Archive for the ‘medieval’ Category

A Portable Cathedral for the 21st Century

June 17, 2011

“Although some may find Ordinary Time a lackluster season, I’ve grown fond of it for the ways that it invites me to discover the sacred in the rhythms of unbroken dailiness. Waking, eating, reading the paper, working, playing, talking, doing laundry, doing dishes, doing errands, doing nothing at all: how is God with us in these times? Who is God with us in these times?” —From In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

As we approach the season of Ordinary Time, I am thrilled to share that my book In Wisdom’s Path has just been released as an ebook! With original artwork, reflections, poetry, and prayers, In Wisdom’s Path invites the reader to enter into the rhythms of the Christian year. From the contemplative “Cave of the Heart” in Advent to the “Daily Way” of Ordinary Time, the book serves as a companion through the unfolding seasons of the sacred year.

First published in 2000, the book is now available in a PDF format that brings the beautiful, full-color layout—designed by my splendid art director, Martha Clark-Plank—from the printed page to the screen. Read it on your computer or, better yet, on your iPad, Nook Color, or other portable reader, so you can always have it with you wherever you go!

As we release In Wisdom’s Path as an ebook, I find myself thinking of the exquisite illuminated prayerbooks of the Middle Ages called Books of Hours (which helped inspire The Painted Prayerbook blog!). Designed to enable folks to pray the same rhythm of prayer as the monks, nuns, and priests who prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, these prayerbooks typically were small enough to carry in a pocket or purse. This medieval prayerbook became, as one writer has put it, a “portable cathedral.” In pausing for a few moments and opening the book amidst whatever was going on, the owner entered into a sacred space—a thin place—for reflection and prayer.

In the spirit of these remarkable medieval prayerbooks, In Wisdom’s Path incorporates 21st-century technology to offer you a sacred space in our own time. We are pleased to provide this book for you in a format that you can download and take with you anywhere to find moments of respite and renewal in the rhythm of your day.

For more info and to purchase the ebook, visit the Books page at

P.S. In other book news, In the Sanctuary of Women was recently named a winner in the 2011 National Indie Excellence Book Awards! More info over at the Sanctuary of Women blog.

Easter 6: Love and Revelation

May 22, 2011

Love and Revelation © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Easter 6, Year A (May 29): John 14.15-21

On a day more than six hundred years ago, in the English town of Norwich, a woman walked into a cell attached to the parish church. She intended to stay there for the rest of her life. The original name of the woman is unknown, and the cell where she would live as an anchoress—a woman devoted to a life of contemplation and solitude—no longer remains. It is likely that she took her name from the church in whose cell she lived: the Church of St. Julian.

Nearly everything we know about Julian of Norwich comes from a manuscript that she composed in her cell. In it she tells of how, at the age of thirty and a half, she became desperately ill. Just as she thought herself at the point of death, her pain suddenly departed. As Julian continued to pray, she was visited by a series of sixteen visions or revelations—what she called “showings”—in which she came to experience and know God’s love for her.

Julian recorded her visions in a short text, and then, after nearly two decades, she expanded on them in a longer text that incorporates the insights that she gained through years of reflecting on and praying with the visions. Together Julian’s texts became the book known as Showings, or Revelations of Divine Love.

In the final chapter of Showings, as Julian comes to the end of the remarkable work in which she has revealed to us a God whose endless mystery encompasses a deep desire to know and love us in all our human particularity, she writes,

And from the time that it was revealed, I desired to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.

From her anchorhold, with her stunning simplicity, Julian echoes and embodies what her beloved Jesus says to his friends in this week’s gospel passage. At the table where he gathers with his disciples on the night before his death, he persists in telling them what he wants them—needs them—to know about who he is, what he has done, what he will yet do, what he is calling them to do after he is physically gone. In this passage, Jesus becomes very clear about why he wants them to know these things, and what underlies and encompasses and is the reason for their knowing.

