Praying for a World in Need

January 12 was the Feast Day of Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110 – 1167), an English Cistercian monk and the abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

You might know some of Aelred’s thoughts on spiritual friendship, which have been written about by Wesley Hill, among others. But today I want to share a bit about Aelred’s life and other work.

A fellow monk, Walter Daniel, wrote a biography of St. Aelred. He said that Aelred often repeated the phrase, for crist luve— that is, “for the love of Christ.” It was like a short, spontaneous prayer. Aelred apparently preferred to say “Christ” in English rather than Latin (Christus) because the one-syllable English word is “easier to utter, and in some ways sweeter to hear.”

Aelred’s desire for brevity reminds me of the later Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century spiritual treatise that also advises choosing a short and sweet word (or two) for prayer (see my post on this). “A short prayer penetrates heaven,” to paraphrase the Cloud‘s author.

Aelred of Rievaulx
Possible portrait of Aelred of Rievaulx in De Speculo Caritatis, ca. 1140

But my favorite thing about Aelred is a beautiful passage he wrote about prayer. What good is prayer? It is useful, Aelred says. Practical. Prayer is of infinite value. And the world needs it so desperately. In his Rule for a Recluse, Aelred wrote:

What is more useful than prayer? Give it. What is more gracious than pity? Spend it. Hold the whole world in one embrace of love; consider the good to congratulate them, the wicked to grieve over them; behold the afflicted and compassionate the oppressed; call to mind the miseries of the poor, the groans of orphans, the desolation of widows, the sorrows of those who weep, the needs of pilgrims, the vows of virgins, the perils of men on the sea, the temptation of monks, the cares of the clergy, the hardships that soldiers endure. Open your heart to all, spend your tears on them, pour forth your prayers for them.

You may have seen me quote this passage before. I love it so much that I can’t stop sharing it. I think you’ll agree that we need this kind of selfless prayer more than ever today.

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Source: For Crist Luve: Prayers of Saint Aelred Abbot of Rievaulx

 

God the Fugitive

On Monday, we celebrated the Feast of Epiphany. Following a star, Magi from the East came to worship the Christ Child. This season in the church year invites us to witness the manifestation of Christ to the whole world. And, as this post explores, to see his heart for those on the margins of the world.

Shortly after the Magi visited Jesus, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13) Joseph and his family escaped in the night in an event often referred to as the Flight into Egypt.

How are we to think of this event in Jesus’ life? Differing interpretations have been flying around the web, many of them concerning the question of whether, in fleeing to Egypt, Jesus was or was not a refugee. Jesus was a refugee because he fled government persecution. Or. He wasn’t a refugee because, technically, he didn’t flee to a foreign country.

I’m going to call on one of my favorite authors from the Middle Ages to weigh in here: Jean Gerson, a fifteenth-century French scholar and the chancellor of the University of Paris. In ca. 1415, Gerson wrote a narrative poem, the Josephina, celebrating the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. The poem includes all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family. And it begins with the Flight into Egypt. Towards the beginning of the poem, Gerson makes a statement that stopped me cold when I first read it:

“Deus est fugitivus et advena.” Let’s look at the terms in this statement. Fugitivus means fugitive. Advena means foreigner or stranger. Hence we have the striking pronouncement:

God is a fugitive and a foreigner.

I’ve often wondered why Gerson uses the term “fugitive” here. We often think of a fugitive as someone involved in a criminal case and who flees “the long arm of the law” (thank you, Harrison Ford). But it can also describe a person who flees to escape danger or persecution. Merriam-Webster suggests “refugee” as a synonym.

Was Jesus a refugee? Was he, to use a slightly different term, a fugitive? Gerson believes that he was.

Flight into Egypt, Giotto
The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone (1304–1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Perhaps it’s the terms and technicalities that sometimes trip us up. Does it matter whether or not Jesus fled to another country or did/did not cross a particular border? He fled persecution from a ruler and escaped, quietly, hurriedly, in the night, finding refuge in a land not his home. That makes him a fugitive in my (and Gerson’s) book.

I also think it’s important that in the phrase quoted above, Gerson uses the word “Deus” instead of “Christus” or “Jesus.” Jesus and God are, of course, one and the same, but the name “God” carries huge implications. God, as in – the Lord Almighty. The Creator. The God of the universe. So think about that for a minute: The God of the universe became a fugitive.

