Archive for the ‘Gospel of Mark’ Category

Baptism of Jesus: A Return to the River

January 6, 2012

Born of Water, Born of Spirit © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 1/Baptism of the Jesus: Mark 1.4-11

If you’re celebrating Epiphany this Sunday, scroll down or visit Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel.

I kept thinking I was going to be able to create a new reflection and image for Baptism of Jesus Sunday, but I was happily consumed with preparing the retreat for Women’s Christmas and finally had to let go of doing something entirely new for Sunday. If you haven’t visited my reflection on Women’s Christmas (which some folks celebrate on Epiphany) at the Sanctuary of Women blog, I’d love for you to stop by. The reflection includes the mini-retreat (which you can download as a PDF at no cost) that I designed as an opportunity to spend time in reflection on this day. If you can’t take time today, know that the retreat works anytime! Here’s where you can find it:

Celebrating Women’s Christmas

I do have a quartet of previous reflections on the Baptism of Jesus and invite you to visit these. Click on the images or titles below to find them. Do not miss Janet Wolf’s story about the baptism of Fayette in the post Epiphany 1: Baptized and Beloved. Her story continues to bless and haunt me as it challenges me to think about what the sacrament of baptism really means.

Baptism of Jesus: Following the Flow

Epiphany 1: Baptized and Beloved

Epiphany 1: Take Me to the River

Epiphany 1: Ceremony (with a Side of Cake)

I also have a charcoal of the Baptism of Jesus, which originally appeared in The Christian Century magazine. You can find it on my images website by clicking this thumbnail:

Whether you’re celebrating Baptism of Jesus or Epiphany this Sunday, I wish you many blessings!

[To use the "Born of Water, Born of Spirit" image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Divine Things and Human Things

September 6, 2009

Reading from the Gospels, Year B, Proper 19/Ordinary 24/Pentecost + 15: Mark 8.27-38

I am blissfully holed up in an island house with a group of my seminary girlfriends, where we’ve been been spending the holiday weekend, as planned, talking and eating and walking and resting and reading and talking and eating some more. Today has offered gorgeous weather. Seafood pasta will be on the table in a few minutes. I’m at the computer—briefly—and writing to the sound of lively conversation between the women at this table and the women in the kitchen and to the wondrous sound and smell of garlic and butter sizzling in the skillet. These friends, who have known me nearly half my life, are some of the folks who help me remember who I am and what I hold most important.

Next Sunday’s gospel lection beckons us to ponder what we hold important, what we give our attention to, and what we’re doing with, as Mary Oliver puts it, our “one wild and precious life” (from “The Summer Day”). As the garlic sizzles, I invite you to visit a couple of reflections I’ve written on Jesus’ words to Peter about divine things and human things, and losing one’s life and saving it. A slightly shorter portion of Sunday’s gospel turned up during Lent of this year (Mark 8.31-38); you can click on “Lent 2: In Which We Set Our Minds Somewhere” below to visit my reflection on this passage. Below that, “To Have without Holding” offers a reflection on Matthew’s version of this story (Matthew 16.21-28), which appeared as a gospel lection last year.

Time for that seafood dinner and savoring the pleasures of the table with good friends. May the coming week offer you much sustenance and many delights.


Lent 2: In Which We Set Our Minds Somewhere


To Have without Holding

[To use this artwork, please click on the images. Thanks!]

Finding the Feast

September 3, 2009

The Feast Beneath © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Proper 18B/Ordinary 23B/Pentecost +14: Mark 7.24-37

Greetings in the midst of a quick turnaround between trips. I recently returned home from two weeks at the wondrous Grünewald Guild in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, where I spent a week teaching a class called The Soul of the Book—one of my absolute favorite things I do all year—and lingered for another week to work on my book-in-progress and to soak up the splendid community that the Guild attracts. With its focus on exploring the connections between art and faith, the Guild is a place where I find my tribe.

