Meditating on Scripture With Medieval Maps

Today, I’d like to introduce a simple visual exercise to help us meditate on a passage from Scripture. The image we’ll be using is a world map made around 1300––the Hereford Mappa Mundi. This and similar medieval maps formed the focus of my first book, and I still turn to them because they teach me so much about the Christian faith. Sometimes, they even provide a way into Scripture.

One of my favorite Scripture passages comes from the book of Hebrews. Encouraging God’s people to hold fast to their faith, the author of Hebrews writes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . . (Heb 12:1–2 NIV)

In this passage, the author of Hebrews gives a direct command to followers of Christ: fix your eyes on Jesus. When you’re hindered, fixate on him. When you become entangled in sin, fixate on him. When you grow weary of running the race, fixate on him. When you can’t fix your world, fix your eyes on on the one who can.

This seems like such a simple directive. Yet how difficult it can be! When I try to fixate on Jesus, I quickly become aware of just how hindered and distracted I am. So many things compete for my time, my attention, my love.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, made to hang in a chapel in Hereford Cathedral in England, is like a picture of my world—distracting, busy, and crammed full of things. In fact, the map contains some two thousand pictures and inscriptions. Many are completely fascinating. As in my own life, it’s easy to get lost in this world.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Image: SirFlemeingtonz, CC BY-SA 4.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One place, however, helps us get our bearings when we feel lost and distracted. At the center of this bustling world lies the city of Jerusalem, with a ghostly image of Christ on the cross rising from the city. Notice how the circular city of Jerusalem echoes the larger circle of the earth.

The city of Jerusalem, detail of The Hereford Mappa Mundi

Now for our exercise. First, find a reproduction of the Hereford Mappa Mundi (you can use the image above or do a Google search to find many images of the map). Spend some time with the map. Let your eye wander over the world, from the Garden of Eden at the top to the Pillars of Hercules at the bottom. This is fun to do, because there is lots to see and discover!

Second, after you’ve explored the map a bit, let your gaze come to rest at the center. I’ve learned that when I peruse the Hereford Mappa Mundi, my gaze is always drawn to the center. In fact, I can’t look at the map for long without my eye coming to rest on the cross of Christ. I’m willing to bet that this is also the case with you. The mapmakers designed it this way because they understood the power of the center.

Third, read the passage from Hebrews I quoted above: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:1–2 NIV).”

Finally, look again at the map. Find the center of the world––the city of Jerusalem––and fix your eyes there. Notice how, on the map, Jesus is at the center of all things. He is the author of all things, and he holds the entire world together.

After completing this exercise, take a moment to realize that you’ve just put the admonition of Hebrews into practice. You have fixed your eyes on Jesus! You have focused on him and gazed at his beauty. You have, even if only for a moment, cut out the distractions of the world.

I encourage you to try this exercise when you’re feeling busy, distracted, or overwhelmed, or perhaps when you’re having trouble finding a way into Scripture. It’s a simple yet profound exercise that leads us to practice the words of Hebrews. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do. Visual contemplation using this map helps me get to the kernel of what it means to fix my eyes on Jesus. Through it, I gaze on his beauty and remember that he’s always at the center of my world.

To find out more about medieval world maps and how they can help our walk of faith today, check out my book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Week 5: The Way Up is the Way Down

Rohr Lent coverIn our final week of Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr, we’re contemplating the beautiful early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2. This is a good passage to ponder at the beginning of Holy Week because it lets us see the mind of Christ—the mind that chose to embrace death for our sake.

In many ways, the mind of Christ is not like our mind at all. Rohr writes:

God . . . has chosen to descend—in almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, and prove itself. He invites us to reverse the process too.

***

The hymn says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. What freedom! And it happens, better than any could have expected. “And because of this, God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names.” We call it resurrection or ascension. . . Who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Paul says, “the Secret Mystery.”

***

God draws us into Christ’s ascent, Christ’s mind, and this gives us freedom:

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. This leaves humanity in solidarity with the life cycle, but also with one another, with no need to create success stories for itself . . . Humanity in Jesus is free to be human and soulful instead of any false climbing into “Spirit.” This was supposed to change everything, and it still will.

