From Exile to Pilgrim: A Christmas Story

Thanks be to God, through whom our consolation overflows
in this pilgrimage, in this exile, in this distress.

This is one of my favorite quotations from the history of the Church, uttered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Cistercian monk, abbot, and theologian. I love it because it touches on one of my favorite themes, pilgrimage. I recently discovered that the quotation comes from St. Bernard’s Sermons on Advent and Christmas. I’m excited because one of my favorite sentiments turns out to be part of the Christmas story!

The quote is about more than pilgrimage. Here and elsewhere, Bernard places heavy emphasis on the theme of exile. Throughout his sermons he often uses the word “exile” to refer to our sojourn on this earth. As exiles, we are wanderers who do not have a true home. We walk a hard road, filled with suffering. We are in distress.

But then. Then! Bernard precedes the sentence quoted above with this statement: “The kindness and humanity of God our Savior appeared.” In the person of Jesus, God appeared at Christmas (and was made known at the Epiphany). And this changed everything. Through his humanity, Jesus joined us in our exile. Bernard says:

He Who is glorious and transcendent in His own city, and beatifies its citizens by His presence, became little and humble, when in exile, that He might rejoice the exiles.

This is why Bernard says, “Thanks be to God!” At Christmas, Jesus came to us in our exile. To rejoice us and give us consolation.

And because Jesus came, our earthly journey has a different flavor: our exile has turned into a pilgrimage. A pilgrim, as opposed to an exile, knows where to point her feet. She does not wander aimlessly and dejectedly but has a destination. She’s headed home, and so she is filled with hope. Many of us travel home for the holidays (or at least we did before the pandemic) or take refuge in our family and our home. In a similar way, every step in our Christian life leads toward a home that is the biggest refuge of all. When we get there, we’ll be welcomed with warmth and a meal and rest for our weary feet.

This isn’t some sappy sentiment meant to minimize our current distress. Goodness, our poor world seems to know nothing BUT distress these days. Our road can be bitter and our suffering great. Yet we now walk this road with hope because Jesus points the way home – and walks home with us.

This Advent and Christmas, we point our feet first to Bethlehem to welcome this child born to show us the way. And then we begin walking home. But not alone. Thanks be to God! This Christmas, Jesus has joined us on our long journey.

May God rejoice you on your pilgrimage this year.


Friends . . . if you’re interested in exploring the themes of exile and pilgrimage as they relate to our journey of faith, I hope you’ll check out my book that’s releasing on Feb. 2: 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s all about the hope we have as spiritual pilgrims. You can head over to my website to see more info and to preorder. Thank you and blessings – Lisa

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! As we prepare for Thanksgiving (here in the U.S.), Prasanta and I recommend these posts on giving thanks, prayer, creativity, and grief. Wait a minute – grief? Yes, amid the thanks and hope, we also remember the many people we’ve lost in the pandemic. Grief, hope, and thanks go hand in hand this year.

We’ll be on break next week — see you again in two weeks.

Meanwhile, we’re thankful for each one of you! Be blessed this Thanksgiving.

Love, Prasanta and Lisa

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Thanksgiving; a Sonnet via Malcolm Guite (the English poet writes a sonnet for his American friends)

We Need Your Positive Thoughts and Prayers via April Yamasaki (a selection of thoughts and prayers we actually need)

A Nonet for Morning Prayer via James Laurence (a nonet poem for your morning)

On the Last Day of Class… via Hannah P. Keller (a prayer for students as they leave campus and head home)

How do we grieve the hundreds of thousands of people the COVID-19 pandemic has killed? via Reggie Williams (five writers weigh in on grief for Christian Century magazine)

Making Art in the Midst of Crisis: Pandemic and Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” via Sarah Sanderson (remembering your identity as an artist/writer during chaotic and unproductive times)


SCARLET THREAD: A Poem by Prasanta Verma

Scarlet Thread

A scarlet thread
burns long, thin,
intersecting Sunday
and the corner
of my heart–
hungry for red.

I know the thread,
the very one—
pulls me to the cross,
unfolds like silk.
I pull string taut,
tie knot
so needle won’t slip.

A few crimson threads
fall to the floor,
and taste the hunger
of belonging.
Scarlet wounds are not sealed
with simply a stitch.

If the button did not fall,
slip out of the pocket,
get lost on a Sunday,
I’d still be searching.

Can I say what is mine
and what is yours?
Can you tell me where
the scarlet thread ends?

A coat of crimson
covers me, covers you,
swathed with scarlet thread.


Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! The links Prasanta Verma and I found this week help us explore our deepest self in relationship to God. What has God given us and who has God created us to be? We hope you enjoy digging into these. Remember, always, that you are the beloved of God.

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As a Child: God’s Call to Littleness via Phil Steer (a new podcast that unpacks what it means to “become like little children”)

We Have Today via Arlisia Potter (living in and thanking God for this day)

Cindy Bunch on Self-Kindness as Spiritual Practice via Casey Tygrett (being kind to ourselves as a way forward to loving others)

Through a Looking Glass Darkly: How (and how not) to be certain of yourself via Jessica Hooten Wilson (we are pilgrims and wayfarers who need one another as we find our way home)

Evensong via Peggy R. Ellsberg (a poem)

Boils & Possums & Kierkegaard, Oh My! via J. Lind (on creativity, writing, redemption, and and the difficult task of faith)


New Book for the Contemplative Community! THE GREAT BELONGING by Charlotte Donlon

This week I’m delighted to introduce another book for our community: The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon. This is a beautiful and hopeful exploration of loneliness from a Christian perspective. The book shows that sometimes loneliness can become an opportunity for what we all crave: closeness with God and others. Sometimes, it is part of the human condition because we are people of longing. I so appreciate Charlotte exploring a topic that’s so often been taboo. There is no shame in feeling lonely. It just means that we’re human and need one another.

Below, I’ve included an excerpt from Charlotte’s book. First, she has a few words of introduction.


The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other has five sections: Belonging to Ourselves, Belonging to Each Other, Belonging to Our Places, Belonging through Art, and Belonging to God. I believe our primary belongings are to ourselves, others, and God. But other things, such as places and art, can enhance our main belongings. The excerpt below, “Visio Divina” is from the Belonging through Art section. It describes encounters with three works of art that deepened my belongings to myself and to God. –Charlotte Donlon

Visio Divina

When I walked into the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe on a hot August afternoon, the first painting my attention turned toward was O’Keeffe’s Trees in Autumn. Most of the trees in this work are portrayed with flames of bright red, orange, and gold. A single green fir provides a touch of realism and stands as a stark contrast to the colorful ribbons of leaves on the more surreal deciduous trees. A background of lavender hills and blue sky, along with layers of crawling light, create that familiar feeling of being outside in the hour or so before the sun begins to set.            

I was attending a weeklong arts and writing workshop, and participants had gathered at the museum with the workshop’s chaplain for visio divina. The spiritual practice of visio divina is similar to lectio divina, when readers take time to interact slowly and deeply with Scripture through meditation and prayer. While lectio divina is the practice of divine reading, visio divina is the practice of divine seeing. As the Upper Room website explains, “visio divina invites one to encounter the divine through images.” Prayerfully beholding a photograph, an icon, a piece of art, or other visual representation provides an opportunity to experience God in unique and compelling ways.

I had practiced visio divina once before, but on this day in Santa Fe, I devoted more time to divine seeing. The chaplain had instructed us to stand before two or three of O’Keeffe’s paintings for several minutes and open to what God might have for us through our engagement with the artist’s work as we lingered, looked, and listened.

After several minutes, I left Trees in Autumn and moved through the gallery until another piece stood out to me. Autumn Trees–The Maple is also a colorful painting, but it’s more muted than Trees in Autumn. It has more white space, some gray, a touch of gloom. The shape and outline of the tree are difficult to discern. It’s an idea of a tree, a tree that is only a tree because the artist said it is.

The painting brought to mind the landscape of late fall, when winter is near and temperatures are cool. Again, I stood with the painting for several minutes and tried to interpret my inner response. I enjoyed the stillness and the process of giving my attention to the art. O’Keeffe’s work invited me to enter a realm that wasn’t affected by the news of the day, my personal anxieties, or unknown passersby. I entered this dimension and considered how the painting might see me. Was it a mirror that reflected an image of my soul? If so, what was it trying to show me? I stood in front of this painting, asking questions and waiting for answers. After the energy of my asking and waiting fizzled, I wandered away to see what else there was to see.

I arrived in a larger gallery and glanced back over my right shoulder. In the corner was a dark painting that I was immediately drawn to. I sat down on the end of a nearby bench and observed this third piece for several minutes. Black Place III has shades of gray, black, and white mountainous shapes. A muted yellow crack or narrow stream makes a crooked path down a portion of the middle of the work. Red shadows splash near the bottom. I eventually discovered two eyes in the middle of the painting. Or the suggestion of two eyes. The painting was dark. Very dark. And I loved it.