Separated from that community now that I’m back home, I’m in a bit of withdrawal, but I’ll have something of a remedy over the next few days—a little hair of the dog, as it were. I’m leaving today for my annual Labor Day reunion with a group of girlfriends from seminary. Each year we rent a house on an island off Savannah, Georgia, and spend our days talking and eating and talking and sitting by the pool and talking and walking on the beach and talking and napping and…

My time at the Guild, where I’ve taught for half a dozen summers, and my days with the seminary chicks, with whom I’ve gathered for more than fifteen years, always provide a feast for body and soul.

Sustenance for body and soul is the theme of this Sunday’s gospel lection, although, in the case of the Syrophoenician woman who pleads—with great wit—for a healing for her daughter, the feast is rather hard won. As I finish packing my bags, I invite you to visit the reflection I wrote last year on Matthew’s version of this story, where he describes the intrepid mother as a Canaanite woman. Click this link to pay a visit: The Feast Beneath.

Many thanks to those who have sent good wishes and prayers as I work on my book. I sent a portion of the manuscript to the publisher last month and am working to complete the remainder. The publication date is set for Fall 2010. Your continued prayers for this massive project are most welcome! I look forward to returning to my regular blog writing sometime this fall.

Blessings and peace to you in this turning of seasons.

[To use this image, please visit this page at Thanks!]

Mapping the Mysteries, Revisited

June 29, 2009

Mapping the Mysteries © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year B, Proper 9/Ordinary 14/Pentecost +5: Mark 6.1-13

Over the weekend, as I was working on my book, I revisited the story of “Old Elizabeth,” a woman who was born into slavery in the southern United States. Reading her words again, I found myself struck in particular by the ways she sought to know the presence and guidance of God. Elizabeth was raised in a system that sought to define who she was, and, by separating her from her family, distanced her from those who knew who she was. Yet she walked in close companionship with a God who offered solace and in whom she knew she was something other, something more, than what her masters had allowed.

Elizabeth received a call to preach when she was twelve years old and still living in slavery. It would be years before she would be able to fulfill that call. The path by which she did so was marked by struggle and by grace. She tells that shortly after receiving her call, she “was moved back to the farm where my mother lived, and then sold to a stranger.

Here I had deep sorrows and plungings, not having experienced a return of that sweet evidence and light with which I had been favoured formerly; but by watching unto prayer, and wrestling mightily with the Lord, my peace gradually returned, and with it a great exercise and weight upon my heart for the salvation of my fellow-creatures; and I was often carried to distant lands and shown places where I should have to travel and deliver the Lord’s message. Years afterward, I found myself visiting those towns and countries that I had seen in the light as I sat at home at my sewing,—places of which I had never heard.

I find myself thinking again of Elizabeth and her journey, both to freedom and to fulfilling her call, as I reflect on this Sunday’s gospel reading. Even if our call is clear (and it isn’t always)—as Jesus made his instructions to the disciples in this passage quite clear—the way by which we live into our call is rarely well-defined. This fact is both a challenge and a gift. As an ordained minister/artist/writer/retreat leader who has carved out an unconventional path (which has often involved providing responses such as “no, this isn’t a sabbatical; yes, this is my real ministry; no, I haven’t left the church”), I continue to find it both exhilarating and also sometimes daunting to discern and forge and navigate this mysterious road that provides no map for the way ahead. Yet the presence of God goes with us in even the murkiest, darkest, most fog-laden stretches. Here, too, I find myself thinking again of Elizabeth, who said that “in every lonely place I found an altar.” She challenges me to do the same as I seek the way of Christ.

Mark’s telling of Jesus’ sending of the disciples bears similarities to Matthew and John’s accounts. Last year I offered a reflection on Matthew’s version of this story. As I turn my writing energies back to the book-in-progress, I invite you to visit last year’s reflection, “Mapping the Mysteries,” by clicking here.

Blessings on your path!

[Elizabeth's quotations are from Memoir of Old Elizabeth in the book Six Women's Slave Narratives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.]

