Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Summer and Sanctuary

July 31, 2010

Greetings from the amazing Grünewald Guild, where I’ve been having a wondrous week serving as the keynote speaker and pastor-in-residence for the Guild’s first Liturgical Arts Week. Located in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, the Guild is one of my favorite places in all the world. With its commitment to exploring and celebrating the connections between art and faith, the Guild always draws a splendid community of folks in whose creative presence I find sustenance that feeds me throughout the year.

I’ll linger here for another week, during which I’ll spend most of my time going through the proofs for my new book. The writing process is usually a very solitary endeavor, and I’m looking forward to getting to continue to soak up the Guild community while finishing my work on the book.

The book, which is titled In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection & Prayer, is something of a sequel to my first book, Sacred Journeys, in that it draws from the often hidden wellsprings of women’s experiences and history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It will be published by Upper Room Books in October, and I was delighted to learn today that the book is now available for pre-order on You can find it here: In the Sanctuary of Women.

Night has fallen at the Guild, and so I’ll offer you a nighttime blessing that comes from the new book. Each chapter opens with blessings for morning and evening, and this one appears in the chapter titled “A Way in the Wilderness: The Book of the Desert Mothers.”

God of the daylight,
you come also in darkness,
and even in shadows you make a home.
Be rest to the weary
and solace to the brokenhearted;
be healing to the sick,
and to the troubled, be peace.
Be our comfort, our dreaming,
our sleep, our delight;
breathe through these hours,
O great God of night.

Wishing you peace on this and every day.

Epiphany 3: Fulfilled in Your Hearing

January 19, 2010

Fulfilled in Your Hearing © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 3, Year C (January 24): Luke 4.14-21

In doing research for my new book, two of the most intriguing women I encountered were Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Twin sisters born in Scotland in the 19th century, Agnes and Margaret were a formidable pair who became pioneering scholars and explorers in a time when this was a rare feat for women. Semitic languages and biblical studies became their particular passions, and in 1892 they traveled to Egypt to make their first visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery. Established in the sixth century at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Greek Orthodox community is famed for the many treasures it holds from the early centuries of Christianity. Margaret and Agnes hoped to study some of the ancient manuscripts in the monastery’s library.

Agnes writes that among the ancient books placed into their hands by the librarian of St. Catherine’s was “a thick volume, whose leaves had evidently been unturned for centuries, as they could be separated only by manipulation with the fingers…” In some cases, they had to separate the leaves with a steam kettle.

Agnes recognized the book as a palimpsest, a manuscript whose text had been effaced and overlaid by a later text. Such a practice was common in times when vellum was scarce. Looking closer, she saw that the more recent text was, as she described, “a very entertaining account of the lives of women saints.” Thecla, Eugenia, Euphrosyne, Drusis, Barbara, Euphemia, Sophia, Justa, and others: women revered in Eastern Christianity, these were among the desert mothers, women of the early centuries of the church who gave up safety, security, convention, and finally their lives in order to follow Christ.

Looking closer still, beneath the stories of these women saints, Lewis recognized that the more ancient writing belonged to the gospels. The manuscript proved to be what was then the oldest Syriac version of the four gospels, dating to the fourth century. It was a stunning discovery.

Reading about the palimpsest, I found myself fascinated by the imagery present within its story. The pages of the manuscript, with their layers of text, make visible what happened in the lives of these women of the early church. By their devotion, by their dedication to preserving and proclaiming the gospel message, the desert mothers became living palimpsests, the story of Christ shimmering through the sacred text of their own lives, the Word of God fulfilled in them.

I have thought of these women and this story in pondering the gospel reading for this Sunday. Luke tells us that, fresh from his forty-day sojourn into the wilderness and filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus begins to teach in the synagogues. Coming to Nazareth, the hometown boy stands and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. From his lips flow some of the most powerful words in all of scripture:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19)

Finishing his reading, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and sits down. One can imagine him pausing for dramatic effect before he then says to his listeners, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is perhaps the shortest teaching the crowd has ever heard. Not to mention the most startling, and, as we will see in next week’s gospel lection, one that will turn deeply disturbing.

The text doesn’t say whether his mother, Mary, was there, but I can imagine her listening to Jesus, a small smile on her face as she takes in the words of his reading and teaching. She is the woman, after all, who had sung words much like these when she carried this child-now-man inside her: had sung of a God who scattered the proud and brought down the powerful, a God who lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. From the womb Jesus had been marked by radical words about this God who showed mercy from generation to generation and was about the business of turning the world right side up. Like his mother, whose song was an echo of one sung by her foremother Hannah, Jesus offered words with a history, lines that were rooted in an ancient hope.

