Archive for the ‘monastic stuff’ Category

A Blessing with Roots

July 5, 2011

Getting Grounded ©  Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Proper 10/Ordinary 15/Pentecost +4 (July 10): Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

During our recent Saint Brigid’s retreat, we were treated to a poetry reading from Father Kilian McDonnell, one of the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey, where our retreat took place. Having been on the retreat a few years earlier when Fr. Kilian came and shared his poems, I had been looking forward to his return visit with much anticipation.

For most of his life Fr. Kilian (who I first introduced in this post at The Advent Door) has worked as a theologian—teaching at Saint John’s University, writing scholarly books and articles on systematic theology, and taking a leading role in ecumenical work. At 75, in his so-called retirement, Fr. Kilian began to write poetry. In an essay that he wrote eight years after his poetic beginnings and included in his first published collection of poems (Swift, Lord, You Are Not), Fr. Kilian describes how, while reading a poem in the New Republic, “I said to myself, ‘I think I can do as well.'”

He acknowledges that his career as a scholar writing theology “out of a dogmatic, abstract, highly authoritarian, text-bound tradition” and dealing not only with the scriptures but also with “conciliar decrees, papal encyclicals, episcopal pronouncements, all highly conceptual, content and meaning-oriented,” had not prepared him particularly well for a vocation as a creative writer. “Too much imagination in theological writing,” Fr. Kilian observes, “can bring you to the stake.” Even in his own monastery, Fr. Kilian’s turn toward poetry was looked on by some as, if not outright dangerous, then a frivolous pursuit; he tells in one of his poems of a monk in the community who says, “Kilian does not have/enough to do./He writes poetry.”

Yet he has persisted. And as he prepares to turn 90 this year, Fr. Kilian is anticipating the publication of his fourth book of poems (the first having been followed by Yahweh’s Other Shoe and God Drops and Loses Things). It’s due out next month and is titled Wrestling with God. During his afternoon with us, Fr. Kilian gave us a sneak peek of the poems in this forthcoming book.

Most of Fr. Kilian’s poetry finds its grounding in the scriptures. And while some folks with stereotypes about monks, poetry, and the scriptures—let alone a combination of the three—might suppose that a longtime monk who takes his inspiration from the Bible would produce poetry that is ethereal or sentimental, Fr. Kilian’s poems provide a wondrous witness to how the contemplative life calls us deeper into the world, not away from it. Part of Fr. Kilian’s charm and punch as a poet lies in his earthiness (evident in such poems as “The Ox’s Broad Behind”), as well as in his willingness to go deep and deep into the layers of the biblical stories and to confront and call forth, with his piercing poet’s eye, the complexities of human life in this world given to us by a God who is both marvelous and maddening.

I will tell you that it is a wonder to be in the poetic presence of someone who has been pondering the Word—praying with it, contemplating it, ruminating upon it—in spitting distance of a century. Although we are not all called to become poets, Fr. Kilian’s deep engagement with the Word offers a window onto a life where the Word has found good soil and has born fruit, as this week’s Parable of the Sower calls us to.

As I ruminate on this week’s parable, I find myself wondering: What soil—what earth—is the Word finding in our own lives these days? How do we seek out the Word—in the scriptures and in the person of Christ—in the rhythm of our days? How willing are we to go deep into the layers and complexities it offers to us? How do we take the Word into ourselves and let it take root across the span of seasons and years? What fruit are we called to let the Word bear in and through us?

A Blessing with Roots

Tug at this blessing
and you will find
it is a thing
with roots.

This is a blessing
that has gone deep
into good soil,
into the sacred dark,
into the luminous hidden.

It has been months
since the ground
gathered the seed
of this blessing
into itself,
years since the earth
enfolded it.

that’s how long
a blessing takes.

And the fact
that this blessing
should finally show
its first fruits
on the day
you happened by—

well, perhaps we shall
simply call the timing
of this ripening
a mystery
and a sweet grace.

Take all you want
of this blessing.
Take every morsel
that you need for
the path ahead.
Let its fruits fall
into your hands;
gather them into
the basket of
your arms.

Let this blessing
be one place
where you are willing
to receive
in unmeasured portions,
to lay aside
for a moment
the way you ration
your delights.

Let yourself accept
its inexplicable plenitude;
allow it to give itself
to sustain you

not simply for yourself—
though on this bright day
I might be persuaded
to think that would
be enough—

but that you may
gather its seeds
into yourself
like the ground
where this blessing began

and wait
with the patience
of seasons
and of years

to bear forth
in the fullness of time
a stunning harvest,
a plenteous feast.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, see Getting Grounded.

