Water of Life, Water of Change

This week, I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote that was published in Plough Magazine on Monday. I wrote the essay to express the frustration I/we often feel in this time of Covid and the inbetweenness that marks our life during the pandemic, during Lent . . . and during our time on earth. I hope you enjoy it!

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Last fall, during one of the many pandemic surges in our area, my two daughters and I took a day trip to Grandfather Mountain State Park. We came across a small river, whose name I no longer recall. My city girls will use any excuse to stop hiking, so I let them pause at the water’s edge and remember what it’s like to play, free and unencumbered. It would have been better to keep walking though; I’d forgotten that standing still gives me too much time to think. Watching my girls on the riverbank, tossing stones and exploring the ecosystem, I ached for them. I ached for the season they are living through, the upheaval and the fear and the isolation. As my daughters played and I mused, the river flowed on, like a timeline I wished I could travel to a better place.

If I followed the river many eons back, perhaps I would encounter the earth’s mother river, the one that fed the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10). There wouldn’t be any aching along those banks, surely . . .

Please continue reading this essay over at Plough!


How to Recognize a Pilgrim

Last week at the gas station, a man I didn’t know approached me at the pump and asked me if I could give him some change to help him fill up his car. “I’m running short on money this week,” he said.

At first I said no. I was startled… strangers don’t usually approach me at the gas pump. And I thought all the thoughts that often go through our mind in these situations. What if he’s not a good person? What will he really do with the money?

But then, as the fuel pumped into my car, the truth pumped into me. My response to this man wasn’t right. Maybe I didn’t know who he was, but I knew what he was. He was a pilgrim.

The Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ca. 1405

We might think of pilgrims as people from another time with a penchant for funny hats (I write about some of these people in my new book). Or perhaps as folks with backpacks walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Yet these images we have—that I have—can blind us to the fact that not all pilgrims are distant historical figures or travelers on faraway paths. Sometimes, they’re people like you and me; people on life’s journey who can’t make it alone.

In simple terms —

Pilgrims are strangers — That person you just met or who just asked you for help may be unknown to you, but their very “strangeness” makes them a pilgrim. In Roman times, a peregrinus, the Latin word from which we get “pilgrim,” was someone “not from these parts.” It was a legal term. The Bible teaches that Christians are pilgrims because we’re not from these parts, either. (Heb 11:13) We don’t belong to the world and its ways. We’re all strangers here.

Pilgrims are travelers — In the Middle Ages, peregrinus morphed to mean someone on a journey, usually one of sacred import. Have you encountered any travelers lately? Maybe someone fueling up at the pump next to yours? Or someone on a difficult path through life? Every person is on his way somewhere—or trying to be, if he gets a tank of gas.

Pilgrims are needy — Historically, pilgrims often traveled in desperate circumstances. Medieval pilgrims frequently were ill or were atoning for sin or crimes. Many arrived at their destination completely broke, relying on others to help them and even to keep them alive. That day at the gas station, I was charged to help a pilgrim in need. The next time, it might be me who needs help.

Although I hesitated at first, I walked over to the pilgrim after filling my tank. He was standing beside his car and running his fingers through his hair in a gesture of utter despair (he must have coasted in on fumes). I did what I could for him. It wasn’t much because I didn’t have much to give. But then another man walked over and also gave some money. I hope that enabled the pilgrim to get further down the road.

Having studied pilgrimage for so long, I’m chastened that I had to remind myself to help. What I needed, and what I got, was a lesson that brought my studies down to earth. Pilgrimage teaches us about our biblical identity as people on our way to the heavenly country. In practical terms, it means that we welcome the stranger and help one another on our long journey home. We are all pilgrims, and we need each other. No one walks – er, drives – alone.


Pilgrimage As a Way of Life: A Post by Prasanta Verma

This week’s post, by Prasanta Verma, is a review of my new book that’s releasing on Feb. 2. Enjoy this sneak preview; I’m grateful to Prasanta for writing it!