Amongst the crowd, his mother is perhaps the only one unsurprised by the stunning message from the lips of this One who was so deeply imprinted with the liberating words of God. And not just imprinted with those words, not just a vessel of those words, but the Word itself, the Word made flesh, the One who incarnates the Word in his own being. On that day in the synagogue, Jesus comes among them as the sacred story of God embodied in fullness for all to read; the ancient, sacred texts cohering and taking form and coming to life in him, for the life of the world.

And we who are the body of Christ and followers of the Word: what will we do with these words about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor? How do we, like those long-ago desert mothers, let these ancient words show through the lines of our own lives? How do we, like the Christ whom we follow, give flesh to these words? Amid the brokenness of the world—of which we have been reminded so vividly by the devastation in Haiti—how do we become bearers of these words that are so radical and so challenging in the hope to which they call us?

These are a few of the questions that I—a woman in love with the Word and with words and who cannot rightly extricate the latter from the former—am chewing on in these days. May these words—the words of Isaiah, the Word of Christ—challenge us, call us, enliven us and take flesh in us, for the life of the world. Blessings to you.

Note: Agnes Smith Lewis’s account of the finding of the palimpsest is from her book, available online, A Translation of the Four Gospels from the Syriac of the Sinaitic Palimpsest. Janet Soskice has recently published a lively and absorbing book about Agnes and her sister Margaret; I highly recommend The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels.

[To use the “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” image, please visit this page at Your use of the Jan Richardson Images site helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Couple More Things…

Coming Attractions: Now that the book is (mostly) finished, I’m moving back into a rhythm of offering periodic retreats and workshops. I’m looking forward to traveling to Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington State in the next few months and invite you to stop by my just-added Upcoming Events page to check out what’s ahead.

Prints & More Prints: All the images here at The Painted Prayerbook and also at The Advent Door are now available as art prints! Visit Jan Richardson Images, go to any image that you’d like, and scroll down to the section that says, “Order as an Art Print.”

The Gastronomical Jesus

July 27, 2009

The Welcome Table © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year B, Proper 13/Ordinary 18/Pentecost +9: John 6.24-35

Following up on last week’s reading, the gospel lection for this Sunday offers us another image of provision and plenitude that come through Christ. Last week we saw him turn a couple of fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for the masses; this week he talks about his own being as bread: bread of God, bread of heaven, bread of life.

In the wake of last week’s stunning feeding, John tells us that the crowd dogs Jesus’ trail, with the air of people looking for seconds. When they catch up with him, Jesus tells them they are looking for him “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes,” he cautions them, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Jesus is clear in calling them to discern the difference between what fills the belly and what fills the soul. At the same time, he well understands the ways that the hungers of the body and the hungers of the soul intertwine, and how both are at play when it comes to food. This is, after all, the man who so loved to share a meal—with all sorts of companions—that his critics called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7.34). When he wants to convey the essence of who he really is, in word and in action, it is to food, to the gifts of the earth, that Jesus turns. Wheat. Bread. Wine. In his hands, food is more than food; it is an enduring symbol of, and gift from, the one who offers his very being to meet our deepest hunger and our keenest thirst. Yet it is food nonetheless.

The famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher offers a passage that captures the ways that hungers of body and soul, and the feeding of them, are bound together. In the introduction to her book The Gastronomical Me, first published in 1943, she writes,

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.

I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.

There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.

There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?

I find myself thinking, too, of Simone Weil, who wrote, in her book Waiting for God, “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

What are you hungry for these days? What does your relationship with food have to say about your relationship with God—and vice versa? Are there meals that hold memories of connection and communion? Do you have habits of eating, or not eating, that reveal a soul-hunger that needs God’s healing?

May the Bread of Life, who knew the pleasures of the table, feed you well in these days. Blessings.

P.S. Deep thanks to those offering prayers and blessings as I work to finish writing my book. Know that I am tremendously grateful for every good thought and prayer that comes my way; they are manna indeed on this intense journey!

[To use this image, please visit this page at For a print, visit Color Prints at Thanks!]

Easter 2: The Secret Room

April 13, 2009

The Secret Room © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Easter 2: John 20.19-31

In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau writes that in every pilgrimage, there is a secret room, a place along the path that gives us insight into the deep mystery of our journey. In describing this hidden room, Cousineau draws on a story that poet Donald Hall tells of friends who purchased an old farmhouse. Cousineau writes,

It was a ‘warren of small rooms,’ and once they settled in and began to furnish their new home they realized that the lay of the house made little sense. ‘Peeling off some wallpaper, they found a door that they pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: They found no corpses nor stolen goods.’ For Hall, the mystery of poetry to evoke powerful feelings finds its analogy here, in its ability to be sealed away from explanation, this is the place where ‘the unsayable gathers.’

And so it is on the pilgrim’s path. Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that portends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room.

I’ll say it again: Everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new friend, the pew where the morning light strikes the rose window just so.

As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.

