Wake Up to the Sacred: An Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Barbara brown taylor

After working as a parish priest for 15 years, Barbara Brown Taylor ( left her parish position to become a religion professor at Piedmont College in 1998. In her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, she shares her experience of wandering through the vocational wilderness to discern where God was calling her to serve.

What prompted you to write Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?

I wrote the book seven years after leaving parish ministry, which was a painful and unexpected change for me. In all that time, I had not read or heard anyone speak of the vocational wilderness I had gone through—so I decided to write the book I wished I could have read.

When you were ordained, you say you got exactly what you wanted. But as you observe in this book, you didn't realize how much this would hurt. How so?

At a concrete level, I didn't realize how much my neck would hurt when dozens of people leaned over to lay hands on my head! At a more visceral level, I didn't realize how much being ordained would cost me in terms of my own relationship with God. In a weird way, the demands of doing the job kept me away from the resources I needed to do the job at all.

Any words of advice for others whose dream job has turned sour?

Pay attention both to the dream, which may need revising, and to the sourness, which may be a great prompt to rethink the relationship between your role and your soul. Most of us will have more than one job in our working lives, which means we will have more than one opportunity to seek meaningful work at different stages of our own deepening humanity.

What would you say to others who feel they are in a job where like you, they can't find the time anymore to be quiet or still or pray?

Pay attention to the costs of living without that time and decide if you are willing to keep footing the bill. The older I get, the clearer my priorities are. I don't have time for a job that doesn't leave me time to be quiet or still or to pray. I have already moved once and changed jobs twice in order to protect a still space in my life—so I know I can do it again.

Any words of counsel for those who, like you, feel they are burned out in their job but feel they can't leave due to this economy?

Again, I think every person has to weigh the costs of staying put versus the costs of leaving his or her own particular situation. If I had young children, I would probably work a cash register to make sure they had health benefits. Still, I know people who lost jobs they were not burned out on who say how much they have benefited from learning to live on less.

How do you see your work at Piedmont College as a calling?

The short answer is that I can construe any job that involves working with other human beings as a calling. The longer answer is that I love working with young adults who are making major decisions about how they will live, what they will value, how they will think, and what they will do for a living. Learning how to serve them without doing their work for them is a high calling for me.

What spiritual practices do you use in your current job to keep you from getting burned out again?

Teaching is a good job for an introvert. I am actually expected to spend time in the library! Silence and solitude remain essential spiritual practices for me. Without time to read, think, and pray, I doubt I would have anything worthwhile to say. On the job, I am aware of practicing holy listening as well as a kind of community building that strikes me as sacred. In my classroom, every student has a voice and an honored place at the table. The Golden Rule rules.

How did your spiritual life deepen once you left ordained ministry?

There was more time to read, think, and pray, for one thing. I was also freed to seek God in riskier ways, without worrying that I would lead anyone in my congregation to follow me over a cliff. Pastors are representative people whose words and deeds have consequences for the members of their churches. What I say and do still has consequences for my students and my college, but the stakes are different. Academic freedom is a terrific perk.

Why are you concerned about the church's intellectualization of the faith?

The most important reason is because I don't read the gospels as intellectual treatises. On the night before he died, with all the conceptual truths in the world at his disposal, Jesus asked his disciples to share food and wash feet—apparently trusting these physical practices to teach his followers what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself. It is very hard to intellectualize food and feet. When I ask Christians to tell me about their faith, 99.9% of them tell me what they believe. Just once, I would love to hear someone describe faith in terms of how he or she lives.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by saying that the call to serve God is first and foremost the call to be fully human?

Sure. I say that first of all to flush the low opinions most Christians have of what it means to be human. This always strikes me as odd, since the Christian church has gone to such trouble through the centuries to assert Jesus' full humanity. So I focus on the word "full," suspecting that both Jesus and the church have something to teach me about what it means to live fully into my humanity with other people and all creation. If I don't start there, then my service to God risks being so spiritual that it is really no earthly good.

Why do you compare your prayer life to hanging laundry on the line?

That passage comes from An Altar in the World where I speak of hanging laundry on the line as an act of devotion—each garment serving as a prayer flag, a tactile and spiritual connection to someone or something I care about. My point is that there are ordinary things we do every day that hold great potential for connecting us to the Divine—but discovering them involves surrendering hard distinctions between "the secular" and "the sacred."

How can our ordinary lives become sacred?

I think they already are. I think our job is to wake up to the sacredness that is already there.

Elaborate on the statement, "There is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth."

That's a statement I make early on in Altar, based not only on the very embodied teachings of Jesus but also on the fact that the body is the soul's address. Even things we sometimes conceive as happening apart from the body—reason, imagination, revelation, inspiration—these take place in minds and hearts, which are parts of our bodies. I am always surprised by people who speak of faith as if it happens in the air somewhere. Our bodies are God's best way of getting to us. Revelation begins in the flesh.