***

Scripture Reading:

Your mind must be the same as Christ’s. Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God as something to be clung to. Instead he emptied himself, and became like a slave, and was born in the likeness of humanity . . . obediently accepting even death. — Philippians 2:5-7

***

May the way up be the way down for you this Holy Week.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverWeek Four: What Is Life and What Is Death?

This month at The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr. Rohr is leading us through some Scripture meditations for the season of Lent.

The Scripture reading for yesterday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is John 11:1-45, and its theme is key: life and death. Rohr writes:

Humans are the  only creatures who have knowledge of their own death . . . This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years.

***

On this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, we dare to look at the “last enemy,” death. And the only way we can dare to part the curtain and view death is to be told about our resurrection from it!

***

We get a foretaste of resurrection in the raising of Lazarus, from the Gospel of John. Many of us are familiar with this story: in calling forth Lazarus from the grave, Jesus conquers death! I love what Rohr emphasizes about this passage:

[I]n a final brilliant finale to the story, he [Jesus] invites the onlookers to join him in making resurrection happen: “Move the stone away!. . . Unbind him, and let him go free!” It seems that we have a part to play in creating a culture of life and resurrection. We must unbind one another from our fears and doubts about the last enemy, death.

***

The stone to be moved away is always our fear of death, the finality of death, any blindness that keeps us from seeing that death is merely a part of the Larger Mystery called Life. It does not have the final word.

***

Scripture Reading:

‘This sleep is not to end in death, but is instead to reveal the glory of God’. . . . With a sigh that came straight from the heart . . . He cried out in a loud voice, ‘Move the stone away! . . . Lazarus, come forth!’ . . . ‘Now, you unbind him and let him go free.’ — Jon 11:4, 34, 38, 43-44

***

Even as we prepare to accompany Jesus to his own death during this Lenten season, may we always remember that he is the resurrection and the life.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverWeek 3: Could the “New” Thing Be Inclusion?

This month at The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr. Rohr is leading us through some Scripture meditations for the season of Lent.

In one of his meditations, Rohr discusses the Scripture readings for Monday of the fourth week of Lent (Isaiah 65:17-21 and John 4:43-54). Rohr teases out two themes from these readings: the big patterns of God’s story and the wonderful message of inclusion.

About the prophet Isaiah, Rohr writes:

Prophets are seers of the big patterns; they see what is always and forever true . . . One of the big patterns is that God’s message always gets wider and more universal, despite our best attempts to limit it.

When Isaiah speaks of the “new heavens and a new earth,”

he is not so much talking about concrete particulars as he is talking about universals, the big things that are always true, and might also be true here or there.

***

And what does this tell us about today’s passage in the Gospel of John, when Jesus heals the son of an outsider (a royal official and a non-Jew)? Rohr writes that it illustrates one of the big patterns of God’s story:

The circle of the biblical revelation keeps widening to create that “new earth” of Isaiah, and within a century a people who will call themselves catholic or universal. Here comes everybody! One wonders how we ever made religion into any kind of exclusionary system whatsoever when the vast majority of Jesus’ healings seem to happen to the excluded ones and maybe even the unworthy ones.

***

Scripture Readings:

The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create. — Isaiah 65:17-18

***

The man put his trust in the word that Jesus had spoken to him, and set of for home . . . He and his whole household thereupon became believers. — John 4:50, 53

***

May we rejoice in the ever-widening vision of God this season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverThis month on The Contemplative Writer, we’re reading Wondrous Encounters. Richard Rohr is leading us through a series of Scripture meditations for Lent.

Rohr’s meditation for the fourth Sunday of Lent (which is this Sunday) is about blindness, light, and seeing. First, Rohr diagnoses the human condition:

Because humans cannot see their own truth very well, they do not read reality very well either. We all have our tragic flaws and blind spots. Humans always need more “light” or enlightenment about themselves and about the endless mystery of God.

***

Good news! The Gospel of John speaks into this condition. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. Rohr makes the following observations (along with others) about this Gospel reading:

The “man born blind” is the archetype for all of us at the beginning of life’s journey.

***

Spirituality is about seeing. Sin is about blindness, or as Saint Gregory of Nyssa will say, “Sin is always a refusal to grow.”