It is the day after Easter Sunday. I savored sleeping in this morning and am now in my writer’s nook at the top of the stairs, gazing out the window as I ponder the season past. I think of the pilgrimage these forty Lenten days led me on, the twists and turns they offered, the questions and challenges they posed, the graces they beckoned me to see.

Where was the secret room?

I think of a day in the week just past, when I went with my sweetheart to the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, not far from where I live. The primary draw of the Morse is its collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the artist famed for his stained glass designs. I have always liked Tiffany well enough—a poster of one of his windows accompanied me through a succession of dorm rooms and apartments in college—but in more recent years found I had a somewhat limited affinity for this kind of work. I thought it was pretty, in an ornamental fashion, but didn’t go much beyond that.

I had, however, changed as an artist since the last time I had walked through the museum’s doors, had begun to work in ways that—I came to realize—altered the way that I saw Tiffany’s work. And so I found myself in front of one of his windows last week, leaning in close, pulling back, leaning in again. I was stunned by his line work, the loose style so markedly different from the stained glass designs of previous centuries. His lines captivated the part of me that had begun to work in charcoal since I’d last been to the museum, and had become fascinated with how the lay of a line—how it turns this way, then that—can convey a whole world.

And, between the lines, was the remarkable glass, so distinctive of Tiffany, who radicalized the manufacture of stained glass and turned each fragment into an art form in itself. I spent a long moment at a table that offered pieces of Tiffany glass to touch. Every piece a different texture—smooth, coarse, rippled, ridged. A fragment that so looked like flame that its coolness seemed incongruous. I ran my hand over each piece, each a living link with its maker, each an embodiment of his vision and daring, each a window onto the mysterious crucible that gives rise to art, each a threshold beckoning me deeper into my own creative path and reminding me why I set out on it in the first place.

This week’s gospel lection offers us a secret room, and, with it, an invitation to touch, to cross more deeply into Jesus’ story and our own. John tells of a room in which the disciples gather—a locked room, for fear. For secrets. And there, in their midst, Jesus appears, offering his hands and side, offering peace, offering the Holy Spirit, breathing into them (“and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” John means for us to remember). But Thomas is gone, John tells us, and will not believe unless he sees. So Jesus returns a week later, slides through the shut doors of the secret room, shows himself to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says, as if touching and seeing are one and the same. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

History has labeled this disciple Doubting Thomas, as if his uncertainty were the most memorable thing about this follower of Jesus who, elsewhere, is the first to step up and say he is willing to die with him (John 11.1-16). Yet Jesus, as is his way, gives Thomas what he needs. In Jesus’ hands, in Jesus’ side, Thomas reaches into a secret room, a place that, though “sealed away from explanation,” as Cousineau writes, makes some kind of sense of the long pilgrimage that Thomas has undertaken with Jesus, to whom he is now able to say, “My Lord and my God!”

And you? Did the pilgrimage through Lent offer you a secret room? Somewhere along the way, did you find a place that offered, not an explanation of your path, but a window onto it, a space within it that enabled you to see it anew, and the one who called you there? Where was it, and what did you find there? How does it illuminate the way before you?

In the weeks to come, may we remember that Easter is not just a day but rather a season. May the gift and challenge of resurrection go with you, and may the path ahead be graced with secret rooms.

[For last year’s reflection on this passage, please visit Easter 2: Into the Wound.]

This week’s artwork first appeared at The Advent Door in Door 24: The Secret Room.

The Artful Ashes

February 22, 2009

blog-2009-ash-wednesday-2Image: Ash Wednesday © Jan Richardson

Readings for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

When I received the invitation to do the artwork for Peter Storey’s book Listening at Golgotha, a series of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus (featured in Friday’s post), it came as a lovely bit of synchronicity. His editor, who had been the editor for my first book, wasn’t aware that Peter and I were acquainted, having crossed paths on a few occasions when he was visiting the U.S. from his native South Africa. The catch was that the artwork had to be in black and white. With my having worked primarily in paper collage, black and white was not exactly my first language, artistically speaking. I so wanted to work on Peter’s book that I told the editor yes. Then I set about to figure out what kind of black and white medium I could manage.

I tried doing collages in black and white, but made little headway. After several other experiments, I picked up a piece of charcoal. And fell in love.

Beginning to work with charcoal was like learning a new language, with the delights and challenges that come in such a process of discovery. Most of my early sketches were a mess. I could sense that a style was stirring, but in the beginning stages it appeared so raw and unformed that I began to despair of having anything ready in time for Peter’s book.