“They who have my commandments and keep them,” Jesus says, “are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

The knowledge that Jesus shares with his followers is not for the purpose of giving them worldly power. It is not designed to make them feel important, or to initiate them into secrets meant for a select few, or to make their lives easier. He does not intend for them to use the knowledge as a weapon to threaten or diminish others. What Jesus reveals to his friends—his friends at the table that night, his friend in the cell at the Church of St. Julian, his friends throughout the ages—he does for one reason:

For love.

Jesus speaks of love and revelation in the same breath. He wants his friends to understand that loving and knowing are of a piece, that loving draws us deeper into knowing and being known by the one whom we love. Here on the threshold of his death, Jesus cannot go until he assures them that he will not leave them bereft but will, in fact, continue to love and help them. He cannot leave until he tells them that by their loving, they will remain in relationship with him; through their shared love, he will yet reveal himself to them and be known by them.

What knowledge does your loving lead you to? As you stretch yourself into loving others, what becomes revealed to you—of them, of yourself, of God? How has love challenged or changed what you know? How are you opening yourself to its presence in your life?

Blessing that Knows Your Name

Chances are
there will come a day
when you will forget
every last word
of this blessing.

It does not matter.

Let this blessing
slip through
your fingers.
Let it roll from
the smooth plane
of your palm.
Let each line
and every syllable
fall away.
Let this blessing
to where all
blessings begin.

Let it leave you
until all that remains
is the place where
it pierced you—
whether like fire
or like breath
you could not say,
only that you heard
your name as it entered,
then heard its own
as it blew away.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, click the image or title below:

Easter 6: Side Orders

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

Easter 2: The Illuminated Wound

April 24, 2011

Into the Wound © Jan L. Richardson

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

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks Thomas as he, at Jesus’ invitation, reaches his hand into the wounds of the risen Christ. “Blessed are those,” Jesus goes on to say, “who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

While Jesus accords special honor to those whose faith does not depend on sight, surely he does not mean that the gift of blessing is reserved solely for those who can make the leap of imagination toward belief. Christian history would indeed come to label Thomas with the moniker—something of an epithet—of “Doubting Thomas,” (though elsewhere, in John 11, Thomas displays remarkable courage and devotion to Jesus) and cast a suspicious and sometimes deadly eye on doubt. At the same time, through much of its history the Christian tradition has offered tools and gifts specifically designed to foster sight and thereby deepen belief.

Thomas would have found good company amongst many Christians in the Middle Ages, when there arose a form of devotion that gave particular attention to the wounds of Christ as an entry into prayer and contemplation. The writings of medieval mystics both helped give rise to this form of devotion as well as to articulate it. With an approach to both flesh and spirit that can be challenging for us to comprehend in our day, these mystics saw in Christ’s wounds, particularly the wound in his side, an array of meanings. In their prayerful imagining, Christ’s wound became, among other things, an opening through which he offers his life-giving sustenance as a mother shares her milk with her child; a womb-space that offers the possibility of rebirth; and a place of union between lover and beloved.

These ideas about Christ’s wounds made their way into images that medieval artists created for the purpose of devotion. We see this, for instance, in paintings that depict the wounded Christ and his mother. As Christ offers his wound to the viewer, Mary offers her breast with a nearly mirrored gesture that suggests the similarity of the sustenance they give. We see signs of this devotion also in a number of illuminated manuscripts that include life-sized renderings of Jesus’ side wound. Divorced from his body, the wound itself becomes an object of contemplation, making an intriguing portal into the page and doorway into prayer.

This kind of depiction of Jesus’ wound sometimes appears in illuminated prayer scrolls that were used by women in childbirth. The women placed the prayer scrolls around themselves as birth girdles, with the depiction of Christ’s wound serving not only as an object of contemplation but of hoped-for protection as well.  One can imagine the laboring women saw this wound-symbol as a confirmation that Jesus, who knew what it meant to suffer in bringing new life, offered sustenance to them as they did so. More than one writer has remarked on the striking similarity that the depiction of Jesus’ wound bears to female genitalia (noting also the similarity between vulva and vulnus, wound), prompting one to wonder if those who clung to Christ’s wounds in prayer noted the similarity of these portals by which new life enters. (But, as another writer has noted, how could they have missed noticing it?)