And it’s not just God who needs and seeks refuge. After the Holy Family arrives in Egypt, Gerson writes that each one of us is like them—we are strangers, foreigners, immigrants.

Whoever you are, deeply longing to be citizens of the heavenly country,
act in this way,
thus remembering to contemplate the fact that you are a foreigner.
Let Christ, Joseph, and Mary be an example to you.

As fugitives who had to settle in a land not their own, the Holy Family are to be examples for every Christian. We are all strangers in this world, strangers who walk toward and await their true home.

Yet Gerson also helps us to see that in the Flight, God aligns himself specifically with those on the margins of the world–with the persecuted, the powerless, the poor, the refugees, and, yes, the fugitives.

Let us remember that during this season. As we reflect on the Flight into Egypt —

May we see our fugitive selves in Jesus.
May we see Jesus in our fugitive neighbors.
May we see God’s heart for all those on the margins of this great big world.

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Note: I am no Gerson scholar, and for this post I relied on the work of Brian Patrick McGuire’s essay in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (pp. 131-152). I would also like to thank Randy Blacketer for his translation of some of Gerson’s Latin text.

 

 

Advent Is For Pilgrims

Have you noticed that journeys abound everywhere you look in the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem. Then they take the infant Jesus to Jerusalem forty days after his birth. The wise men journey from afar. And the Holy Family flees to Egypt.

And what about us? Well, the Incarnation sets us on a journey, too.

CatherineofSiena
Fresco of St. Catherine from the Basilica of San Domenico, Siena, ca. 1400

In ca. 1378, the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena wrote:

You see this gentle loving Word born in a stable while Mary was on a journey, to show you pilgrims how you should be constantly born anew in the stable of self-knowledge, where by grace you will find me born in your soul.

This passage is from St. Catherine’s Dialogue. In the passage, God is instructing the soul. Notice, first, that God calls us “pilgrims.” You pilgrims. Hey, you pilgrims! Mary is not the only one on a journey this year. We are, too. We’re on our way to the stable, and we’re going there, in Catherine’s words, to be born anew.

To be precise, we will be “born anew in the stable of self-knowledge.” This phrase sounds remarkably modern. But by self-knowledge, I don’t think Catherine means “finding ourselves.” She means knowing ourselves as we can only truly be known . . . and that is through our rebirth in Christ. Even on a daily basis, we can be renewed in our spirit and regenerated in our heart by traveling to the source. To the stable. Born into Christ, into his great love, we know who we are and we know whose we are. This is surely one of the great yearnings we experience during the season of Advent – to see Christ come into time, into a hurting world, and make us new and tell us who we are.

In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner speaks of this journey of renewal. Riffing on The Wizard of Oz, he writes, “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning…” What he describes here is like a rebirth – an acquiring or knitting together of all the parts we need to make us whole.

Both Catherine of Siena and Frederick Buechner really speak to me this year. I’ve been feeling so fragmented, so pulled apart by circumstances and people and the warring desires of my heart. For me, rebirth means to be knit together as a whole creation. When this happens, I will not become something or someone entirely new. I will be most fully myself. This is Catherine’s “stable of self-knowledge.”

I like the way Catherine rephrases her thoughts on birth at the end of the passage quoted above. God says, “you will find me born in your soul.” To be reborn in Christ is to have him be born in our soul. It is a double birth.

If Christ is born in us, we can then bring him forth into the world. We can bring the love of Jesus to our neighbors, our friends, our family, and to our hurting communities. In his commentary on Luke, St. Ambrose said, “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith.” Our own rebirth helps birth Christ for a world in need.

So this year, I am making a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. I hope you’ll come with me. We will travel to the stable like Mary so that we can find God born in our soul. And we’ll travel as our own broken selves so that we can be born into new life. Jesus and us, born on Christmas day.

 

A Medium Aevum Advent

I’m heartened to see more and more Christians keeping Advent—not rushing to the feast, but spending time in holy expectation. The historian in me approves. When we observe Advent, we deepen our preparation for Christ’s coming by embracing the liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church. Some historical Advent practices, such as fasting, many of us do not keep today. Others, like the annual Christmas pageant, are still going strong (in the medieval Church the pageant was performed by choirboys).