[To use this artwork, please visit this page at]

Circling around Again

June 21, 2009

Stories and Circles © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year B, Proper 8/Ordinary 13/Pentecost +4: Mark 5.21-4

This coming Sunday, the lectionary gives us a reading that’s among my favorites in all of scripture. In this passage, a version of which Matthew and Luke include in their gospels, Mark gives us the story of two healings that are intertwined with one another. This text stands among my favorites because, in addition to giving us a double dose of remarkable healings, the gospels structurally connect them in a way that reminds us of a crucial element in our search for wholeness: our healing must be linked to the healing of others. Healing is not solely a personal endeavor, this passage tells us; it occurs in the context of community. We seek it not only for ourselves but as part of the flourishing of the wider world. Our wholeness is bound together.

I offered a reflection on Matthew’s telling of this story last year, so, particularly as I’m continuing to direct most of my writing energies toward my book-in-progress (prayers very welcome!), I invite you to visit that post by clicking here. I wish you many blessings in these days of Ordinary Time.

Stirring the Sleeping Savior

June 15, 2009

Reading from the Gospels, Proper 7/Ordinary 12/Pentecost +3: Mark 4.35-41

As often happens, I find myself struck by the ways that the landscape of the lectionary intersects with the landscape of my own life. Pondering Mark’s telling of how Jesus stills the windstorm that springs up during their evening crossing of the sea, I think of doing battle last week with a bout of anxiety that had pressed hard upon me. I generally experience myself as a pretty calm person, blessed both with a natural disposition and acquired skills that enable me to move through my days with relative equanimity. Yet last week, as I grappled with a summertime deadline for the new book I’m working on, my stress exacerbated by preparing for a trip that would disrupt my already-tight schedule, I experienced a level of anxiety that was foreign to me. In the midst of it, I had trouble recognizing my normally calm self.

Like the disciples, I called on some help in the midst of the storm. A series of conversations with my wise sweetheart helped me return my focus to where it needed to be: on the book, not on the looming deadline. As I became able to reorient my attention, my anxiety began to slide away. I modified my travel plans in a way that reduced my stress, gave myself to the delights of reconnecting with friends and family in the places I visited, and when I returned over the weekend, I took some Sabbath time before diving back into the book.

We Christians sometimes describe anxiety and fear as the flip side of faith, casting them as opposites and chastising one another—or ourselves—for not having enough faith to still our fears. It’s true that faith and fear have a hard time living together. Fear and anxiety can seduce us into a frantic loop in which our perceptions grow so distorted that we may completely lose the path that would carry us through our fears. Like the disciples, we become swamped. They were right to feel afraid. Yet their perception that their reality was defined solely by the storm only increased their experience of being overwhelmed. The presence of the storm was not the whole truth of their situation—a fact that the sleeping savior in the stern would soon remind them of.

There is plenty of cause to be anxious and fearful in these days, and for better reasons than a looming book deadline. Anyone who’s not feeling some anxiety probably isn’t paying enough attention to what’s going on. Living in denial is not the same as having faith. Whatever the sources of our anxiety, faith helps to provide the tools we need to maintain our vision and to see the truth within the waves that seek to command our whole attention. Faith asks us where we are turning our sight, and what we are allowing to define our reality.

Pondering all this, I revisited an article that Sharon Salzberg, the noted author and Buddhist teacher, wrote for the January 2002 article of O Magazine. In her article, titled “Choosing Faith over Fear,” Salzberg writes,

Faith demands that, despite our fear, we get as close as possible to the truth of the present moment so that we can offer our hearts fully to it, with integrity. Faith is willing to engage the unknown, not shrink back from it. Faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear. It means having the energy to go ahead, right alongside the fear. The word courage in English has the same etymological root as the French coeur, which means “heart.” With courage we openly acknowledge what we can’t control, and place our hearts wisely on our ability to connect with the truth of the moment and to move forward into the uncharted terrain of the next moment.