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Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? I must say I have not, at least, not a “deliberate” journey of such. I visited some beautiful cathedrals in Europe while in college, but they were not part of an intentional pilgrimage. What a different view I would have now, with some years of experience and growth behind me!

I just finished reading 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers by Lisa Deam, and this book is expanding my view of our spiritual journey in this life. I most often thought of pilgrimage as a physical journey with a destination, and indeed, I am contemplating what such a journey might entail for me at some point in my life. But, as the title suggests, our spiritual journey can be a pilgrimage, too, and “a way of life.”

The early pilgrims that Lisa writes of, like Margery Kempe, Felix Fabri, and Pietro Casola (and indeed many others in their day), faced much hardship on their journeys to Jerusalem, encountering long delays, setbacks, illness, and even death. One did not embark on such a journey expecting to return roundtrip in a week; rather, those who left could be gone for many months, a year or longer, crossing mountain and sea, journeying on foot, donkey, or boat.

One of the more striking passages for me is this one:

“Saint Augustine paints a picture of someone a little like me in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. Imagine a person trying to cross the sea to reach home, Augustine says. This person spots her destination from afar; she longs to reach it. In fact, all of us have this longing, for in our home country, the One we love awaits. But how will the pilgrim get there? How will she survive the turbulent waters? How will any of us?…


“These words bring us to one of the great paradoxes of pilgrimage. On our journey, our every step and every water crossing takes us slowly but inevitably to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet as we make this pilgrimage to God, we also make it with God. We are not left to find our way alone, for God is at once our destination and our means of reaching it. I never tire of sifting this beautiful paradox through my mind. For those on the spiritual journey, it is a comfort to ponder the mystery that the God to whom we travel is in the boat with us—perhaps is even the boat itself.”

How often on our spiritual lives, too, are we ridden with the toils of the journey and the long road, and forget that God himself journeys with us? Along each dark valley, rocky ascent, and slippery terrain, He is the companion who walks with a steady foot, a calming voice, and an assuring presence. We are not alone. He is in the boat with us as we face turbulent waters. He is walking with us in unknown valleys. We have a guide, a footpath, a railing, a leading hand—on the pilgrimage to Him, we walk with Him. What a beautiful thought and image that Lisa brings to life for us in her pages.

As we battle the difficulties and challenges of this life, however, there is yet even another enemy we must consider. Lisa writes, “For spiritual pilgrims, the greatest foes are the infidels of our own heart.”

Ouch. Let that one sink in deep. The truth of this one convicts me. Just thinking through all the challenges of life, we are also battling ourselves, and this might be the worst foe of all. Our spiritual baggage, our past, our pains, our wounds, our bruises, our rights, our justifications, our pride, our selfishness…we carry all these on our journey, weighing down our sacks, adding to the burden, and impeding our progress as much as any other obstacle. We must face the truth—and the hurdle—of ourselves.

While looking through the lens of pilgrimage to holy places, thinking of our spirituality as a pilgrimage and a way of life is a refreshing view. I am grateful.


*I paid for and pre-ordered the book, requested to join the launch team, and received an advance copy to read. This post is not being solicited by the launch team or book publishers, and I am writing my own thoughts and opinions out of my own personal experience.

God the Fugitive

Today we celebrate 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 world. (Epiphany, by the way, is also a season; it begins today and ends, in some churches, the day before Ash Wednesday.)

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.

Giotto, Flight into Egypt, Srovegni Chapel, ca. 1304-1306

During this time of year, differing interpretations of the Flight into Egypt begin “flying” around, many concerning the status of Jesus and his family as refugees. Some say that Jesus was a refugee because he fled government persecution. Others counter he wasn’t a refugee because, technically, he didn’t flee to a foreign country.