This year, as I watch my daughters perform one of their own practices, I’ve been drawn to some wonderful medieval teachings on Advent. Perhaps I should say Advents. In one of his sermons for the season, written in the mid twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of not one but three comings of Christ. A century later, Thomas Aquinas adds yet another. That’s three more comings than most of us prepare for. It has taken my two children to help me absorb what these four advents might mean for me.

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Christ’s first coming–no surprise here–is his historical advent. My daughters have developed an elaborate practice to prepare for this event: the manger scene. My girls set up their manger with the precision of an HGTV reality show. Everything must be just so. The picture on the box is consulted: Mary must stand here, Joseph there. The manger must be centered. Then and only then is the baby tenderly placed therein. But not for long; Jesus requires much more attention than that. He is taken out and taken care of, cradled and coddled until it is deemed the right time to lay him down again. I sometimes think God sent his son as a baby for the benefit of maternally inclined five-year-olds.

My girls’ mothering reminds me of a beautiful fourteenth-century devotional text, Meditations on the Life of Christ. In this text, readers are asked to imagine their way into the manger scene: “Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.” Later, we are advised to step in and help Mary: “Be ready to give your services as if you could, meditate on them, delight and rejoice in them . . . and often gaze upon that face which angels desire to look upon.” Caring, with all our imaginative and spiritual faculties, for the baby Jesus: what a wonderful meditational exercise for the Advent season. I wonder if the infant Jesus slept through the night?

This exercise leads to another, perhaps deeper, form of preparation. In his sermon, Saint Bernard notes that Jesus not only came in the flesh. He also comes to our heart. He is hidden there: “Only his chosen see him in themselves, and they shall heal their souls.” I like to think of Jesus’ indwelling in us as a continuation of Mary’s work. Mary gave birth to Jesus and cared for him physically. Now it is our job to spiritually receive Christ and raise him up. He must grow to maturity in our heart.

My daughters pick baby Jesus up and put him down. They take him to town. They sing to him. Watching them play reminds me how much care Jesus needs to grow in me. It makes my heart tender but also afraid. I feel keenly my own lack. Sometimes I fail to care for my children the way I should. How can I possibly provide for Jesus? I need not only the baby but also the full-grown savior. My yearning for Christ’s grace is as great as my desire to cradle him in my heart.

Of course we know that Jesus’ cradle leads to the cross and the grace we so desperately need. These two yearnings are depicted in one of my favorite paintings, the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

St. Columba Altarpiece

As one of the kings leans forward to kiss the infant Jesus, almost exactly as recommended by the Meditations on the Life of Christ, we see a small crucifix nailed to a post above his head.

Columba detailThis is a good painting for Advent because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the birth of Christ. If you want to grow up the baby Jesus, remind yourself that he’s headed to the cross. That will do it every time.

But Advent looks even farther ahead in the life of Christ. In his sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux reminds the Church that within Christ’s coming in the flesh is embedded the promise of his coming again. Jesus will return to earth, and the world will be made new. We are assured that whatever darkness surrounds us, God will bring his story to the glorious conclusion he foretold.

As we reflect on the teaching of the Mellifluous Doctor, we realize that Advent is truly ancient-future. It harks back to the birth of Jesus (and before that to the prophecies about him). It takes place in the present as he is born in our heart. And it looks forward to the end of earthly time. Advent is a season to meditate on the entire history of salvation through Jesus Christ, a season to both celebrate and yearn for the world’s redemption.

Admittedly, my girls seem far more earthly than eschatological when they play with their manger scene:

“He doesn’t want his blanket.”

“Yes, he does! All babies need their blanket!”

But, as Saint Bernard shows, the birth of Jesus is wrapped up in his other advents, even the ones that are invisible or that take place in a distant future. Christ’s comings cannot be separated one from another; one form of yearning leads to the next. It is strange to watch my daughters play and feel so much ache mixed in with my delight. When my girls are older I will tell them about the complex theology behind their childlike faith.

