses in the book’s introduction, What is saving your life right now?   {Be sure and also read Leigh Kramer’s introductory post, as she speaks to this question with beautiful vulnerability.}  

Taylor explains that each chapter in the book “is a tentative answer” to that question, an examination of a spiritual practice–“a certain exercise in being human that requires a body as well as a soul” {p.xviii}.

She defines altars in the world as “ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God” {p.xix}.

The theatrical stage has been an altar in my world–the place where I lose myself,  where I both create and am enveloped by other worldly art.   Its the place I’ve both sacrificed much to walk upon, and fought like hell to keep from becoming my idol.

I spent years as a professional actor, fighting the urge for my art to become my sole identity.  I spent too much time yearning to be regarded highly, instead of dwelling in God-given reverence.   I used my creativity to bandage my wounds of insecurity, instead of fleshing out the root of my fears with truth.

How I wish I’d read Barbara’s words even then, and used the physical practices she references with more intention–such as walking {groundedness},  carrying water {physical labor}, being present {prayer}, even getting lost {wilderness} and feeling pain {breakthrough}.  “The beauty of physical practices…is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin.  You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know.” {p.58}

I eventually found my way to that truth, but not without some hard knocks along the way.  As Taylor states so beautifully, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” {p.15}

The beauty of my own life altars becoming vehicles for worship and communion with God is not lost on me.

An Altar In The World has helped give a new framework and terminology to my everyday spiritual practice as I grow in the things of God & the Holy Spirit.

Questions to Consider

  • Which of the spiritual practices from the book most resonated with you and why?
  • What are the unconventional or unexpected altars in your world?  What things draw you closer to God?
  • Is it a new concept for you to experience {sometimes seemingly mundane} ‘physical’ practices as spiritual? {such as walking, physical labor, etc?}
  • If you were to instigate some of the practices Taylor mentions in her book into your life, how might it change you?  How might you grow closer to God?  If you feel so led, share some examples from your personal experiences in the comments.
  • What is saving your life right now?


Our November book is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Come back Wednesday, November 5 for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be Wednesday, November 26. For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

* Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell is the Chief Creative Curator at All Manner of Inspiration, where she gathers everyday inspiration and encourages artists of all makes and models. A musical theatre performer and book lover, Sarah aspires to shed a bright light on the Creative Process that draws others to see their dreams more clearly. When she’s not auditioning, performing, or blogging, Sarah is seeking out ‘the perfect pen’, reading an ever-growing stack of books, and spending time with her friends and family. She’s currently chasing the next inspirational spark and her sweet pup Daphne in the heart of Fort Worth, Texas with her husband Frank.
Sarah Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell

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  1. I’m really pondering this question, Sarah:

    What are the unconventional or unexpected altars in your world? What things draw you closer to God?

    Thank you for doing a brilliant wrap-up on such an incredible book. TALK ABOUT PRESSURE. I wouldn’t know where to start! Too many things to list.

    You did a fantastic job.

    So wonderful to meet you here on SheLoves! WELCOME.

    *awkwardly-long hug*


  2. Sandy Hay says:

    I underlined and starred so much of this book from several readings over the years. Three of the most recent….”Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not why I did but how I did it that mattered…God had suggested an overall purpose….I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.” “Every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or to make things worse.” And that leads to “When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me…..” Plus much much more that helps me get out of my head, out of my self and live. God is right there in our midst 🙂

  3. Susanne Moore says:

    This book: Words strung together to prick the heart and massage the soul. It is a masterpiece at engaging your mind and bringing unison between flesh and spirit. I have been unable to finish it, for I am sitting quietly pondering its pages, examining my life, standing naked in front of a mirror and saying “Here I am!”
    The spiritual practice of walking is where I am sitting, literally. I have been limping, wobbling and falling for the last 3 weeks with a knee injury that came after a long hike through the woods at our church’s semi-annual prayer retreat. I had been wrestling with God over my weight issues, and begging him to give me a vision of what I could do to motivate this body to do something. During my 3 days of prayer I heard someone praying as they walked. It immediately brought meaning to my walking, a time to be with God and physically help me take off the pounds while freeing up my schedule too.
    Isn’t it just like God to let you know quickly that that is not really what He was thinking, even it it was a good idea? I woke up that next morning and couldn’t walk.
    Groundedness. It is a term that I have never applied to anything. I have always thought of myself as well grounded, but, since I have been floundering aimlessly all summer unsure of my next steps in many areas of my life, possibly I am not truly grounded right now. For such a time as this right?
    Today I received the wonderful news that surgery was not necessary, that it was healing nicely and in a couple more weeks it should be much better. I was thinking to myself, time to walk. The doctor said, “I suggest that you bike or swim for awhile, walking could aggravate the healing process. Also, I am going to give you a prescription for a weight loss drug. It is vital that you get some of this weight off fairly quickly to relieve the pressure on your knees.”
    Not sure where God is going with this, but, walking is not in His plan for me right now. So I will meditate on scripture and contemplate Taylor’s soul bending book.

    • Oh sweet friend, THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts, and your circumstances in this space. It would seem that God has perhaps given you a glimpse into, as BBT says, ‘the practice of feeling pain’. (Though I know that is somewhat a ridiculous statement to say here–we ALL feel some sort of pain at some time, right?) Have you gotten to that chapter in the book yet? Because what I love is that she refers to this practice’s fruit as ‘breakthrough’. And from what you’ve shared above, it sounds like God is definitely moving in and through you during this tough experience. (And we need to have lunch again some Sunday here, for sure! 🙂 It would seem God has brought you to a place of ‘groundedness’, a ‘halting’, in an unexpected way. I will continue to pray for your leg, sweet friend! I hope as you go through your healing process, you can continue to pick up this little, important book and chew on and through the nuggets of wisdom you find there! I can’t wait to continue our convo on this book in person. Love you friend!

    • You are *my* version of brave, Susanne. Brava sister. Here’s to Taylor’s soul-bending book drawing us out of our heads and into our bodies. Even in little miniscule tangible way. Even when our bodies are hurting. Much love, xox

  4. I didn’t read the book (sorry), but I’m interested to learn more about the altar of pain. It’s been a tough week, I am wading in some pain. So easy to distract myself from it, but I suspect letting it wash over me is the next right thing to do. What did BBT say about this altar of feeling pain?

  5. I read this book years ago, and it resonates for me in places that are deep and not so deep, and yet, still all of me. More and more, I am learning the importance and gift of living an integrated life—where there are no imaginary lines between sacred and secular. BBT speaks to this for me, and I am more and more intrigued with the possibility of living a life where all of me is offered up to God as worship, with nothing held back; nothing partitioned off from his great love, redemption, and restorative grace. Altars everywhere. Indeed.

    • Oh Deidra, this is so beautiful. I love how you described the way the book resonated with you–“places that are deep and not so deep, and yet, still all of me”–YES. BBT’s thoughts and words about simple daily practices felt both like wisdom I already knew about, and at the same time, gave me applications for my life that were profound and deeper than I felt I’d gone before. {This book also reminded me of my favorite writer’s words, Madeleine L’Engle}. I feel like you are closer to ‘living a life where all of me is offered up to God as worship’ than perhaps you may think you are. I of course don’t presume to know the whole of your life, but friend–you ALWAYS remind me of redemption and grace and love–in your words, in the ways I see you living out your life, and in the way you pour yourself out to others. Thank you for always inspiring me, Deidra!!

  6. One unexpected practice I’ve taken to over the last set of years is putting down my phone or other distractions in any check out line… to take seriously those few moments interacting with the person ringing my order. I want to look in their eyes, smile, be kind. It’s a small practice to work against all the disconnection people feel daily, a simple practice of recognition.

    Saving my life? On Being with Krista Tippet (Idelette and I are in sync here!), and reading writers who come from different places than me – Palestinian Christian, Muslim academic, Jewish scholar, African American theologian…. they are opening the world for me and cracking me open in necessary ways this season.

    • Kelley–what a fantastic thing to do in the check out line! Too often, I get impatient, and even though I’m usually chatting with folks, the attention to a person without distraction can speak so much more life to someone than we realize. I hope one day I get to meet you in person Kelley–your wisdom is always abounding–and your heart swells in your words – thank you for that! (Oh, and I just finished Preston Yancey’s book, Tables In The Wilderness. SO MUCH of that book could be said to be saving my life at the moment…I know I’ll be chewing on this wisdom there for quite some time.)

      • ME THREE! I’ve been listening to Krista for a while now. We *must* be kindred spirits. She is articulate, brilliant, curious, mindful and just straight up wonderful in every way. I want to be her when I grown up. Actually I wish there was a way to fast forward and be her RIGHT NOW.

  7. Thank you for sharing, Sarah. That question: What is saving your life right now keeps ringing in my ears … especially since Sarah’s post. She brought it to life so beautifully, even though I’d read BBT’s book long before. The answer to that question shifts and changes, as it should. Right now, it’s coming off a four-day visit with my bestie in Arizona. The pure joy of extended time in a shared space together still lingers and it saves … Also: Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being. I feel like I’ve been welcomed into the most wonderful club and it’s FREE and everyone has access!

    • Thank YOU Idelette for the opportunity to be a part of such an incredible community of women reading amazing books! 🙂 I too love that question–it was one of my favorite takeaways from the book. What a wonderful trip it sounds like you had! Part of my family lives in Arizona, I’m excited to go see them soon. Oh, and I love that you mentioned that particular podcast–I’ve heard incredible things about it, and had it on my list to check out this week! Honestly, for me, having an outlet for my creativity in performing in a musical this weekend, the practice of early morning bicycle rides, and a stack of good books is saving my life right now. Blessings and Love, Idelette! 🙂

  8. Erin Wlson says:

    This was such an important book to me this summer. I just looked up my highlights (12-pages worth, when copied to a document file). It’s a gift to read the heaviest hitting passages again.

    I’m sure we’ll all read something different into the book because of our circumstances. And I’m sure that’s exactly why this was such an important time for me to read this.

    “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.”

    “I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God.”

    “Because God made these beings, they share in God’s own holiness, whether or not they meet your minimum requirements for a blessing.”

    It can wear a body down to love people the world hates. It was a beautiful reminder that I just have to stay open. To be present. To accept the generous love and hospitality around me. To learn from these beautiful people. Nothing else. To be present is enough. To continue to see God all around me is enough.

    I’d kiss BBT if I could.

    • Erin, that was one of my favourite passages too … “I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God.”

      Btw, how do you copy your highlights (from Kindle app?) into a Word doc? Whew. That might be life changing.

    • Erin, you shared SO much goodness here. I loved the House of God quote as well. Also, “to continue to see God all around me is enough”. Amen! This book felt like an unending wealth of thought–I’m so glad we were able to experience the wisdom of BBT this summer! 🙂


  1. […] that I highlighted within an inch of its life.  I went into greater depth about this book in a discussion post at SheLoves Magazine this month–join us in the […]

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