We might (and often must) hope and plan and arrange and try, but faith enables us to be fully engaged while also realizing that we are not in control. To be able to make an intense effort—to heal, to speak, to create, to alleviate our suffering or the suffering of others—while guided by a vision of life with all its mutability, evanescence, dislocations, and unruliness, is the particular gift of faith.

When the sleeping savior stirs in response to his disciples’ cries, he doesn’t tell them to have no fear. He instead invites them to examine why they are afraid—in essence, to consider how and why they have let the windstorm rule their reality—and calls upon them to have a measure of faith that will accompany them amid their fears and help to restore their vision.

How’s the weather in your world this week? Are there any storms raging that have you feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or fear? Where might you find help amid the storm? How might God be inviting you to shift your attention in a way that helps you recognize that the storm does not have the final word? Instead of experiencing fear and anxiety as bullies that leave us feeling helpless, how might it be to receive them as messengers who invite us to refocus our vision? How would it be to pray that God would turn your anxiety into energy for moving forward?

Time for me to return to the book. Letting go of my anxiety is helping me work better, but it doesn’t lessen the amount of work yet to be done! No new collage this week, but if you’re looking for some artwork to accompany this passage, I invite you to visit several earlier collages that I created for watery themes. Clicking on each image below will take you to that image’s page on my new website, Clicking the title below each image will take you to the reflection where the collage originally appeared.

In every landscape, may you know the gift of faith. Blessings.

Lent 2: In Which We Get Goosed


Lent 3: The Way of Water


Night Passage


Epiphany 1: Take Me to the River

P.S. A belated Happy Ordinary Time to you! For a reflection on crossing into the season of Ordinary Time last year, I invite you to visit this post.

Palm Sunday: The Temple by Night

March 29, 2009

The Temple by Night © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Palm Sunday: Mark 11.1-11

After sending for the colt.
After the procession.
After the palms.
After the cloak-strewn road.
After the hosannas.
After blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.

After all this, Mark—alone of all the gospels—tells us that Jesus goes into the temple and looks around at everything.

He does not teach. He does not preach. He does not heal. He does not confront or challenge. He does not even speak; neither does he cross the path of anyone who requires his attention. Mark conveys the impression that here, in this sacred space that lies at the heart of his people, Jesus is quite alone, and that it is night.

Jesus simply looks around. What is it that he sees in the temple by night?

The gospels vary in their account of Jesus’ relationship with the temple, and how much time he has spent there. Taking together their accounts, we know Mary and Joseph took him there as an infant for the rituals that occurred forty days after a birth. He made the journey to the temple every year with his family for Passover, most memorably at the age of twelve, when his parents, missing him on the way home, went back and discovered him in conversation with the teachers. Matthew tells us that the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, urging him to jump, that angels would catch him. John in particular emphasizes Jesus’ presence at the temple earlier in his ministry, where the temple features in such stories as Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. It is at the temple, according to John, that Jesus proclaims himself as the river of life and as the light of the world, beginning to take into his own self, as Richard Hays has pointed out, the purpose of the temple as the focal point of the liturgy and life of the people of Israel.

This is the place that holds the memories of Jesus and the collective memory of his people. And it is to this place that Jesus returns, after the palms, after the procession, after the shouts of proclamation have vanished into the air. He will come back tomorrow, Mark tells us, and he will turn over the tables and drive out the buyers and sellers and castigate the people for turning this house of prayer into a robbers’ den. He will return yet again over the next few days to teach, to provoke, to watch a widow drop two precious coins into the offering box. And soon he will die.

But for now, for tonight, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus merely looks. He peers into this sacred space that is inhabited and haunted by his own story. And perhaps it is this story he sees again this night. Perhaps he sees Mary and Joseph coming out of the shadows, carrying their infant son. Perhaps he sees Simeon gathering his young self into his arms, singing about salvation and a light for revelation, joined by the old prophet Anna, who raises her voice in praise. Perhaps Jesus sees again the twelve-year-old who conversed with the temple teachers, and the tempter who tried to lure him to fling himself from the pinnacle of this place. Perhaps a woman, once trapped and terrified, stands before him again, this time with the light of forgiveness and healing shining through her eyes.