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

Related artwork:

Into the Seed

The Way of Welcome

June 20, 2011

A Place for the Prophet © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 8/Ordinary 13/Pentecost +2 (June 26): Matthew 10.40-42

In the neighborhood where I used to live, there was a family a few doors down from me who moved in when their daughter was about two. I would often run into Kyla and her mother when I was out for a walk, meeting them as they slowly strolled, their ginger cat ambling behind. Young Kyla would always greet me as if I were the greatest person in the world and she could hardly believe her astounding good fortune that I had turned up. I saw her do this with other folks, too, so I knew she didn’t reserve her joy just for me. I didn’t mind; I loved receiving her lavish welcome that would be just as enthusiastic the next time around.

I’ve found myself thinking about Kyla as I have pondered Jesus’ words about welcoming in the gospel reading for this Sunday. And as I ponder, I’m wondering what it might look like to fling my arms a little wider toward the world. As I encounter folks in the rhythm of my days, am I leaving anyone with the impression that I think they’re the greatest person on the earth and that I can hardly believe my good fortune that they have turned up?

Jesus’ words remind us that he calls us to be hospitable people not because it’s a nice thing to do—and Christianity depends, after all, on far more than mere niceness—but because it is a holy and whole-making act; it is a sacred art. Welcoming another is a fundamental gesture that encompasses not only the other person but also the God in whose image they were formed and fashioned and whom—though we may sometimes be at pains to perceive it—they somehow reveal in their being.

As I write this, I’m winging my way toward Minnesota for my annual retreat with folks from Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery. A community that draws from both Methodist and Benedictine traditions, our monastery is named for a vibrant and much-loved leader of the early church in Ireland. Like my friend Kyla, Saint Brigid carried her hospitality with her from the time she was a young girl. Extravagant and precocious in her generosity to the point of giving some of her parents’ possessions away (“holy thieving,” as one writer has described it), Brigid grew up to become a woman renowned for the way she welcomed others and sought to restore them to the wholeness that God desired for them. “Every guest is Christ,” Brigid said.

In the coming days of our retreat, I look forward to easing into the welcome that I will find among the community that bears Saint Brigid’s name. In the conversation, in the quiet, in the learning and praying and resting, I will be carrying questions about how Christ might be calling me to extend a welcome to others. How about you? How wide is your welcome these days? Are you finding places of hospitality and rest that help you know what it’s like to receive this gift that lies at the heart of our tradition? How does this help you discern the kind of welcome and holy hospitality that God is calling you to lavish upon others?

Welcoming Blessing

If you say
this blessing
out loud,
it may perhaps
be easier to imagine
how the shape
of this blessing
is really a circle,

easier to see
how these words
hold themselves
like the lip
of the cup,
like the curve
of the bowl,
like the rim
of the plate;
how they compose
like the O of arms
that enclose you
in welcome.

You can try
to leave this blessing,
but it has a habit
of spiraling back

not as if to stalk
or to snare you—
it’s just that
this blessing
has taken a shine
to you

and so it keeps
turning and returning,
following its arc
about you,
spinning itself
toward you

for the simple joy
of seeing your face,
for the unaccountable luck
that you have come
its way.

P.S. For a previous reflection on this passage, visit A Place for the Prophet. And for more about Saint Brigid, see my post Golden, Sparkling Flame: Feast of St. Brigid over at the Sanctuary of Women blog.

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

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!]

Holy Thursday: Take a Blessing

April 18, 2011

Holy Thursday II © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Holy/Maundy Thursday  (April 21): John 13.1-17, 31b-35

The story is told of St. Brigid, the beloved Celtic saint and leader of the early church in Ireland, that a man with leprosy came to her one day. Knowing the saint’s reputation for hospitality, the man says to Brigid, “For God’s sake, Brigid, give me a cow.” Brigid’s response suggests this man may have made a habit of such requests; though normally lavish with her generosity, Brigid tells the man to leave her alone. He persists.

Brigid asks the man how it might be if they prayed that God would heal him of his leprosy. “No,” the man tells her, “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid, in her turn, persists with him, urging him to “take a blessing and be cleansed.” The man acknowledges he is indeed in much pain; he gives in and accepts the blessing and the gift of healing it brings. So great is his gratitude to Brigid—and to God—that he vows his devotion to Brigid and pledges to be her servant and woodman.

