Altars in the World

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Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath. That’s why they call it breathtaking.
― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

When the boys were young, we took them hiking and camping in the mountains of North Carolina. We walked the rhododendron-covered trails of the Pisgah National Forest; we climbed the rocky trails to the summit of Grandfather Mountain; we camped by the Raven Fork River in Cherokee.

I won’t say they loved all of it – in fact, they bitched A LOT about how much we walked in the (boring) woods. Sometimes it was more like a forced march. But for the most part, those trips are some of my most treasured memories.

Hiking challenging mountain trails brings out the best – and the worst – in personalities. Jake, our oldest son, was almost always cheerful on the trails, as he is with most of life. He seemed to be very at home in the woods. In fact, he went on to become an Eagle Scout. He’s done more wilderness camping than all of us put together, and is truly the man you want to have with you on the trail or in the campground. His quiet leadership makes everyone just feel safer, whether he’s on a construction site in his engineer’s hard hat, or out in the woods, miles away from civilization.

Our younger son Ben was not that fond of our wilderness adventures. He whined and bitched and dragged his feet a good deal. You will always know how Ben feels about a situation; he gets that from me and his grandmother. He dropped out of scouting pretty early on, to focus on baseball. If truth be told, I think the real reason he dropped out was that he did not like spiders – and there were a good number of spiders in the Charlotte Mecklenburg BSA’s old platform tents.

I remember so many of those hikes with the boys, but one grueling trek stands out in particular – Grandfather Mountain summit trail, where a mountain goat would have had a damn tough time. It began to rain halfway up the mountain. The boys were scaling the slippery rocks and ladders with minimal difficulty, but Mom was struggling – seriously struggling, and slowly, very slowly, bringing up the rear. Young Ben was the reason I made it to the top that day; constantly encouraging me, lending me his iPod to listen to motivating music, and constantly looking over his shoulder to call, “Mommy, you can make it, I know you can!”

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That day, the trail brought out the best in him. When you’re down and dragging and think you can’t go on, Ben is the fierce and feisty one to have in your corner. If you’re his friend or his blood kin, he’ll stand by you, through thick and thin and never let you down.

We just returned today from a week in the mountains of North Carolina. We hiked almost every day, discovering trails in the high country we had never walked before. We took our new puppy Zoey with us. Each morning, I rose at 7am to walk her up the mountain, as there was no fenced yard at the house we rented. We saw the mist laying heavily in the valley below, Grandfather Mountain in the distance. There was no sound except for the rushing creeks, the tinkling of Zoey’s collar, and my huffing and puffing as we climbed the winding road. In my normal life, I would have complained very strongly at this inconvenience, as I am NOT a morning person. But this ritual became one I looked forward to each morning; it was the perfect start to the day.

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On our hikes, I was in my heaven – my light-weight, Sony a6000 mirrorless camera in hand, breathing deep, feeling my legs move and my lungs pump. So many times I stopped to take in the view, to say, WOW. Just WOW. Hopping across the stones of multiple creeks, sometimes deliberately stepping into the water to frame a great shot, laughing each time we entered a meadow, to see Zoey chase the butterflies and grasshoppers, constantly repeating the exercise, regardless of the fact that she never won the battle – it was my own form of church, where gratitude and presence were all there was.

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We had visitors for the first three days of our stay – a loved one and her husband, taking a break from a six-week cancer treatment stint at Duke. I watched her come slowly out of the fog of sickness-focus, buoyed by the presence of family and held up by the gift of the mountains. On Sunday she managed (brilliantly) a 3-mile hike down to the Hebron Rock Falls Colony, the flush of life returning to her skin. I like to think it brought the best of her to the surface again, after being somewhat hidden for the last few months in the darkness and fear of battling cancer.

One of my favorite books, one that I go back to again and again, is Barbara Brown Taylor’s Altar in the World, a Geography of Faith. Brown-Taylor is an Episcopal priest, who teaches spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary. Two of her main premises are that “every spiritual practice begins with the body”, and “…the whole world is the House of God.” If we learn to pay attention with our body, we will find multiple altars to the creator in the physical world.

To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of the same power that makes the green blade rise. To remember that I am dirt and to dirt I shall return is to be given my life back again, if only for one present moment at a time. Where other people see acreage, timber, soil, and river frontage, I see God’s body, or at least as much of it as I am able to see. In the only wisdom I have at my disposal, the Creator does not live apart from creation but spans and suffuses it. When I take a breath, God’s Holy Spirit enters me. When a cricket speaks to me, I talk back. Like everything else on earth, I am an embodied soul, who leaps to life when I recognize my kin. If this makes me a pagan, then I am a grateful one.

I have been thinking a lot lately about where and with whom I am at my best. The older I get, the less time there is to not be at my best.

Where do I feel closest to God? Where does my soul feel most connected, most “embodied”? Where do I “leap to life”? Where do I bow in reverence to something greater than myself?

I need cool air and height and vista; history, books, and ancient buildings; my camera, my dog and my loved ones. These are my ordinary/extra-ordinary places, where I meet up with the divine.

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When I left for the mountains, I thought I would spend a lot of my time sitting on the deck and writing. In fact, I wrote nothing, except a few entries in my journal. Instead, I met up daily with the Creator, in my body, out in his/her most beautiful world, and worshipped at more altars than I can count.

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Now THAT is a good vacation.

5 thoughts on “Altars in the World

  1. Amen! Beautifully written, Jeri! Excellent on so many levels. Next: perhaps you’ll rent or buy a writer’s cabin in the woods?

  2. A lovely way to start this Sunday. Thank you. You mentioned a couple of my favorite books. And you may want to try: Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett and The One Life We Are Given by Mark Nepo, All the best to you, Terri

  3. As always just beautiful , in its telling and writing and specially spirit. I am so happy to have shared it with you, and of course little Zoey.

  4. I so love your writing and adventures. Your photography is amazing. Keep it up Jeri, I look forward to reading and seeing your next chapter.

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