After I recognized I was more drawn to this piece than I had been to the other two, I began to berate myself. “Of course I prefer the dark painting. Why do I always lean toward the hard, sorrowful, sad things? Why am I like this? Why do I feel most comfortable in the murkiness?” I stayed with these questions and tried to not shy away from the feelings they produced. Then my thoughts were interrupted by this observation: “But you were drawn to colorful paintings, too. You were drawn to colorful paintings first.”

Black Place III was a mirror, and it reflected my doubts back to me. Its eyes might have even been looking at me. The painting ignited questions—asked with a tone of judgment and ridicule— about the essence of who I am. I’ve long been aware of my tendencies to stray toward hard things, to acknowledge and make room for brokenness. But my harsh views about the truth of who I am only surfaced after I practiced visio divina in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. At first it was uncomfortable to realize I was judging myself, but I was also thankful to see my inner world with greater clarity. Then, when I noticed the interruption and saw more of the truth—I was also drawn to color and brightness and lightness— my soul settled. It was as though God were telling me, “You are all of who I created you to be.

From The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon copyright © 2020 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.

***

Charlotte Donlon is a writer, spiritual director, and podcast host. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University where she studied creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Catapult, The Millions, Mockingbird, Christ and Pop Culture, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, will be published by Broadleaf Books in November 2020. Learn more about Charlotte, her writing, and her work at charlottedonlon.com. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @charlottedonlon.

On Election Day, Remember the Saints

Today is Election Day, and many are anxious. I am. Maybe you are, too.

I find it provocative that this year, Election Day follows right on the heels of All Souls Day and All Saints Day. On those days, we commemorate the saints and hold close the memory of the departed. We are reminded that we’re part of a big and beloved community.

Today, as we steer our country and watch with baited breath, we need more than ever to have that community with us. To know, as we wait in our isolated pandemic pods, that we’re not alone. That is why I relentlessly study the Christian mystics, saints, artists, and pilgrims of old. For me, history is spiritual formation because it grounds me in something bigger than I am. I am part of a great cloud of witnesses with whom I am scudding across the sky toward home.

So, although All Saints Day may be over, I declare this to be All Saints WEEK. And on this Election Day, I urge you: remember the saints. The ones you read about in Scripture and spiritual texts from the past and present. They will guide and ground you.

Remember the saints. The ones who paved the way for the church and our country. The ones you love who have already gone home, perhaps far too soon. Their work and their memory is with you.

Remember the saints. The ones in your home. The ones you encounter on the street or on your Twitter and Facebook timelines. The ones who feel alone and anxious and vulnerable this week. They need you.

Remember the saints. Check in on them. Love them. Feel them near you. We are all—past and present, dead and living—in the same boat sailing toward a distant horizon. Or, to use a different image, “we’re all just walking each other home (Ram Dass).”

A New Book for the Contemplative Community: Awakened by Death by Christiana Peterson

I’m delighted to introduce a new book for the contemplative community! Yesterday, author Christiana Peterson released her new book, Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics. This beautiful book offers stories and wisdom from history’s mystics to helps us reclaim a healthy engagement with our mortality. You will find a lot of hope in this book; it’s one that our death-averse culture desperately needs.

I also love the way that Christiana tells us her own stories and fears. In the excerpt below, she begins with a childhood story and shows us how love leads us to care for others’ wounds. This in turn can help us face our own wounds and our mortality.


***

When I was a child, I developed a Band-Aid phobia. According to my mom, this fear reached its pinnacle when I stubbornly refused to keep the Band-Aids on that she’d applied to the oozing blisters on my feet, caused by those plastic jelly shoes from the 1980s. She didn’t understand why I would rather keep the shoes on and let my blisters continue to break open and pustulate than wear a Band-Aid.

Even now, the thought of used Band-Aids mashed into the dirt of the playground, the ones that flapped off a child’s ankle during play, or soiled bandages in the dusty corners of the public restroom makes me want to gag.

Maybe Band-Aids remind me of wounds. Wounds can be shocking to see and smell, visceral reminders that all those bloody, sinewy, bony parts peeking out underneath the skin are indeed mortal. I remember studying the Black Death in school; the descriptions of the wounds that accompanied such a horrible sickness dug their way into my psyche. Bursting boils or buboes the size of oranges on the groin or lymph nodes, symptoms that tortured the lungs or the blood, aches and pains across the eyes and the head.

The people of the Middle Ages were well acquainted with wounds. They didn’t have the luxury of advanced medicine or science; doctors only had cursory knowledge, and their treatments often did more harm than good. Though they didn’t always understand the science behind what caused bodies to die so violently with the Black Death or other illnesses, they saw what the skin of their failing children and parents and spouses looked like when boils bubbled and burst. They heard the sound of their cries and the agony of the silences when the cries stopped. Their acquaintance with disease and death was unavoidable; pain management a fiction.