While such a vivid approach to the wounds of Christ may strike our 21st-century sensibilities as odd or gruesome, this form of contemplation was not seen as an end in itself. In the myriad ways that mystics and artists reflected on Christ’s body, it seems clear that they understood the flesh of Christ as a threshold: that his wounds were an entryway, a portal into God. As Sarah Beckwith describes it, the wounded body of Christ offered a rite of passage that held the possibility not only of a deeper relationship with him but also a redefinition of oneself.

Contemplating the wounds of Christ could also prompt medieval Christians to touch the wounds of the world. In his book on traditional religion in 15th- and 16th-century England, Eamon Duffy notes that “the wounds of Christ are the sufferings of the poor, the outcast, and the unfortunate.” He goes on to write that devotion to the wounds of Christ often translated into acts of charity. Such acts became a tending of the living, wounded, corporate body of Christ.

These imaginative approaches to Christ’s wounds, and the access they offered to medieval folk who sought intimate acquaintance with him, do not dismiss or justify the violence of the crucifixion story. Encountering these visual images, however, has challenged me to wonder what sort of doorway they offer to me, and to us, in these days that, as they ever have been, are so profoundly marked by violence.

I have come to see more clearly the ways that being in the world and loving one another—even from our most intact, integrated places, much less our less-intact ones—exposes us to wounding, to the giving and receiving of pain. Christ’s wounds exemplify this. They underscore the depth of his willingness to enter into our loving in all its hurt and hope and capacity for going horribly wrong. In wearing his wounds—even in his resurrection—he confronts us with our own and calls us to move through them into new life.

Christ beckons us not to seek out our wounding, because that will come readily enough in living humanly in the world, but rather to allow our wounds to draw us together for healing within and beyond the body of Christ, and for an end to the daily crucifixions that happen through all forms of violence. The crucified Christ challenges us to discern how our wounds will serve as doorways that lead us through our own pain and into a deeper relationship with the wounded world and with the Christ who is about the business of resurrection, for whom the wounds did not have the final word.

As Thomas reaches toward Christ, as he places his hand within the wound that Christ still bears, he is not merely grasping for concrete proof of the resurrection. He is entering into the very mystery of Christ, crossing into a new world that even now he can hardly see yet dares to move toward with the courage he has previously displayed.

As we move into this Easter season, how do we see the wounds of Christ in the wounds of the world? How might we be called to reach into those wounds—not to wallow in them, not to become overwhelmed by them, but to touch them and minister to them and help to turn them into doorways that draw us deeper into Christ?

In this season of resurrection, may you see the risen Christ all around you. May you be blessed in your seeing, and lean yourself into the new world that he offers to you.

P.S. For previous reflections on this passage, see Easter 2: Into the Wound and Easter 2: The Secret Room.

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

Beckwith and Duffy references:

Sarah Beckwith, Christ’s Body: Identity, Culture, and Society in Late Medieval Writing (New York: Routledge, 1993), 60.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 248.

A portion of this reflection has been adapted from Garden of Hollows: Entering the Mysteries of Lent & Easter © Jan L. Richardson.

The Hours of Mary Magdalene

April 13, 2011

Just in time for Holy Week, Gary and I have released a new video today that we’re excited to share with you. The Hours of Mary Magdalene features images from my mixed media series of the same name, combined with Gary’s enchanting song “Mary Magdalena” from his CD House of Prayer. The video draws from the life Mary Magdalene, whose story is so intertwined with the dying and rising of Christ. Called by Christ to be the first to proclaim the news of his resurrection, Mary Magdalene became known in the Middle Ages as the “apostle to the apostles.”