I could end my Advent meditation here. Bernard of Clairvaux does. His sermon, as I mentioned, teaches three comings of Christ—in the flesh, in our hearts, and at the end of time. But in an Advent sermon preached in 1271, Thomas Aquinas adds a fourth coming of Jesus. Christ comes, writes the Angelic Doctor, at the hour of our death. This coming is necessary to bring his “just ones” not only grace, but also glory.

I confess that with this teaching, my yearning grinds to a halt. It seems easier to long for the end of time than for my personal end. Yet Saint Thomas is not the only one to advise me on this subject. Centuries earlier, the desert father Pachomius said, “Have, therefore, the hour of your death ever before your eyes.” Even in Advent? Even when my children are so full of life and the whole world is telling me to be joyful? Upon reflection, I conclude that there is no better time. During this season, we prepare for a savior who came to defeat death—yes, even our own. When he comes for us, it will be to take us to glory.

And so, as I watch over my children, I learn to watch my heart. I coax and guide it to think on its final hour. If I can’t yet yearn for this coming of Christ, I can at least be alert. I ask my heart, are you ready? Christ will return for you one day, and this advent is every bit as real as his birth in the flesh and his coming again.

Thanks to two daughters and two doctors of the church, my Advent preparations are a strangely medieval mix of delight, yearning, and rather intense soul-searching. As a mother, I look for the coming of a baby, one as fleshy and sweet as my girls. I also remember that the baby Jesus grew up to save the world and that he will come again, both at the end of time and, likely before that, for me. May my heart be prepared to mother him now and to meet him when my time comes.

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This essay was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.

When Jesus Did the Dishes

Last week I wrote about dishwashing as a spiritual discipline. By channeling the wisdom of a Buddhist monk and a medieval master, we can “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” We introduce tenderness into a chore that usually invites frustration.

Did you know that Jesus himself was said to have done the dishes?

We can thank the Middle Ages for this insight into the Savior’s life. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote a narrative poem called the Josephina. This poem celebrates the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. In the poem, we find all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family, including the boyhood of Jesus. And this brings us to the dishes. Gerson writes:

Thus Christ was subject, as he was to you, Mary and Joseph,
What kind of subjection did he wish for himself?
Was he not showing obedience in your midst, as one who rightly serves?
Carefully and often he lights the fire and prepares the food;
He does the dishes and fetches water from a nearby fountain.
Now he sweeps the house, gives straw and water to the donkey.*

This tidbit about Jesus is, as you’ve doubtlessly realized, extra-Biblical. Gerson uses his imagination to bring to life the Bible’s brief statement that the boy Jesus was obedient to his parents (this was after Jesus was “lost” for three days in Jerusalem–see Luke 2:51).

Gerson’s poem represents the medieval imagination at its finest. Like Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (discussed in my previous post), it paints a picture of Jesus meant to delight us and to invite us into his daily life.

There’s some good theology behind this and related scenes. Jean Gerson says that there is no better way to soften hard hearts than to see God acting as a child. He wanted to help Christians delight in the boy Jesus and to affirm that God became human—a small human with parents, chores, and child-like faith. Gerson’s imagination is in service of the incarnation.

I think we could use a little more imagination in our faith today. We are so good at studying the Bible. We parse its meaning verse by verse and even word by word. We defend our beliefs with arguments and analysis. We listen to three-point sermons that tell us how to live.

But sometimes, this approach leaves me exhausted. I feel like I’m drowning in interpretation. I recently turned down an invitation to join a Bible study because, frankly, it seemed too labor intensive. It involved too much homework, too many workbooks, and too many lectures. I love God’s word, but sometimes, instead of study guides, I need to be guided to some lighter moments. I need to enjoy my faith and to delight in who Jesus was and is. “God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God,” writes Richard Foster about experiencing delight in our Lord.

Gerson’s poem opens the door to a moment of delight, one I can experience even at the kitchen sink. Thanks to this medieval chancellor, I can no longer do the dishes without imagining the boy Jesus scrubbing away at the nearby fountain. I think of the incarnation, which is good. I remember that Jesus participated fully in the messiness of life.

But more than all that, I smile. I like thinking that God did the washing up, in more ways than one.

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*Source: Brian Patrick McGuire, “When Jesus Did the Dishes: The Transformation of Late Medieval Spirituality” in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 131-152.