For Saint Francis and Saint Catherine, an acquaintance with wounds and decay helped them approach the suffering of others. Saint Francis famously made peace with others’ wounds. Growing up in a wealthy family, he was revolted (as many people were) by the lepers who were forced to remain on the edges of society. Wealth did for Francis what it has always done for those with power and resources: it allowed him to remain aloof from the suffering of others. As much as it was possible for a person in thirteenth-century Europe to avoid suffering, Francis did in his youth.

But his treatment of lepers became a marker of the blossoming of his relationship with God. And eventually, the leprosy that had formerly disgusted him became the evidence of his transformation.

One spring afternoon, Francis slid off his horse, reached out to a leper on the road, and kissed him. Only months later, he heard the voice of Jesus in the church at San Damiano, and he moved toward a life of poverty, giving away all of his possessions and living with lepers.

Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of Jesus in which she kissed and licked his wounds. This graphic image takes us from our tendency to spiritualize the passage in 1 Peter that says of Jesus, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Catherine seemed, like many mystics, to believe not only in the spiritual but physical power of Christ’s wounds.

There is also a story of a prisoner named Niccolo who was doomed for execution. By the time Catherine visited him in prison, he had already refused a priest and prayer. But Niccolo couldn’t resist Catherine’s charisma and contagious passion for God. When she finally got through to him, he begged her to become his confessor.

As Niccolo’s beheading approached, he pleaded with her not to leave him. Catherine followed him up the long walk to the execution platform, heard his prayers, and knelt to catch his head as it was severed from his body.

As grotesque as these images might seem to us—of Catherine of Siena with her mouth to a wound and catching a decapitated head—she was offering her presence in death and decay.

Though I’ve never licked a wound—gross—I have tended to my children’s wounds, hurts, and bodily fluids more times than I can count. I have cleaned up their vomit and feces, held bloody cuts closed with my hands. And while their wounds concerned me when they were severe, I can’t imagine being disgusted by them. Band-Aids don’t bother me when they have been on the cuts or wounds of my children.

Because I desperately love my children, even the unlovely parts of them are dear to me.

Even so, loving them can be challenging. But it is harder still to love others, especially those who might, at first glance, seem unlovable. Love has to be learned, tended, and nurtured if it is to be deep and lasting. Love expects us to care for the wounds of another, not just spiritually and emotionally but physically.

Saint Francis loved the wounds of others, but first he had to come to terms with his own wounds. Like all of us, he had to acknowledge that there were unlovely things about him too. He mourned his own weakness, and his love for others became so deep that he literally took on their wounds. Some say that the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side that oozed and never fully healed were actually leprous.

Becoming attuned to the things that disgust us and to the things that we fear is not just a good intellectual exercise. The ways we approach the things that horrify and disgust us might show the ways we look at death. The difficult and painful work of facing death can actually be an act of love.

*Excerpt from Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics by Christiana Peterson copyright © 2020 Christiana Peterson admin. Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.

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Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing on the mystics, community, the spiritual disciplines of motherhood, and death has been featured in Christianity Today, Art House America, The Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She’s a regular contributor to Good Letters, an Image Journal blog. She lives in Ohio with her husband and their four children.

Leaf Song: A Poem by Prasanta Verma


Leaf Song


Beautifully curling upward
Cupping droplets on its skin

I take my finger, wipe the drop
Leaving a skirmish behind

*

The autumn leaf is like a heart
Turned toward heaven

Changing colors, singing in its death
I wonder, Leaf, how many songs you have sung?

*

I wrap myself in a coat of leaves
Stand under a sheltering tree

Sing with the wind
Go to the one who sings over me

Cup my hands, raise them—empty
Here they are, here am I

*

Am I to be like that last leaf,
Stuck on the tree? Alone?

 I am answered,
“You are connected to the vine.”

Water spills over my hands, overflows,
Slips through my fingers.





***

Photos: Prasanta Verma

Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

Swimming with God

Imagine something with me. You’re in a ship in a raging sea, going somewhere important. Perhaps going on a pilgrimage. But it’s beginning to look like you’re not going to make it. The ship dips and lists. The sea is alive – a force against you. You pray to God to save you from destruction.

Doesn’t our faith often feel like this? Like we’re being tossed around by untamable wind and waves? Medieval theologians often compared the world to the sea. “All the ways of this world are as fickle and unstable as a sudden storm at sea,” wrote the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. And every soul must cross this sea on the journey through life.