The video draws also from the fascinating body of legends about the Magdalene—stories that may be slim on facts but convey something of our centuries-old fascination with this woman who played a distinctive role as a follower of Christ. As a preacher chick, I’m especially fond of the legend in which Mary Magdalene moves to France and becomes a famous preacher. (I like to imagine her going for a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant after holding forth.) She is also said to have released prisoners from a French jail. In the video you’ll find glimpses of these and other legends, including one that tells that she spent her final years as a hermit in the wilderness, clad only in her long hair; at the canonical hours, angels would come and whoosh her up to heaven for the liturgy, then would whoosh her back down again.

The Magdalene series found much inspiration in Books of Hours, those exquisite illuminated prayerbooks that became so popular among medieval folk as a companion for prayer. You can find out more about the original series and the influences and legends behind it on the Magdalene page in my online gallery.

We have launched the video at the splendid Vimeo site; if you click the Vimeo logo in the player embedded above, it will take you directly to a larger version of the video. We have also released the video on YouTube, where you can view it here. To share the video in worship and related settings, you can find a high-resolution version by visiting The Hours of Mary Magdalene on the Jan Richardson Images website. As always, using the Jan Richardson Images site helps make possible the ministry that I offer at The Painted Prayerbook and beyond. And downloading the video will support Gary’s ministry as well!

As Holy Week approaches, Gary and I hope you will enjoy a few moments in the contemplative company of the Magdalene, and that she may inspire us all to tell forth the words we are called to speak. Blessings!

The Feast of the Magdalene

July 21, 2010

Release: Mary Magdalene Freeing Prisoners
© Jan L. Richardson

We’re on the cusp of a splendid summer celebration: the Feast of Mary Magdalene falls tomorrow, July 22. So I’m taking a quick break from reading editor’s proofs and getting ready for my upcoming travels to wish you a most happy feast day.

The image above, which comes from my series The Hours of Mary Magdalene, depicts one of my favorite legends about the Magdalene. According to the medieval tale, Mary Magdalene—having moved to France and become a famous preacher—visits a prison and releases those who have been unjustly held captive there.

To help celebrate this woman whose story is so intriguingly intertwined with the life of Jesus, I’m sharing my sweetheart’s song “Mary Magdalena,” which you can hear by clicking the audio player below. It’s from his CD House of Prayer and is one of my very favorites.

A blessed Feast of Mary Magdalene to you!

Of Supper and Saints

September 29, 2009

Thanks for stopping by…I’m still alive and kicking and up to my eyeballs working on the book. But we have a festive weekend coming up, and I didn’t want to let it pass without making note of a couple festivities and inviting you to stop by the reflections that I offered on them last year. The entries may be reheated, but they’re still full of flavor, so come sit for a spell and have a savory taste…


This Sunday, October 4, is World Communion Sunday. For my reflection from last year, visit The Best Supper.


This Sunday also brings us the Feast of St. Francis. I invite you to visit Feast of St. Francis for my earlier reflection on one of my favorite saints.

Many blessings to you in this week of celebration!

Mysteries of the Magdalene

April 5, 2009


Here on the threshold of Holy Week, I’ve had Mary Magdalene on my mind. Scripturally speaking, what we know of her story comes almost entirely from the gospel accounts of the final days of Jesus, where the Magdalene emerges as a faithful disciple who journeys with Jesus from the cross to the empty tomb. She is the first to proclaim the news of Christ’s resurrection.

As if the scriptural accounts of her story weren’t intriguing enough, an imaginative web of legends gathered around the Magdalene in the centuries that followed. Short on fact but long on fascination, many of them tell of a woman of power and courage whose life was marked by devotion and mystery.

The legends gave rise to some wondrous medieval art, which in turn inspired my series The Hours of Mary Magdalene a few years ago. I’ve just finished a new print that brings together all eight images in the series, and I’d love to share it with you. It’s available on my website, where you can find it on the main page at You can also go straight to the Color Prints page, where prints of the individual pieces are available as well. Purchasing prints—or anything else on my website—goes directly toward supporting my ministry through The Wellspring Studio, LLC, and I am grateful beyond measure for your sustenance in this way!

Peace to you.

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 fewer 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

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

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!]

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.