On the verge of calling the editor to do an embarrassing backing-out dance (an awkward jig that I try hard to avoid), I instead called my artist friend Peg to ask if she could either collaborate with me or counsel me on the project. Peg told me to bring her all the sketches I’d done: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To my eye they were mostly bad and ugly. But Peg took the smudgy, ashy papers, spread them out, and pondered them. In a fashion that struck me as being something like lectio divina, she followed their tangled lines until she began to perceive something that had the beginnings of coherence and form. Moving through what I had perceived as chaos, Peg showed me what she saw, and she offered suggestions on how to pursue and develop the path that had been obscure to me. Not only did this help make it possible to complete the project, but it also began to open creative doors within and beyond me in ways I never would have imagined.

In large part, what I came to love about working in charcoal was the dramatic contrast it offered to my colorful, often intricate collage work. Where collage involves a process of accumulation and addition as the papers are layered together, charcoal invites me to an opposite experience. When I do a charcoal drawing, my goal is to find the fewest number of lines necessary to convey the scene. It is a medium of subtraction, involving little more than a piece of blank paper, a stick of charcoal, and an eraser to smudge and then smooth away all that is extraneous. What remains on the page—the dark, ashen lines—is spare, stark, sufficient.

For every artist, one of the most crucial habits to develop is staying open to what shows up. In the process of cultivating a unique vision, with all the consuming focus that involves, we have to learn, at the same time, how to keep an eye open for the creative surprises and invitations that can lead us to new pathways or deepen existing ones. If I stay too attached to a favorite medium or familiar technique, I risk shutting myself off to possibilities that can take me to whole new places in my work and in my own soul.

Taking up a new medium, entering a different way of working, diving or tiptoeing into a new approach: all this can be complex, unsettling, disorienting, discombobulating. Launching into the unknown and untried confronts us with what is undeveloped within us. It compels us to see where we are not adept, where we lack skill, where we possess little gracefulness. Yet what may seem like inadequacy—as I felt in my early attempts with charcoal—becomes fantastic fodder for the creative process, and for life. Allowing ourselves to be present to the messiness provides an amazing way to sort through what is essential and to clear a path through the chaos. To borrow the words of the writer of the Psalm 51, the psalm for Ash Wednesday, it creates a clean heart within us.

Ash Wednesday beckons us to cross over the threshold into a season that’s all about working through the chaos to discover what is essential. The ashes that lead us into this season remind us where we have come from. They beckon us to consider what is most basic to us, what is elemental, what survives after all that is extraneous is burned away. With its images of ashes and wilderness, Lent challenges us to reflect on what we have filled our lives with, and to see if there are habits, practices, possessions, and ways of being that have accumulated, encroached, invaded, accreted, layer upon layer, becoming a pattern of chaos that threatens to insulate us and dull us to the presence of God.

Each of the scripture texts for this day invites us to ponder the practices that we have given ourselves to, and the practices to which God calls us, both individually and in community. The prophet, the psalmist, the apostle, and Jesus himself all urge us, in these readings, to pay attention to the rhythms of our lives so that we may discern which rhythms draw us closer to God and which ones pull us away.

Where do these sacred texts find you as we cross into the season of Lent? What is the state of your heart? What has taken up residence there over the past weeks, months, years? Are there habits and ways of being that you are so invested in, so attached to, that it has become difficult to discern new directions in which God might be inviting you to move? Who can help you ponder the patterns present in your life—the good, the bad, the ugly—and help you see where new life is stirring, and where a new path might be opening? What are the most basic, elemental, crucial things in your life, and how might God be challenging you to give your attention to them in this season?

The gospel for Ash Wednesday tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. On this day, and throughout the coming days, may we see clearly where our treasure lies, and have hearts clear and open enough to recognize the surprising forms that such treasure can take. On this day of ashes, blessings to you.

[For last year’s reflection on Ash Wednesday, visit Ash Wednesday, Almost.]

[To use the “Ash Wednesday” image, please visit this page at Your use of the Jan Richardson Images site helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Looking toward Lent

February 20, 2009


As Ash Wednesday approaches, I thought this would be a good time to do a bit of housekeeping here at The Painted Prayerbook. I have a few artful Lenten offerings I want to let you know about, along with some related news.

ORIGINAL ART: The artwork above is a series of charcoals that I did several years ago for Peter Storey’s book Listening at Golgotha, which offers a collection of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus. The original artwork is available for sale (as an intact series), beautifully matted and framed. Great for a church, chapel, or other space for devotion/worship, especially during Lent and Holy Week. For more information, visit The Seven Last Words Series. [Update: I’m delighted that this series was acquired by Duke Divinity School, where it is permanently installed.]

MORE ORIGINAL ART: I have a few of the original pieces from The Hours of Mary Magdalene available. For details, visit The Hours of Mary Magdalene and click on the individual images.

ART PRINTS: All of the images from The Seven Last Words Series and The Hours of Mary Magdalene are available as prints; check out the Art Prints page on my website. You can also purchase prints of The Lenten Series (illustrations from my book Garden of Hollows) as well as prints of artwork from my books and my blogs.