I think the terms and technicalities sometimes trip us up. In her book, The God Who Sees, author and immigration activist Karen Gonzalez notes that the ancient world did not have the same concept of and fixation on borders as we do today. So, where Jesus went is perhaps less important than why: Jesus and his parents fled persecution from a ruler, finding refuge in a land not their home. Gonzalez says, “In modern terms, we would say that Jesus and his parents are refugees.”

One of my favorite medieval authors, Jean Gerson, states this in a very striking way. Gerson was a fifteenth-century French scholar and the chancellor of the University of Paris. In ca. 1415, he 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.” We often think of a fugitive as someone who flees “the long arm of the law.” But it can also describe a person who flees to escape danger or persecution. Merriam-Webster suggests “refugee” as a synonym.

I also think it’s important that in the passage, 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 and foreigners.

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 passing through this world.

The Flight into Egypt also shows us that God identifies very strongly with strangers on the margins of the world—with the persecuted, the powerless, the poor, the refugees, and the fugitives. We are to see Jesus in them. Gonzalez says, “Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we welcome foreigners and others in vulnerable situations, we welcome him.”

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: For Gerson’s poem, see 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.

WEEKLY PRAYER: MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG

Today’s prayer comes from Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1207 – ca. 1282), a German mystic and a Beguine. She was one of the first mystics to write in German rather than Latin. Her feast day is November 19.

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O burning Mountain,
O chosen Sun,
O perfect Moon,
O fathomless Well,
O unattainable Height,
O Clearness beyond measure,
O Wisdom without end,
O Mercy without limit,
O Strength beyond resistance,
O Crown beyond all majesty:
the humblest thing you created sings your praise.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: THOMAS A KEMPIS

This week’s prayer is from Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380-1471), a Dutch-German monastic, priest, and spiritual writer. He authored one of the most popular devotional treatises of all time, the Imitation of Christ.

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O Lord my God, be not far from me; my God, have regard to help me; for my thoughts and fears have risen up against me and afflict my soul. How shall I pass through them unhurt? How shall I break them to pieces? My hope and my only consolation is to flee to you in every tribulation, to trust in you, to call upon you from my inmost heart and to wait patiently for your consolation. Amen.

Source

I’ll Pass; Or, How to Age Like a Star

This week, I’m sharing an article I recently wrote for The Perennial Gen on aging like a star, with help from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. You can begin here and continue at The Perennial Gen’s website. Thanks for reading! And…shine on.

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Dedicated to Polaris, “a rapidly aging giant star”

 

The other day, I played a little game with my husband. I asked him, “What do you think? Could I pass for forty?”

He looked at me. Squinted a little. “Yes,” he said, and I think he was telling the truth.

“What about thirty-eight?” I pressed.

“Sure,” he said.

I should have left it there, but something made me continue. “Thirty-five?”

At that point he began to look skeptical.

This game with my husband was affectionate; we laughed and teased. But behind it lies a serious hang-up. The fact is, I play this age game all the time. I don’t always play it overtly, but I do it in my mind. Because I have small children, I reason, that surely makes me seem younger to people I meet. Because I choose my best photo for my social media avatar, maybe I seem more youthful online.

When I play this game, I’m not just holding on to youthful beauty. I also want to be relevant. Vibrant. Involved. I want to have something to offer. So I try to convince myself (and others) that I can pass for a woman who is younger than she is.

Read the rest at The Perennial Gen.

 

The Smallest Thing Will Not Be Forgotten

Last week, we explored Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “All will be well.” We found that it refers to the “necessity” of sin and God’s grand plan of salvation. It points us to the end of time, when God’s purposes for the world will be accomplished. But I want to emphasize that Julian’s saying is also full of comfort for the here and now.