And perhaps in this place, where Jesus is alone-but-not-alone, they gather about him, reminding him why he has come, calling him to remember, offering their blessing for the days ahead. Perhaps in this space, after the palms and before the passion, Jesus is able simply to rest. To remember. To breathe. To be between.

And you? What are you between? Where is the space that invites you to be alone but not alone, to allow the memories to gather and bless you, to offer strength for the days ahead? What is the place that beckons you to breathe, to rest, to look? What is it that you see in that space? What stirs in the shadows?

Blessings to you in the spaces between.

For last year’s Palm Sunday reflection, visit Palm Sunday: Where the Way Leads.

Resources for the Season: Looking toward Lent

Lent 3: The Temple in His Bones

March 11, 2009

The Temple in His Bones © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Lent 3, Year B: John 2.13-22

On my first afternoon in Rome a few years ago, I climbed on the back of my friend Eric’s motorcycle and set off with him to begin my acquaintance with the Eternal City. A few minutes down the road, he told me to close my eyes. When we came to a stop and I opened them, my field of vision was filled with one of the most impressive sights in a city of impressive sights: the Pantheon. Built in the second century AD, the Pantheon replaced the original Pantheon that Marcus Agrippa constructed less than three decades before the birth of Christ. A temple dedicated to “all the gods” (hence its name), the Pantheon became a church in the seventh century when Pope Boniface IV consecrated it as the Church of Santa Maria ad Martyres. It’s said that at the moment of the consecration, all the spirits inhabiting the former temple escaped through the oculus—the hole in the Pantheon’s remarkable dome that leaves it perpetually open to the heavens.

As churches go, it’s hard to top the Pantheon for its physical beauty and power. It was perhaps risky to see it on my first day, so high did it set the bar for the rest of my trip. Yet Rome, of course, brims with delights for the eyes, and the next two weeks offered plenty of stunning visual fare. Amid the calculated grandeur, I found that it was the details that charmed me: the intricate pattern of a Cosmatesque marble floor, the shimmer of light on a centuries-old mosaic, the inscribed marble fragments that had been unearthed and plastered to the walls. It was staggering to contemplate the countless hours and years that went into the construction of these spaces, or to fathom the vast wells of talent and skill that generations of architects, artisans, and laborers lavished upon them.

The Roman churches that most linger in my memory are those that possessed a clear congruence between the physical environment and its purpose—those places of worship that were not primarily tourist destinations but true sanctuaries. I felt this congruence keenly, for instance, in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The space intrigued me from my first moments in it, on the first evening of my trip. I would return several times, learning along the way that one of the many ways the church serves the surrounding Trastevere neighborhood is as a place of prayer for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay movement of people who work for reconciliation, peace, solidarity with the poor, and hospitality to pilgrims.

On the day that Jesus sweeps into the temple, it’s this kind of congruence that is pressing on his mind. We don’t know precisely what has him so riled up; after all, particularly with Passover drawing near, there are transactions that need to take place in the temple. As Jesus enters, he sees those who are attending to the business involved in the necessary ritual sacrifices, but he seems to feel it has become simply that: a business. Commercial transaction has overtaken divine interaction. Time for a clearing out, a return to congruence between form and function, to the integrity of the purpose for which the temple was created: to serve as a place of meeting between God and God’s people.