A LITERARY LENT: Published through my small press, Garden of Hollows: Entering the Mysteries of Lent & Easter offers artwork and reflections on the sacred texts and themes of the coming season. You can read excerpts and order at Wanton Gospeller Press. My book In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season includes a section for Lent and Easter. Visit the Books page on my website for details on this book that includes my full-color artwork.

IMAGES ONLINE: Thanks so much to everyone who has requested permission to use my artwork. In response to the number of requests, I’m working to create a website that will enable congregations and other communities to download high-resolution files of my images for use in worship and educational settings (bulletin covers, PowerPoint, etc.). The artwork will be available for a per-image fee, or, for an annual subscription, churches can have access to all the images for a whole year. I’m aiming to have this ready sometime this spring, and I look forward to having this new service available as a way to share mutual creative support with worshiping communities and other groups. In the meantime, I am always happy to respond to individual requests. Thank you for being mindful that, like most artwork, the images on my blogs, website, and in my books are under copyright. I am really happy for folks to make use of my artwork, but permission must be sought for use of these images in any format. Details and contact info are available at Copyright Permissions. [Update: images for use in worship and related settings are available at Jan Richardson Images.]

eNEWSLETTER: I send out an occasional e-newsletter. It includes a seasonal reflection, artwork, information about current offerings and upcoming events, and whatever else strikes my creative fancy. I would be delighted to include you in my mailing list if you haven’t already subscribed. You can sign up here.

GRATITUDE: Most of all, thank you for visiting The Painted Prayerbook and for the sustenance and companionship you provide along the way. Your comments, emails, prayers, and presence are all tremendous gifts on my path. Please know that I pray for you and that I carry a heap of gratitude for the ways you help make possible my work in this world.

Many blessings to you in these remaining days of Epiphany!

Eat this Book

February 14, 2009


During the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent some time in the bookbindery (a.k.a. my dining/kitchen/studio table), working to replenish the supply of books that I’ve published through my small press. With Lent just around the bend, I’ve been particularly focused on shoring up my stock of my book Garden of Hollows: Entering the Mysteries of Lent & Easter. Drawing on the texts and images that the Lenten season gives us, Garden of Hollows invites readers to contemplate their lives in the light—and shadows—of the stories that lead us toward resurrection.

I established Wanton Gospeller Press in order to create small, intimate, artful books of a sort that traditional publishing houses typically can’t offer. Although I’m continuing to work with publishing houses, I’m grateful to have a pathway that enables me to develop my own vision for a book and handle its production from start to finish. I do virtually the whole shebang myself: writing, artwork, design, making the covers, and binding the books. The process is labor intensive, but I enjoy the rhythm and being engaged in each step of bringing a book into the world.

With this round of book making, I’ve added a couple of new, artful elements, including gorgeous endpapers made of mango papers that come from Thailand. The paper is beautiful, translucent, and has mango leaf inclusions, as you can see in a couple of the photos above. I’ve selected a different mango paper for each of my Wanton Gospeller editions; for Garden of Hollows I chose a lovely pale green.

My sweetheart Gary says using mango paper is a good choice, as readers can eat the endpapers if they start feeling peckish along the way. That’s actually a great image for these books, and for the process of lectio divina (sacred reading) that gave rise to them. The Dominican nun who first taught me about lectio sometimes calls it lectio bovina, in respect of the way that this form of reading invites us to chew and chew on a sacred text until we gain the nourishment it has to offer. Garden of Hollows grew from a long process of ruminating on the sacred stories of the coming season. I pray that this book, in turn, offers some of the sustenance that I have found.

I would love to share these Wanton Gospeller Press books with you! For more information and book excerpts, click on Wanton Gospeller Press, where you can order either from or directly from me.

Happy munching!

The Medium and the Message

February 10, 2009

Testimony © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 6, Year B: Mark 1.40-45

One of the aspects that most engages me about the new book I’m working on (a book of prayer and reflection that draws on the lives of women from the Judeo-Christian tradition) is getting to meet the women who show up along the way. Drawing as I do from several thousand years of history, I encounter these women primarily in fragments they have left behind. Stories, scriptural references, letters, prayers, poetry, visionary literature, journals, biographies, artwork, and more: the sacred texts of these women’s lives take a multitude of forms. Often working amid forces that sought to constrain and circumscribe them, women continually stun me with the persistence and creativity by which they embodied and passed down the Word from generation to generation.

In doing some research recently, I met a woman whose work is stoking my imagination. Born in the southern United States in 1837, Harriet Powers grew up in slavery and spent much of her life near Athens, Georgia. We know a scant handful of facts about her life. She had children, she was emancipated, she and her husband purchased a farm, she worked as a seamstress. We know about her primarily because of two of her stitched creations that survived: a pair of quilts.