Sometimes it can be daunting to receive a blessing. As this man with leprosy recognized, a blessing requires something of us. It does not leave us unchanged. A blessing offers us a glimpse of the wholeness that God desires for us and for the world, and it beckons us to move in the direction of this wholeness. It calls us to let go of what hinders us, to cease clinging to the habits and ways of being that may have become comfortable but that keep us less than whole.

This can take some work.

Part of the challenge involved with a blessing is that receiving it actually places us for a time in the position of doing no work—of simply allowing it to come. For those who are accustomed to constantly doing and giving and serving, being asked to stop and receive can cause great discomfort. To receive a blessing, we have to give up some of our control. We cannot direct how the blessing will come, and we cannot define where the blessing will take us. We have to let it do its own work in us, beyond our ability to chart its course.

On the night that Jesus takes up his basin and towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples, Simon Peter learns how difficult and how wondrous it can be to “take a blessing,” as Brigid put it. He resists, then allows himself to receive, the grace of it dripping from his toes.

This blessing will indeed require something of Simon Peter and of his fellow disciples. When Jesus has finished the washing, put on his robe, put away his towel and bowl, he turns to them and says, “Do you know what I have done to you?…If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus continues, “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

You are blessed if you do them.

A blessing is not finished until we let it do its work within us and then pass it along, an offering grounded in the love that Jesus goes on to speak of this night. Yet we cannot do this—as the disciples could not do this—until we first allow ourselves to simply receive the blessing as it is offered: as gift, as promise, as sign of a world made whole.

During this Holy Week, I am offering a series of blessings for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. As we move through these days, may these blessings come as gift, as grace. In this week, may you take a blessing, and become one in turn.

Blessing for Holy Thursday

As if you could
stop this blessing
from washing
over you.

As if you could
turn it back,
could return it
from your body
to the bowl,
from the bowl
to the pitcher,
from the pitcher
to the hand
that set this blessing
on its way.

As if you could
change the course
by which this blessing

As if you could
control how it
pours over you,

yet startling
in the way
it matches the need
you did not know
you had.

As if you could
become undrenched.

As if you could
resist gathering it up
in your two hands
and letting your body
follow the arc
this blessing makes.

P.S. For an earlier reflection for Holy Thursday, visit Holy Thursday: Feet and Food. I am also offering daily reflections at the Sanctuary of Women blog, where this week we’re traveling in the company of the women of Holy Week and Easter.

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

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!

Celebrations All Around

March 17, 2010

In between wedding preparations (T minus 6 weeks and counting) and writing the final bits of my new book—both celebrations in themselves—I want to take a moment to give a shout out to two of my favorite fellows, whose feast days both fall this week: Saint Patrick (March 17) and Saint Joseph (March 19). To aid in your saintly festivities, here are a few resources.

For my reflection on St. Patrick, visit Feast of Saint Patrick. As an added audio bonus, here’s a wondrous song about St. Patrick by my singer-songwriter sweetheart. It incorporates the ancient prayer of encompassing known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” or “Deer’s Cry.” Click this audio player to hear “Patrick on the Water” (from Gary’s CD House of Prayer).

As I’ve been navigating the journey of making a life not only with my sweetheart but also with his son, I have found a good companion in Joseph, this amazing man who was willing to listen to angels, to rethink his decisions, and to care for the child of the woman whom he loved. Joseph has made a number of appearances in my artwork; I invite you to stop by and see him at The Advent Hours and The Advent and Christmas Series. While you’re visiting, you can listen to yet another wondrous song of Gary’s, this one about Joseph, from his CD The Night of Heaven and Earth. Just click this audio player.

Blessed feast days to you!

Epiphany 5: The Wildest Bounty

January 31, 2010

The Willing Catch © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany 5, Year C (Feb. 7): Luke 5.1-11

As I write this, I’m winging my way toward Minnesota, where my sweetheart and I will be leading several events over the next few days. With a few generations of Florida blood running through my veins, I’m questioning the sanity of going to Minnesota at this time of year. (“Are you crazy?” one of my Minnesota friends asked upon hearing I was heading his way). The timing of the trip, however, was determined by the sanctoral calendar: one of the events that Gary and I will be leading is a celebration of St. Brigid, whose feast day is February 1. While the prospect of spending several days in below-freezing temperatures has me wishing that Brigid’s day fell in midsummer, I’m thrilled by the opportunity to celebrate her feast in the company of friends, both longtime ones and those yet to be made.