To those who challenge his turning over of the temple, Jesus makes a remarkable claim: that he himself is the temple. “Destroy this temple,” he says to them, “and in three days I will raise it up.” His claim stuns his listeners, who know that the sacred space in which they are standing—the Second Temple, which was in the midst of a massive renovation and expansion started by Herod the Great—has been under construction for forty-six years. John clues us in on the secret that the disciples will later recall: “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”

This scene underscores a particular concern that John carries throughout his gospel: to present Jesus as one who takes into himself, into his own body and being, the purpose of the temple. Richard B. Hays writes that in making the link between Jesus’ body and the temple, this passage provides “a key for much that follows” in John’s gospel. “Jesus now takes over the Temple’s function,” Hays observes, “as a place of mediation between God and human beings.” Hays goes on to point out how Jesus’ sometimes enigmatic sayings about himself in John’s gospel—for instance, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” and “I am the light of the world”—are references to religious festivals whose symbolism Jesus takes into himself.

Perhaps, then, it all comes down to architecture. The decades of work that have gone into the physical place of worship, the skill of the artisans, the labors of the workers; the role of the temple as a locus of sacrifice, of celebration, of identity as a community; the power and beauty of the holy place: Jesus says, I am this. Jesus carries the temple in his bones. Within the space of his own body that will die, that will rise, that he will offer to us, a living liturgy unfolds.

We will yet see the ways that Jesus uses his body to evoke and provoke, how he will offer his body with all its significations and possibilities as a habitation, a place of meeting, a site of worship. Calling his disciples, at the Last Supper, to abide in him; opening his body on the cross; re-forming his flesh in the resurrection; offering his wounds to Thomas like a portal, a passageway: Jesus presents a body that is radically physical yet also wildly multivalent in its meanings.

The wonder and the mystery of this gospel lection, and of Jesus’ life, lie not only in how he gives his body as a sacred space but also in how he calls us to be his body in this world. Christ’s deep desire, so evident on that day in the temple, is that we pursue the congruence that he embodied in himself: that as his body, as his living temple in the world, we take on the forms that will most clearly welcome and mediate his presence. In our bodies, in our lives, in our communities; by our hospitality, by our witness, by our life of prayer: Christ calls us to be a place of meeting between God and God’s people, a living sanctuary for the healing of the world.

The season of Lent beckons us to consider, are there things we need to clear out in order to have the congruence to which Christ invites us? Who helps you recognize what you need to let go of in order to be more present to the God who seeks a sanctuary in you? How is it with your body—your own flesh in which Christ dwells, and the community with which you seek to be the body of Christ in the world? What kind of community do you long for—do you have that? What would it take to find or create it?

In these Lenten days, may we be a place of hospitality to all that is holy. Blessings.

[Richard B. Hays quote from his chapter "The canonical matrix of the gospels" in The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, ed. Stephen C. Barton.]

Resources for the Season: Looking toward Lent

Lent 2: In Which We Set Our Minds Somewhere

March 3, 2009

Finding the Focus © Jan L. Richardson

Gospel reading for Lent 2, Year B: Mark 8.31-38

This past weekend, those of us connected with St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery experienced a first in our history: a community-wide conversation. Given that we extend from California to the Dominican Republic, the conversation took place by phone. I’ve written previously here that St. Brigid’s draws from both Benedictine and Methodist traditions. Our community thus has ancient roots, while at the same time being a new expression of monasticism within a Protestant context. This combination of ancient and new makes for a rich mix as we continue both to explore our heritage and also to discern the shape that our community will take as we grow. Our weekend conversation was part of that ongoing discernment, and though we didn’t come away with many answers, some of the necessary questions came into clearer focus.

Being part of the St. Brigid’s community involves following the Rule of St. Benedict, the way of life that the founder of the Benedictine order laid out for his followers in sixth-century Italy. The Rule is elegant in the way that it seeks to order a community for the purpose of growing in its love of God. Though it embodies austerities that seem strange to many of us today (as a mild example, the Rule forbids a monk to “exchange letters, blessed tokens or small gifts of any kind, with his parents or anyone else, or with a fellow monk”), and which modern-day Benedictine communities interpret with contemporary sensibilities, the Rule offers a path notable for its wise marriage of discipline and grace. As many have noted, Benedict possessed keen insight into the workings of the human heart. The way of life that he established, and which has endured for more than a millennium and a half, recognizes and addresses our tendencies toward chaos, and it sets out a path that calls us to move through all that would deter us from God.