Known as Bible quilts, Powers’s creations captivate with their style and with the stories they tell. Most often using the technique of appliqué, and perhaps drawing on the long tradition of appliqué that came from Benin (once known as Dahomey) in West Africa, Powers stitched her quilts with bold, colorful figures of humans, animals, and celestial bodies: sun, moon, stars. Frame by frame, her quilts tell stories that Powers absorbed, pondered, and reconstructed in an intensely personal and artful fashion. Not only did she include biblical stories such as Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Really Big Fish, the crucifixion of Jesus, and John’s vision of the angels with their trumpets and vials; Powers also stitched in local legends and references to astronomical and climatological events that she had heard of or experienced. Her stitched stories included “The independent hog that ran 500 miles from GA to VA,” “the falling of the stars on November 13, 1833,” and “a man frozen at his jug of liquor” on Cold Thursday in 1895. (See the quilts, and a photograph of Harriet Powers, in a brief bio here.)

We know some of Powers’s thoughts about her work through several people who recorded her reflections. Describing her first Bible quilt, now in the Smithsonian Institution (her second quilt resides in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Powers said it was “a Sermon in Patchwork,” and that she desired to “preach the gospel in patchwork, to show my Lord my humility…”

As experts have pointed out, Powers’s quilts are not the size of typical bed covers; they are significantly wider than they are long. When one takes that together with Powers’s own words about her work, it becomes tantalizing to consider the possibility that she created them primarily as a form of proclamation. With the vibrant vocabulary she had at hand, she bore testimony to the Word who had taken flesh in her own life.

We saw this impulse toward vernacular proclamation in Peter’s mother-in-law last week, who responded and testified to Jesus’ gift in the only way she knew how: the vocabulary of a meal. This week we see the impulse toward testimony in the form of a man who finds healing in the presence and in the touch of Jesus. In this Sunday’s gospel reading, Mark tells us of a man whom Jesus releases from leprosy. Jesus attempts to confine the man’s response. “See that you say nothing to anyone,” he tells the one whom he has healed; “but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony [Greek marturion, which also means witness] to them.” The man, however, cannot contain himself. His testimony spills over the boundaries that Jesus has set. Mark tells us that the man “went out and began to proclaim [Gk. kerusso, also translated as to make known, to preach] it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.”

Like Harriet Powers, like Peter’s mother-in-law, this healed man offers his testimony with the only vocabulary he has: in this case, his own body, his own flesh, healed and made whole. In this man, the medium is the message. His body proclaims everything he knows about Jesus. Voice lifted up, arms flung wide, he is an open book, a gospel: the good news is embedded in his body, a living testament to the incarnate God who tangles Godself up in the business of our bodies.

Freed from the bondage of slavery, Harriet Powers offered her testimony stitch by artful stitch. Released from the imprisonment of illness, Peter’s mother-in-law gave her testimony through ministering to Jesus and his companions at the table. Set loose from the captivity of leprosy, the healed man proclaimed his testimony with every fiber of his flesh. Each with their own medium, they did what lay in their power to do.

How about us? How do we offer our testimony about the one who has freed us? What medium do we have at hand to proclaim the news of how Christ has worked, and works still, to release all people from every form of captivity and bondage? What is the unique vocabulary that God has given to you to articulate how God takes shape in your life? How willing are you to use that vocabulary in ways that only you can express?

In every word, with every gesture, by every art, through every means, may we be a living gospel, for the life of the world. Blessings.

[Harriet Powers’s “Sermon in Patchwork” quotation is from Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilts by Regenia A. Perry. See also Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers by Mary E. Lyons.]

[To use the “Testimony” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany 4: In the Realm of the Spirits

January 30, 2009

I Know Who You Are © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 4, Year B: Mark 1.21-28

There once was a time when I didn’t give much thought to what it meant to confront evil and suffering in the realm of the spiritual world. I’m mainline Protestant, after all. Spiritual warfare, as some call it, was something best left to the charismatics and others who dealt in such things.

Then I began to live and work within systems and organizations that have given me cause to think again about the notion that evil can cohere as a force, can organize and inflict itself in discrete ways. In my professional ministry and in my personal ecosystem, the years have afforded plenty of occasions to witness the ways in which chaos that exists in the spiritual world can manifest itself in the physical realm. It’s stunning, how a single individual in spiritual disarray can distribute pain and discord among an entire body of people. And the reverse: how the diffuse chaos that often lurks so easily within a system can erupt in acts of harm against particular individuals.

In this Sunday’s gospel lection, Mark tells a story that provides a vivid example of a person who has become overwhelmed by a force that is contrary to the purposes of God. In describing what harbors within the man whom Jesus encounters, Mark uses the Greek term pneumati akatharto: an unclean spirit. The uncleanness that akatharto (from the word akathartos) denotes has to do not with physical untidiness but rather with how the spirit exists in a state actively antagonistic to God, a state that the spirit has inflicted upon the man. Akathartos is the opposite of katharos (related to our word catharsis): ritually pure, clean.