I have long been intrigued by and devoted to this Irish saint who has been beloved in her homeland and beyond for more than a millennia and a half. Born in the middle of the fifth century, Brigid became a formidable leader who helped to shape the landscape of Irish Christianity when it was still relatively new to the island. She traveled widely in her ministry and established a number of monasteries, the most famous one being the double monastery (comprised of women and men) at Cill Dara (“The Church of the Oak”), now known as Kildare.

Brigid was renowned for her hospitality and generosity. In her biography of the saint, Alice Curtayne describes how Brigid found the poor “irresistible” and ministered to them with “a habit of the wildest bounty.” Accounts of Brigid’s life are replete with stories of how, in places of lack, Brigid’s actions help to bring forth abundance, whether of food or drink or healing or justice. In these accounts, Brigid is a worker of wonders; her miracles echo the miracles of Christ and draw upon the same power by which he provided for those in need. She reminds us of the ways that God is so often profligate toward us: how God, out of sheer, inexplicable delight and love for us, provides for us in ways that have the power to stun us.

Though she was known for not turning anyone away (“Every guest is Christ,” Brigid said), Brigid nonetheless brought a spirit of discernment to her generosity: she knew that miracles don’t always look like we expect them to look, and they often require something of us beyond what we had anticipated. The Irish Life of St. Brigid relates that one day, a man with leprosy approaches St. Brigid and says, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” With the air of someone who has perhaps been approached by the man a number of times before, Brigid tells him to leave her alone. He persists. Brigid asks him how it would be if they prayed to God for the removal of the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies, “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid disagrees with his priorities and insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” The man acquiesces, acknowledging that he is in much pain. Upon receiving his cure, the man vows his devotion to Brigid, pledging to be her servant and woodman.

I’m quite enjoying the fact that in the same week that we are celebrating Brigid’s feast, the lectionary gives us this passage from Luke. Put out into the deep water, Jesus says to Simon, and let down your nets for a catch. Simon tells him what Jesus already likely knows: Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. And what comes up sends Simon to his knees: net-breaking, boat-sinking abundance. In the place where Simon and his fellow fishermen had already been laboring, in the landscape they thought they knew, in the place where they had come up empty: a stunning catch, lavish beyond measure.

Fish weren’t the only catch of the day; Simon and his companions were hooked. Captivated. Called. And that’s what miracles are meant to do: they meet us at our point of need, but they do not leave us there. They call us to move from being recipients to being participants, to share in the ways that God pours out Godself for the life of the community and the healing of the world.

In this week, Luke’s fish tale and the feast of St. Brigid have me wondering, what do I really believe about the ways that God works in this world? Have I grown fixed in my expectations about what God is up to? Do I have eyes to see the surprising ways in which God moves in the midst of situations whose outcome I think I already know? Is there deep water I need to put my net into—beyond what I can see, beyond what I know, beyond my familiar limits—to bring up an abundance that God has in store? What am I willing to leave behind in order to participate in such a miracle and to pass it along to others? What habits of wildest bounty might God be inviting me to practice?

In these coming days, may you participate and pass along the wildest bounty of God. Blessings!

P.S. As Brigid’s feast day approaches, I invite you to visit a reflection I wrote for her feast day last year:

Feast of St. Brigid: A Habit of the Wildest Bounty

This is a doubly festive week: the Feast of the Presentation, also called Candlemas, falls the day after Brigid’s feast. For an earlier reflection on this feast day, please click below:

Feast of the Presentation/Candlemas

[The image “The Willing Catch” is from the reflection Hooked. To use this image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

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.”

Coming Attractions

March 15, 2009

We have a richness of special days coming up this week, so I wanted to give a quick nod to them and offer some resources for their contemplation and celebration.

March 17, of course, marks the Feast of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. For my reflection from last year, visit Feast of Saint Patrick.


March 19 gives us the Feast of Saint Joseph, the remarkable man who listened to angels and took both Mary and Jesus into his care. Joseph has made a number of appearances in my artwork; I invite you to stop by and see him at The Advent Hours and The Advent and Christmas Series.


This year, the vernal equinox (also called the spring equinox—in the Northern Hemisphere—or the March equinox) falls on March 20. I posted a reflection on the autumnal equinox here last year; the sentiments apply in springtime as well. Just turn the image upside down for the vernal version!

May you have a festive week!

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

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