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.

***

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.

WEEKLY PRAYER: ST. TERESA OF AVILA

This week’s prayer is by Teresa of Avila, (1515-1582) a Spanish nun in the Carmelite order. Teresa was a mystic, a founder and reformer of monasteries, a spiritual director, and a writer. Although her most famous work is The Interior Castle, the prayer below comes from St. Teresa’s Autobiography.

***

O my Lord, how good You are! Blessed be You forever, O my God! Let all creatures praise You Who have so loved us that we can truly speak of this communication which You have with souls in this our exile! Yes, even if they be good souls, it is on Your part great munificence and kindness. In a word, it is Your loving-kindness, O my Lord.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

This week’s prayer comes from St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226). Francis’s Feast Day was on October 4.

***

All Highest and Glorious God,
cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
Grant me right faith, firm hope, perfect charity,
profound humility,
with wisdom and perception, O Lord,
so that I may always and everywhere
seek to know and do what is truly your holy will,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: RICHARD ROLLE

Today’s prayer is by Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349), an English mystic and writer of spiritual treatises. Rolle, along with Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton, is remembered in the Episcopal Church (USA) today, September 28. The prayer below comes from his best-known treatise, The Fire of Love.

***

I ask you, Lord Jesus,
to develop in me, your lover,
an immeasurable urge towards you,
an affection that is unbounded,
a longing that is unrestrained,
a fervor that throws discretion to the winds!

The more worthwhile our love for you,
all the more pressing does it become.
Reason cannot hold it in check,
fear does not make it tremble
wise judgment does not temper it.

Source

When Mystics Meet (Or; We Need One Another)

On September 28, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers three mystics: Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Richard Rolle. They are not saints but considered to be important ancestors in the history of the Christian faith.

Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396) was an English Augustinian canon and mystic. His treatise on Christian contemplation, The Scale of Perfection, was well known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) was an English laywoman and mystic. She wrote (or more likely dictated) The Book of Margery Kempe, a spiritual autobiography and one of the first in the English language.

Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349) was an English hermit, mystic, and writer of spiritual treatises. His best-known work is The Fire of Love.

All three of these historical figures are worth getting to know; Hilton and Kempe play a big role in my forthcoming book on pilgrimage.

In Margery Kempe’s book, we get a glimpse of how these three medieval mystics—and others—were interconnected. For Kempe, meeting other mystics and reading their texts was a way to further spiritual growth. We know, for example, that around 1413, Kempe visited Julian of Norwich in Julian’s cell. The two talked for several days and spoke about the love of Christ. Kempe also told Julian about of her spiritual experiences and received advice from the anchoress.

I’m equally intrigued by Kempe’s report that she had Walter Hilton’s book and Richard Rolle’s treatise read aloud to her by her priest. She says:

[The priest] many a good book to her about high contemplation and other books too, such as the Bible with commentary by doctors, St. Bridget’s book, Hilton’s book, Bonaventure’s Stimulus Amoris, the Incendium Amoris, and other such books (130).

“Hilton’s book” is The Scale of Perfection, and the Incedium Amoris is Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love. The other books mentioned in this list are the Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden and the Pricking of Love, which was not by Bonaventure, as Margery Kempe says, but probably by James of Milan and perhaps translated by our friend Walter Hilton!

So . . . Margery Kempe met Julian of Norwich, and she knew Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle through their words. I enjoy discovering that some of my favorite people from history knew one another. It reminds me that these mystics existed in Christian communities; they weren’t left to figure out their faith completely on their own. So should it be with us. We can’t do it alone. We need each other’s testimonies, advice, wisdom, and companionship.

In the Middle Ages, Christian community extended to reading. As we see from the passage about Kempe’s priest, books were often read aloud rather than silently and privately. I picture Margery Kempe, perhaps sitting down to her evening meal. A fire crackles in the hearth. Kempe’s priest sits across the room and, while she eats, reads aloud from one of the authors she admired. Would Kempe have paused the reading to ask a question? Did she request certain passages that particularly spoke to her?

Give this a try sometime. Grab your favorite passage from Julian of Norwich or another mystic and read it out loud. You will be experiencing the text in a very historical way. And you will meet some great mystics!

WEEKLY PRAYER: HILDEGARD OF BINGEN

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, and mystic. Her Feast Day was on September 17. As she is sometimes called the “singing nun,” today we’ll pray one of her songs of praise.

***

Doctor of the desperate,
Healer of everyone broken past hope,
Medicine for all wounds,
Fire of love,
Joy of hearts,
fragrant Strength,
sparkling Fountain,
Protector,
Penetrator,
in You we contemplate
how God goes looking for those who are lost
and reconciles those who are at odds with Him.
Break our chains!

You bring people together.
You curl clouds, whirl winds,
send rain on rocks, sing in creeks,
and turn the lush earth green.
You teach those who listen,
breathing joy and wisdom into them.

We praise You for these gifts.
Light-giver,
Sound of joy,
Wonder of being alive,
Hope of every person,
and our strongest Good.

Source

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.

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: St. John of the Cross

The feast day of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) is December 14. St. John was a Carmelite friar, mystic, and Doctor of the Church. Today’s prayer is from the Sayings of Light and Love, available in St. John’s Collected Works.

 

John of the Cross

*****

My God, you will not take away what you have given me in your only Son, Jesus Christ.
In him, you have given me all that I desire.
You will, therefore, no longer delay —
and this is my joy  —
provide that I wait for you.
So, my heart, why do you delay?
Why do you procrastinate?
From this moment on you can love your God!
Mine are the heavens,
mine is the earth and mine the peoples;
mine are the just and mine are the sinners;
mine are the angels;
mine is the mother of God —
God himself is mine, for me —
for mine is Christ
and everything is for me.
What do you ask, what do you seek, my soul?
Everything is for you and everything is yours!
Do not think of yourself as little
not pay attention to the scraps that fall from the table of your Father.
Rise on the great day and take your glory in his!
Hide yourself in it and be joyful;
everything which your heart desires shall be yours.

 

(Source for this version of St. John’s prayer)

WEEKLY PRAYER: Mechthild of Magdeburg

Today’s beautiful 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 today, November 19.

Mechthild

*****

Ah, Lord, love me passionately, love me often, and love me long.

For the more passionately you love me, the purer I shall become.

The more often you love me, the more beautiful I shall become.

The longer you love me, the holier I shall become here on earth.

(Source)

 

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880 – 1906) was a French Carmelite nun and mystic. Her Feast Day is celebrated on November 8. This week we are praying an excerpt from her Prayer to the Trinity, composed in 1906.

*****

Oh my God, Trinity Whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave you, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your mystery. Give peace to my soul, make it Your heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring and wholly surrendered to Your creative action.

Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You and always remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.

(Source)