So what do we do? Usually we respond with alternating displays of strength and alarm. We try to build a stronger ship. Bone up on our sailing skills. Lay in resources. And when the storm comes, we cry out to Jesus to pilot our ship.

Now imagine that the worst happens. Despite everything you’ve done, your ship capsizes . . . you fall into the water. And it becomes calm, buoyant. You realize that you’re floating. Swimming. Drinking water yet not drowning.

How is this possible?

Perhaps because we’ve got it wrong. Perhaps Jesus does not pilot us through the sea but is the sea. Perhaps this is the way we make it through the waves.

Two female mystics of the Middle Ages paint this picture of our journey. The 14th-century Dominican Catherine of Siena prays:

Eternal Godhead!
I proclaim and do not deny it:
you are a peaceful sea
in which the soul feeds and is nourished
as she rests in you in love’s affection and union
by conforming her will with your high eternal will—
that will which wants nothing other than that we be made holy.

(source)

In this prayer, the sea becomes a figure of God’s gracious abundance. The soul does not have to survive the water in a ship. Instead, God is the water. He envelops us, and we rest in him.

We might even go for a swim in this sea. The 13th-century mystic Marguerite d’Oingt writes of a vision of unity she received:

The saints will be within their Creator as the fish within the sea: they will drink as much as they want, without getting tired and without diminishing the amount of water. The saints will be just like that, for they will drink and eat the great sweetness of God.

(source)

Marguerite envisions the sea as a source of living water that never runs out (John 4:10-14). It’s a source of nourishment, where the saints (that’s you and me!) taste the sweetness of God.

I love this imagery for the way it rewrites the usual script about the sea of life. In the words of Catherine of Siena and Marguerite d’Oingt, the sea does not inspire terror but represents the incredible generosity of God. It’s a way to conceive of being fully enveloped in God’s goodness. And it’s an image of peace and rest.

As we ply the waters of life, let us remember the vastness of God who, like the sea, is everywhere. Let us be assured that if our ship capsizes, we will not perish. Should we be tossed overboard, we can swim like fish in the sea that is God.

***

This post is loosely based on one chapter from my forthcoming book, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s a sneak peak behind the scenes, because it contains a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book! Click here (my author website) for more info on 3000 Miles to Jesus.

Are You A Mystic?

As you may have noticed, I’m always talking about the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. But did you know that there were no mystics in the Middle Ages? The figures we call “mystics” – like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena — would have referred to themselves as contemplatives or perhaps simply as devout Christians.

“Mystic” and “mysticism” are more modern terms (17th century). But the medievals did use the adjective “mystical.” The 15th-century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a book about mystical theology, which he defines as knowledge of God that comes from love (as opposed to books or academic study). Medievals also spoke of the mystical meaning of the Bible – its deeper, spiritual meaning, which usually pointed to the mystery of Christ.

So what about those figures we call mystics? Figures like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Meister Eckhart? These Christians experienced a heightened consciousness of God’s presence. They sought God’s love based on direct experience, not textbook knowledge. This is what we mean when we call them mystics – and I think it’s fine for us to use this term since it’s firmly entrenched in our vocabulary now.

In the medieval era, a mystical encounter with God could result from lectio divina – reading and spending time with Scripture. At other times, it might come after meditating on scenes from Christ’s life or on sacred imagery.

Margery Kempe had a mystical experience upon seeing the site of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She was graced with a vision of the crucified Christ in the very place he suffered and died. It knocked her to the ground. Jesus, she says, was present before her eyes.

However, mystics did not always have visions. Nor did they always experience complete or ecstatic union with God. Those were special gifts given to some of them. And they were also fairly rare experiences. The criteria for being a mystic is much simpler, and it opens the door to an “everyday mysticism” to which you and I have access today. Simply put, a mystic seeks a deeper and more direct consciousness of God in her daily life. She wants to be awakened by God! This often happens through what seem like quite ordinary activities, like prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture, and being part of a Christian community. Always, it happens through the work of the Spirit in us.

So . . . it’s not audacious to define yourself as a mystic; it doesn’t mean you’re extra holy or have to meet some impossible standard. It just means that you seek greater intimacy with God and long to be enlivened by God’s eternal presence.

What attracts me the most about mysticism is that it coaxes me out of my hiding place. I can hide behind books about God and Christianity; I can fall back on my education or on acquiring more knowledge (including Wikipedia sometimes–oops!). But all this will mean very little unless I truly know, on a heart level, God’s all-encompassing love. This is why I need to be an everyday mystic.

How about you? Would you define yourself as a mystic?

For reflection: