Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Book, a Mystery, and Some Revelations

Someone sent me a book. It arrived weeks and weeks ago, and it came with no card, no return address except for the address of the supplier, which was not Amazon.com; so I have no way of discovering who purchased it. At first, since the book deals with spiritual things, I thought that it had come from my friend and spiritual booster, Frank McNair. But a call to Frank revealed that it was not from him. Another friend, Trish Hall, had told me that her sister in Arizona was planning to send me a book, so I called Trish to find out if this book was from Gracie. Nope. So, I have a mystery on my hands.

The book is An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, a reknowned preacher and teacher. I heard this woman speak here in Winston-Salem last year and knew right away that I would like to read some of her books; but, I had not gotten around to it. Well, now I HAVE read this one, and I presently am reading it a second time....this time with pencil in hand for underlining. (I know that I own this book and can underline in pen, but there is something of the librarian's daughter in me that keeps me from doing that. Strange.) I am sure this second read through will NOT be the last. This book has a lot of meat clinging to the bones of the twelve chapters.

I assume that the sender of this book has read it and thought it would be well suited to the state of mind of someone facing cancer. He/she was right. Barbara Taylor Brown "gets it." Several of the chapters directly address subjects like getting lost and finding things one would never have found on the familiar path; and feeling pain, which is always provocative, and leads to jumps in personal growth. Each chapter holds nuggets of wisdom....truisms, I guess, but expressed in such delicious, even poetic, language that there is nothing trite about them.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is "pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy." This is so true. Of course, we all have heard the one about there being "no atheists in foxholes." I really wonder if this is true. For me, the experience of facing the reality of my mortality has made my questions about God, faith, and the spiritual life more potent and more present on a daily basis; but I am not yet ready to close my eyes and jump into God's arms with no questions. So what I tend to do is jump in and then out, then in and then out. On the other hand, I have taken great comfort in an observation in the book that "faith is sometimes just a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence." Brown was referring to Job and his conversations with God, which were decidedly one-sided. Job had big questions for God, which God just didn't answer very clearly, if at all; but Job kept on engaging with God, which was the faithful thing. I find myself praying, in spite of my frequent questions...which, by the way, existed long before I knew I had cancer.

One thing I have not done, is question "why me?" To me, this has always seemed a strange place to go mentally, once you have been diagnosed with a bad illness. I mean, I did question "why did I get cancer, specifically." But I have never thought that I should be immune to the problems that are human problems. As a child I actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I would behave if I came down with polio, which was the great threat to children in the my age group. Even then I understood that there was no reason that I was somehow "special" enough to avoid that illness. I did picture myself as a heroic little girl who would be tough and bear her fate bravely. Maybe all that role-playing as a child has stood me in good stead for this challenge.

So, now that I have completed my quasi-review of An Altar in the World, and exposed some of the weak spots in my spiritual life, let's get on to the next question: WHO SENT ME THAT BOOK???? I really want to know.

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