Some books are not meant to be read like sitting down to a meal when you are starved. Usually when we are very hungry, we pay no attention to the food. We shove the food into our mouths so rapidly, our sense of taste has no chance to perform its delicate operation. The same thing may be true when reading books. Some books I read, I read very quickly. All I need to get out of the book is a sense of what it is addressing and maybe one or two points. That does not mean the book has no merit. It may be that is all I want out of it.
Other books are meant to be read slowly, like a good meal or fine wine is meant to be consumed. I love to use the word, savor. It takes time to savor a meal, a glass of wine or a good book. I think this is what the Benedictine monastic tradition means by the term, lectio divina---divine reading. All Benedictine monks practice this every day. They take the Bible or some significant piece of spiritual literature and read a small part of it slowly. Then they meditate on a particular work or phrase. They want to savor spiritually the meaning in what they read.
I am reading a book now that needs to be read in the same fashion. Barbara Brown Taylor penned her recent book and gave it the intriguing title, An Altar in the World. Basically, Taylor’s appeal is for all of us to find those places of the sacred in the world around us. She does not deny that we can go to the church, mosque or synagogue and probably have the means to experience the Spirit. But surely, the Spirit is not limited to such places. The Spirit is ubiquitous---that is, everywhere. I agree.
I have been reading her chapter entitled, “The Practice of Wearing Skin.” I like writers who can come up with ideas like this and articulate it so compellingly. Of course, we all “wear skin.” No living human being makes it except by our bodily existence. We haul our flesh around like a coat we never remove. However, Taylor is worried that too often our churches and our churches’ religion ignores or tries to remove all implications of our embodiment---our being in the flesh at all times. Too often religion spiritualizes the entire process.
Taylor sets us up for what she is going to do when she acknowledges, “What many of us miss, in our physical dis-ease, is that our bodies remain God’s best way of getting to us.” She continues to make her case for the fact that “wearing skin” can teach us more about spirituality that almost anything. She comes up with an example that spoke directly to me. She says, “To hold a sleeping child in your arms can teach you more about the meaning in life than any ten books on the subject.”
As one who has already essentially finished the process of rearing my own children, I now recognize I get a second shot at it with grandchildren. It has been too long since my own children were little, I can hardly recall it. Now with little grandchildren, I am vulnerable to the Spirit all over again. To have one in my arms is close enough to heaven right now. To have the love of a three-year old is about as good as a mystical experience. And that experience passes at some point. My three-year old will only get a year older and still love me.
As I read on in Taylor, I realized she has set me up for one of my dearest theological doctrines, namely, the incarnation. The incarnation affirms that God became human and dwelt among us. In Taylor’s language, God took on skin! Of course, that sounds like an odd way to put it. But it may well be an odd way to put it because we have spiritualized it. Once we make it a doctrine, it tends to lose its real life application.
I like how Taylor puts it: “the daily practice of incarnation---of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh---is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels.” Taylor is helping me see that the incarnation is not simply the story of Jesus. It is also the story of each one of us. That is not to claim that we have the same stature of Jesus. For many of us, Jesus is uniquely the Son of God. But we are also children of that same God.
And we all can “enflesh” the same Spirit of God that begins the process of making us special. I think this is where Taylor is going. When we are aware, we know that we daily practice this incarnation that is ours. It teaches us the ways of the Spirit---that is what pedagogy means. According to the old hymn, “we walk like an angel, talk like an angel…”
Learning and living the ways of the Spirit will make us lovers of the world. We will become peacemakers. In our own little way we can be miracle workers. But like Jesus, we will be found on the side of the poor, oppressed, lonely and needy. I realize I am a slow learner. I want to wear my skin in a gospel manner this day.