In the Showings, Julian continues to marvel and reflect on the idea that “all will be well.” She says:

He [God] wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple, of this man and that man. And this is what he means when he says: Every kind of thing will be well. For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten. (231-232)

How I love this thought. The smallest thing will not be forgotten. We have a God who sees the small and the simple. And that means that he sees us; sees you and me. God delights not (just) in grand gestures and great deeds; he notices the humblest acts of faith. He loves not just the heroes and saints; he loves this particular man and that particular woman. He loves us in all our marvelous idiosyncracies. In our unique presence. Our ordinariness. And in our insignificance.

hazelnutThis passage on smallness reminds me of one of Julian’s earlier visions. God showed Julian something no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of her hand.

Julian says, “I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made.” (130) God preserves such a small thing, Julian writes, because he created it and loves it.

In something as small as a hazelnut, the whole world can be contained. In something as small as you and me, God finds something of incredible value. Something worth rectifying the world for.

We have to wait until the end – until God’s time – to see exactly how he will rectify every thing, both large and small. But we have this consolation now: we are not lost. We are not forgotten. God takes heed of us. We are swept up in his plans to make all things well.

Julian says that in God’s promise to make well even the smallest of things, we find rest and peace. We are powerfully comforted.

Do you believe, as small and insignificant as you are, that “all will be well” both for the world and for you? I leave you with Lady Julian’s encouragement:

“Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fulness of joy.”

 

 

Will All Be Well?

Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is one of the most beloved medieval mystics. She lived for much of her life as an anchoress (someone who lives enclosed in a cell) and wrote the first known book in English to be written by a woman. This book, the Book of Showings, teaches us about the fullness of divine love and compassion; it is based on a series of revelations or visions that the mystic received in 1373.

Julian’s words are oft quoted, and the most famous passage from the Showings is one you’ve undoubtedly heard:

All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.

We quote this passage when we need reassurance. When things are not going well. When we don’t have much hope for the future. I myself have quoted and tweeted it many times.

Today and next week, I want to explore the context of this famous passage. Reading Julian’s Showings, I found that “all shall be well” is not just one sentence, but a theme that spans some six chapters of the book. The passage has a larger context that is usually not considered.

That context is sin.

Julian utters her famed saying in a portion of the Showings in which she sorrows over sin. She realizes that sin is keeping her from close communion with God, and she wonders why God ever allowed sin to come into the world.

God reassures Julian, saying:

Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. (225)

There are two main things to note about this passage. First, it has an opening clause that is often omitted (“sin is necessary”). And second, we are to understand it as something that God himself said to Julian. The passage means that, despite the pain and suffering of humankind because of sin, God has promised to make things right.

Julian of Norwich
Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate, 2014

In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t like the statement that “sin is necessary” and cannot pretend to fully understand it. Julian herself is troubled by this notion and persists in asking God how things can possibly be well given the destructive consequences of sin. She won’t let this issue go. For several chapters, she pesters God about it. How can it be well? How, God? And why . . . why did you allow sin to come into the world? These questions make her a kindred spirit to those of us who wrestle with tough questions. Why, God?

God doesn’t quite answer Julian’s questions. But he tells her, very tenderly, to contemplate the atonement, which is far more glorious than sin ever was harmful. And he tells her to trust him. God says to Julian:

For since I have set right the greatest of harms [original sin], then it is my will that you should know through this that I shall set right everything which is less. (228)

“All will be well” refers to nothing less than God’s grand plan of salvation – for setting right the world and the human heart. It does not mean, alas, that things will be okay tomorrow or in a particular circumstance in our life. It could be that, like Moses, we will not see with human eyes the fulfillment of God’s promise to make things “well.”

“All will be well” is not a phrase to throw around lightly. It requires a lot of faith to affirm. Look around you at the world right now. And then look at your own heart. It’s hard to believe that all will be well, isn’t it? It’s hard partly because God is keeping to his own timeline, not ours. And because he is working in ways that we cannot fathom (more on this topic next week).

As we wait on God, we work with him in the grand plan of salvation (because waiting is active, not passive). We suffer and groan. We sorrow in our sin. But we believe: in God’s time and in God’s way, every kind of thing will be well.

 

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