The recent St. Brigid’s conversation and our ongoing study of the Rule have been present with me as I’ve pondered this Sunday’s gospel lection. In his response to Jesus’ teaching about his forthcoming suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter embodies the very qualities that Benedict recognized in those around him and sought to address in his Rule. Peter longs for divine things, yet he grapples with human things. And understandably so: this is hard and harsh teaching that Jesus is engaged in as he speaks of what is to come. How can Peter, who just moments ago declared Jesus to be the Messiah, think of letting go of Jesus, now that he knows who he is? So Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him right back, calling him Satan and chastising him for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. One might wonder whether the intense energy that Jesus puts into his response indicates that he is not merely upbraiding Peter but also reminding himself where his own focus must lie.

The Rule of Benedict intrigues me for the way that it addresses the tension that surfaces in Peter and in all who seek to follow God: how do we integrate the realities of our human lives—including our fears and shortcomings—with our desire for the divine? Benedict knew that the members of a community, even a community seeking complete devotion to God, could not spend all their time engaged in prayer and other divine things to the exclusion of everyday, human activities. And so with his Rule he crafted a path that continues to inspire Benedictines to order our lives in a way that both frees us to focus our attention on divine things and also to notice the presence of God in the midst of the human things to which we must give our attention.

Some of the portions of the Rule that are the most telling about Benedictine spirituality are those that have to do with daily life and its physical aspects in the monastery. In the chapter that describes the qualities of the cellarer (the one who takes care of the monastery’s supplies, including food and drink), Benedict writes that the cellarer “will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” In the chapter “The Tools and Goods of the Monastery,” Benedict makes clear that the monastery should entrust its possessions only to those members in whom the abbot has confidence. All are to take part in kitchen service, for, as Benedict says, “the brothers should serve one another.” In arising for their prayers, the community members “will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.” The rhythm of daily labor and rest is built around the Liturgy of the Hours, which Benedict calls the “Work of God.”

Time and again, Benedict links the tasks of the monastery—the details of daily living that keep us from dissolving into smelly heaps—with our divine work in the world. How would our relationship with our own possessions shift if we understood them as “sacred vessels of the altar”? How might the mundane aspects of our work serve not as a distraction from God but as a window onto the Divine who is present with us in every moment? How would it be to build the rhythm of our life around prayer, instead of the other way around?

Not all are called into a Benedictine way of life—and that’s one of the things that Benedict is very clear about. Yet Christ calls each of us to a path that enables us to find and follow the presence of the holy in the midst of being human, not in spite of being human. The God who became incarnate and wore flesh beckons us to go into the deeps of our humanity, to meet the God who dwells there, and to reckon with all that would keep us from relationship with that God.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he talks, in this same passage, about saving our lives and losing them. Following Jesus and denying ourselves doesn’t mean giving up our humanness; rather, it means learning to see what it is within our humanity that hinders us from God, and letting that go. It means not clinging to our human desires at the expense of seeking to know God’s desires for our human lives. It means finding the path that will best enable us, in all the particularities and peculiarities of our lives, to find that intersection—that crossing, that cross that Christ invites us to take up—where the human and the divine meet in fullness.

Where is that intersection for you? Have you found a way, a path, a practice that frees you to find the divine in the particularities of human living? What is your mind set on these days? How does the season of Lent invite you to refocus and reorient yourself amid the ongoing competition between human things and divine things? Who can help you in this?

May this season free you to focus on the divine in the details of your daily life. Blessings.

[Quotes from the Rule of Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1981).]

Resources for the Season: Looking toward Lent

[To use this artwork, please visit this page at Thanks!]