Intriguing, isn’t it, that this encounter takes place in a synagogue? It underscores what I have seen time and again: that places meant for worship and seeking after God often attract the most chaotic folks. That which is opposed to God is often most drawn to those places devoted to God. Such folks are like this man who, amid the chaos, nonetheless experiences a point of vivid clarity: he—or, rather, the spirit in him—recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are,” he cries out, “the Holy One of God.”

Jesus will say, just a few verses later, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2.17). It’s one thing, however, to know and seek healing for our sickness, and to minister to others who recognize their own need. More challenging to reckon with are those folks living, often without awareness, in the grip of forces opposed to God who are yet drawn toward the holy. It can take a long time before their deep, underlying hunger for God breaks through and overtakes their desire to inflict chaos in the places of sacredness.

In his healing of the man, Jesus offers a model for how we can reckon with the forces that work against God’s desire for wholeness. Jesus responds to the spirit with the calm authority that receives particular comment in this passage, both by Mark and by those who witness Jesus’ teaching and healing in the synagogue. Jesus addresses the spirit from the core of who he is. He is not exhibiting a display of magic or seeking to dazzle the crowd with a show. Rather, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to confront and call out what is contrary to God. Acting from that fiercely calm and centered place, he releases the man from the force that has tormented him.

The healthy spiritual practices of the Christian tradition give us tools to do the necessary work at the level of spirit. These practices cultivate within us the grounded, centered authority that enabled Christ to confront the unclean spirit, they help keep us clear amid chaos, and they deepen our ability to respond to the ways that disorder becomes manifest in the world. These practices, however, are not enough in themselves. As Jesus points out in the gospels, and as Paul addresses in his letters, it’s possible for us to become puffed up about our own spiritual prowess.

The desert mothers and fathers of the early church recognized this. They had a lively understanding of the ways that spiritual disorder takes form in the physical realm. They sometimes described these forms as demons, who particularly loved to hide out in the very practices that these desert folk sometimes became proud of—extreme fasting, prayer, and the like. This story comes from the desert tradition:

[Amma Theodora] also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting? ’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils? ’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep. ’ ‘Is it separation from the world? ’ ‘We live in the deserts.” ‘What power sends you away then?” They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’

In my own spiritual practice, I have taken to opening my day by offering the prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, also called Deer’s Cry (for its association with the legend that St. Patrick prayed it when he and his companions were in peril, and the prayer caused them to take on the appearance of deer and thereby elude their attackers). Though the prayer originated sometime after St. Patrick, it is an old, old prayer of encompassing—what the Celtic folk call a lorica—that in a poetic and profound way calls upon God to protect us from the forces that seek to work against God. I’m particularly fond of the version that Malachi McCormick offers in his book Deer’s Cry. Published by his small press, The Stone Street Press, Deer’s Cry offers Malachi’s translation of the prayer (alongside the Old Irish version), handwritten with his charming calligraphy. I gradually committed the prayer to memory some time ago. I pray it not as some kind of magic charm but rather as a reminder that I go into my day, and into the world, in the encompassing of God, who bids me rely completely on the power of God rather than on my own devices. It’s a prayer that, honestly prayed, cultivates humility, an awareness of how we are entirely dependent upon God. It’s this humility that in turn fosters the type of calm, centered authority by which Jesus acted in confronting the unclean spirit.

This gospel story reminds us not to give more power to the presence of evil than is warranted; obsessing over chaos can breed it. Rather, the story challenges us to confront evil where we find it. The demons—by whatever form or name we know the presence of disorder—fight hardest when we, like Jesus, look them in the face. But this is what depletes evil of its power. It cannot bear being named, challenged, called out.

Where do you personally witness the forces that work against God? What do you think about those forces, and how do you reckon with them? How do you seek God’s protection against them? Are there ways you feel called to confront the presence of chaos? What practices help keep you centered in, and reliant upon, the power of God?

May you go with the encompassing of Christ, who does not abandon us to chaos but instead accompanies in every realm. Blessings.

[Amma Theodora story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG.]

[To use the “I Know Who You Are” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

The Hospitality of the Book

January 28, 2009

A Woman Anoints Jesus © Jan L. Richardson

Ooohhhh, you really should check out the January 15 episode of Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith radio show. Titled “Preserving Words and Worlds,” the episode highlights the remarkable work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), which is based at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The HMML is committed to preserving manuscript culture, not only through its work in a variety of locations around the world (including places where texts are in peril because of war), but also through its involvement in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, the first Bible to be written and illustrated by hand in more than five hundred years. You can listen to the show and take in related features by visiting this delicious page.

