Morning Prayers: "What can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth"

Katie Gibson

Morning Prayers service speech by Katie Gibson, Communications Officer, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.


A reading from Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World:

Many years ago now, a wise old priest invited me to come speak at his church in Alabama. “What do you want me to talk about?” I asked him.

“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.

What is saving your life now?

It’s not a question I had ever considered in just this way, until I read it in Taylor’s book. I’d heard similar questions, phrased slightly differently: what are you grateful for? What’s making you happy these days?

But this question, with its insistence on what is vital, sneaked into my soul and set up camp there. And I’ve been amazed at the simple power of continuing to ask it.

I am a person who spends a lot of time in my head. I’m a writer, a reader, a thinker. I work at a university. I work with words for a living. So I was especially caught by what Taylor says a couple of paragraphs later:

“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”

It’s been a hard few months to live in the world - a hard year or so. I find myself need the reminder - and maybe you do too - that what can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth. We are creatures who walk around in our bodies, breathing the air, dependent on food and drink for our survival, affected by our environment in a thousand ways, no matter how much we try to insist otherwise. And as I kept asking this question, I found that, so often, what is saving my life now are the small things. Many of them are physical, tangible. And all of them are related to my daily, walking-around life in this world.

The first crocuses, sprouting up on the other side of Cambridge. A bold blue sky, arching high above the red-brick buildings of the Square. Spicy chai lattes from my favorite coffee shop, and the smiles from the staff members there who know me by name. A long walk in the afternoon, away from screens and emails and to-do lists, clearing the cobwebs out of my brain.

What is saving my life now isn’t only the small things, of course: there are the big things too, the foundation stones that give me a safe place to start from. My relationships with the people I love; my day job at the Kennedy School and the freelance writing I do on the side; the life I’ve built from scratch in this vibrant, tough, complicated, fascinating city. But even those things are made visible through small daily interactions: a smile, an honest conversation, the view over the Charles River as I cross it on the Red Line, a piece of writing that turns out well. These things also save my life, over and over again. But sometimes I forget to really notice them - or the stuff that’s killing me - like the headlines - threatens to drown them out. That’s when it’s worth returning to this question, asking it of myself or having someone else ask it of me: What is saving your life now?  

There’s always an answer, usually more than one. And most of the answers have one thing in common: paying attention. What is saving my life now is the practice of trying to live it, to keep my eyes open for the joy that’s always hanging around the edges. What is saving my life now is being honest about the places where it is hard and complicated, but looking - always looking - for the small, vital moments of gladness and light. The poet Brian Doyle calls this being “rammed by joy,” and I think Taylor would agree that it’s powerful.

As we go into this beautiful day, I want to ask you: What is saving your life now? I think it’s a question worth answering.