Lent 1: A River Runs through Him

February 27, 2009

A River Runs through Him © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Lent 1, Year B: Mark 1.9-15

Well, it doesn’t get much more basic, does it? A man. A wilderness. A few wild beasts for company. And, in Matthew and Luke’s telling of it, no food.

Forty days.

Jesus has just been baptized, just been Holy-Spirit-descended-upon, just been named Son and Beloved. One might think he is now raring to begin his ministry (or what have the past three decades been for?). Instead he goes in the opposite direction. Into the wild. He disappears into the desert as his Jordan-drenched flesh goes dry.

I wonder if, as he settled into that landscape, Jesus thought of those who preceded him in the wilderness. I wonder if he went through the list in his head, remembering his forebears who entered into those betwixt places, the spaces that lay between where they had been and where they were going, between the life they had known and the life they could barely envision. Every morning when he woke up, did he utter a liminal litany?

cast into the wilderness with her young son

on the run from his brother

Moses and Miriam and Aaron
and all the children of Israel
wandering but delivered from their bondage

fleeing for his life from queen Jezebel

Jesus was in good company. The wilderness may be a place of solitude, but it is at the same time a mythic place, imprinted by all who have inhabited it for a little or a longer while. It breathes with the memories of those who found themselves there by accident or intent, who fled there for safety or who entered it in search of what they could not find elsewhere.

In his desert sojourn, did Jesus ever wish for the wellspring that the angel revealed to Hagar in the wilderness, when her son was on the point of death? Did he pray for a vision, a dream like Jacob’s to direct and sustain him? Did he start hungering for the manna that nourished the Israelites in their journey? (And did those wild beasts that Mark mentions start looking tasty to him?)

Did the question that came to Elijah (traveling for forty days and forty nights in the strength of the angel-borne food) come also to him:

What are you doing here?

That’s the question that the desert gives us, isn’t it? What are we doing here? Not just: what are you doing here in this physical place, but also: what are you doing here in this life?

Sometimes it takes going into the wilderness, of body or of soul, to find the answer to this question. Traveling toward where the familiar contours of our lives disappear. Leaving the landmarks behind, the people and patterns and possessions that orient us.

That’s where Jesus goes. Surfacing from the waters of his baptism, he doesn’t fling himself into his ministry, doesn’t take up his work among the community that will meet him with both belief and betrayal. He first goes into the place where everything is stripped away, and he confronts the basic questions about who he is and what he is doing.

We don’t know precisely what it is that Jesus learns there, what he comes to know about himself in that Forty Day Place. We do know that when Satan shows up, Jesus is ready. What Mark hints at in his version, Matthew and Luke describe more fully: Jesus meets the chaos of his tempter with clarity. The baptismal waters may have evaporated from his skin, but not from his soul. A river of knowing runs through him. He is drenched with discernment.

Beloved. Son.

This is what he knows.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness, he takes this clarity with him as a treasure of the desert, a sign of the sustenance that always comes to those who survive that landscape. Baptized in the Spirit, named by the Creator, attended by the angels, Jesus walks out of the desert and into the life that has been prepared for him. He is an initiate, ready, going in the company of all who know what it means to walk through the wilderness and find the gifts God hides there. Perhaps he carries their names on his lips as he crosses back into the community, prepared to proclaim the good news; perhaps those names pound in him like a heartbeat, or rush in his ears like the sound of an ancient river:

Hagar, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Elijah…

So what are you doing here? At the outset of the Lenten journey, why are you where you are? What do you need from the Forty Day Place that this season offers? Is there a wilderness you need to enter—with your body or with your soul or with both—in order to gain clarity at this point in your life? What might that look like? Whose stories could you draw on, lean on, take heart from, as you contemplate this?

As you travel into this Lenten landscape, may you find what you most need, may you receive the gift you never expected, may you find strength in those who have journeyed there before you, and may angels attend your way. Blessings.

[For last year’s reflection on Matthew’s version of this story, visit Discernment and Dessert in the Desert.]

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Resources for the season: Looking toward Lent