At the Speaking of Faith blog, the January 15 entry from online editor Trent Gilliss included a link to a short video about the making of The Saint John’s Bible. A reader of the blog left a comment in response, offering the perspective that “the money would be far better spent feeding the hungry and homeless around the world” and that the Benedictines are “being selfish without realizing it.”

Typically I don’t take that kind of bait in cyberspace, but this was a day I felt drawn to respond to that view, which I encounter frequently in the church—the view that art and justice are two different things and that we have to choose between them (with justice being the “right” choice). What follows is a comment that I left in response. I know it’s longish, but it was a good opportunity to remind myself of why I do what I do, and why people of faith should give a damn about art (and justice, though I can’t conceive of those two being separate).

Comment: Deep thanks for your “Words and Worlds” show and for highlighting the remarkable work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. For a number of years I’ve had occasion to travel to Saint John’s, and have followed with particular interest the HMML. I am fascinated by the crucial work it does both in preserving the sacred texts of many cultures and civilizations and also in supporting the creation of a new manuscript for a new time in the form of The Saint John’s Bible.

I was struck by the comment left by the writer who thought the money would be better spent feeding the homeless and hungry. I’m not certain whether the writer was referring to money spent on The Saint John’s Bible or to the work of the HMML in general, or both together, but the comment illuminates a tension that has long pervaded the church regarding art and justice. I am concerned by how frequently we in the church talk about art and justice as two different things that we have to choose between, rather than as being part of the same impulse: our response to a God of grace and creativity who has placed us in a world that is both broken and beautiful.

The Christian tradition and the Bible itself both developed and survived in large measure because of people across the centuries who gave themselves to transmitting the sacred stories in a variety of creative forms, not just in texts but also in other media including drama, music, and liturgy. In particular, the stunning array of visual art created over the centuries not only helped proclaim the gospel to those who could not read it (as well as those who could) but also was understood to be a gift in return to God: a lavish offering, an act of praise in response to the God who has lavished love, grace, and care upon us.

The fact that we live in the 21st century, when hunger, homelessness, and a host of other injustices continue to inflict deep suffering around the world, does not diminish—and is not separate from—our need for beauty and the sustenance and hope it provides. I find myself thinking of the story in Mark 14.3-9, in which, as Jesus sits at table, a woman comes and anoints him with outrageously expensive oil. Mark tells us that some at the table were angry and said, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” Jesus, however, receives her lavish act with grace and gratitude. “Let her alone,” he tells those who scold the woman; “why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

In saying that we would always have the poor with us, Jesus wasn’t suggesting that we should neglect to work for an end to poverty. Rather, he recognized that lavish acts of generosity, grace, and beauty, such as the woman offered to him, must be part of our response to Christ, alongside our work for justice. Jesus knew that choosing justice at the expense of beauty is just another form of poverty.

I am an ordained minister as well as an artist and writer. I understand my call and my work as a minister to be about feeding people not only in body but also in soul. One kind of feeding cannot long do without the other. I could not work for justice in this world without the creative acts that others have offered across the centuries and in our present time, not only because I could not live without the sustaining hope and beauty they offer, but also because they remind me that God desires us to give lavishly, generously, wantonly from the depths of who we are, and who God has created us to be. Such extravagant acts can seem wasteful. By his response to the anointing woman, however, Jesus reminds us that such gestures of grace bring healing to the body of Christ, and to the whole world.

One of the many gifts of The Saint John’s Bible is that through its related exhibitions, books, prints, cards, and website, not to mention radio and TV shows that have featured it, people are coming into contact with the Bible who might not otherwise encounter it. The Saint John’s Bible also beckons those who think we are oh-so-familiar with the Bible to engage it in a different, deeper, and renewed way. The work of Donald Jackson and his team reminds us that the Bible is not obsolete but rather is a living, dynamic text that invites us to continue not merely to read it but to lavish our attention upon it: to grapple and wrestle with it, to question it, to discern how it still speaks to and challenges us in this time, and to illuminate it, even as it illumines us.

The monks of Saint John’s, and the host of others who participate in the work of the HMML, including the artists, calligraphers, and financial contributors who are making The Saint John’s Bible possible, are offering the world something that is precisely the opposite of selfish. In preserving the sacred texts of the past, in employing ancient methods to offer a sacred text that speaks to us in the present, in drenching us with this audaciously lavish gift, they are offering, in fine Benedictine (and Christian) tradition, a profound act of hospitality.

Amid the brokenness of the world, to which we are called to minister, these folks have given us a rare gift that reminds us that God desires beauty. They bear witness to the fact that recognizing and offering beauty is part of what heals the brokenness. They remind us that God is not yet done with the work of creating, and that God calls us to offer our creative gifts for the healing and feeding of the world.

And that is good news indeed.