***

The one who knows little, learns much (what we call “beginner’s mind”) and those who have all their answers already, learn nothing.

***

Scripture Readings

“I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner or not, I only know this much, I was once blind, and now I see.” — John 9:25

***

“I came into the world to divide it, to make the sightless see and to reveal to those who think they see it all that they are blind.” — John 9:39

May we all learn to see a little better this Lenten season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: WONDROUS ENCOUNTERS BY RICHARD ROHR

Rohr Lent coverOur Book of the Month is Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent by Richard Rohr. In this meditative book, Rohr takes us through the Lenten season with a meditation and Scripture for each day.

One of the meditations for the second (full) week in Lent is entitled “Good Mirroring and Bad Mirroring.” In this meditation, Rohr talks about humans knowing themselves through the gaze of others.

A good parent, like God, naturally blesses the child through their receptive and affirming face. It is the eternal blessing to the children of Israel, “May Yahweh let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May Yahweh uncover her face to you and bring you peace!” (Numbers 6:25).

In the reading for the day from the Gospel of Luke, Rohr writes, we see this divine mirroring at work:

Receive God’s compassion, and you will be able to be compassionate . . . Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Give and it shall be given to you. Jesus describes a perfect reciprocity between what we have received or not received and how we will give or not give.

***

Once you know that you are inside Trinitarian Love, you are connected to an infinite Source, and one is never sure who is doing the giving and who is doing the receiving. It is all Flow and Outpouring. It is you and yet it is God. Thus Jesus ends this Gospel by a wonderful image of overflowing abundance.

***

Gospel Reading:

Full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap, because the measure you measure out with will be measured back to you. – Luke 6:38

***

May God’s overflowing abundance be yours this season.

Read Wondrous Encounters here.

 

Featured Article: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

We have many, many ways to avoid being present in the moment. We can interrupt ourselves as often as we like. And now it appears that a Harvard study of happiness and contentment has linked these constant interruptions as detrimental to our happiness.

A wandering mind that isn’t focused or fully present for an activity or task is often an unhappy mind.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians who practice contemplation, as mindfulness and awareness of our thoughts saves us from their tyranny and enables us to trust our worries and concerns with God.

However, it’s still helpful to see how the wisdom of our faith has strong backing from science:

*****

“A recent Harvard study reveals that stray thoughts and wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness. The study discovered that those with constantly wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on the tasks at hand.”

*****

“Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one-pointed attention. This focus–this mindfulness of being in the moment–is when true happiness spontaneously arises.”

*****

“Flow allows you to truly and deeply live your life as it unfolds in the here and now. Perhaps this is why the latest research continues to confirm that mindfulness increases happiness–to be mindful is to truly experience life and make the most out of every moment.”

*****

Read more.

 

Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

finding-grace-at-centerWeek Two: Transformed in Silence

In Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, M. Basil Pennington writes about the transformation that comes in the practice of centering prayer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of centering prayer for those new to it is the manner in which God transforms our lives in silence. There is no way to measure or evaluate your progress in the moment.

The transformation of our lives happens gradually by faith, much like the way a branch that abides in its vine can grow fruit.

 

*****

“Perhaps in this prayer we will for the first time really act in pure faith. So often our faith is leaning on the concepts and images of faith. Here we go beyond them to the Object Himself of faith, leaving all the concepts and images behind.”

*****

“If we have lots of thoughts-good, lots of tension is being released; if we have few thoughts-good, there was no need for them… All these are purely accidental; they do not touch the essence of prayer, which goes on in all its purity, whether these be present or not.”

*****

“If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern-and often others discern it even more quickly-the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit.”

*****

“We begin… to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them.”

*****

Read more…

 

For Reflection

featured-book-november-14

 

Scripture Meditation: Servants Don’t Need to Be in Charge

“Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.’ And then the angel left her.” Luke 1:38, NLT

How do we live by faith today? Mary faced one of the greatest stretches of faith that anyone could face, and she remained able to fully trust in God’s provision and plan because she knew her place.

As God’s servant, Mary only had to trust what God showed her.

It wasn’t up to Mary to figure out the plan or to provide the means. She didn’t imagine that she was in charge in any way, and with herself entrusted to God’s care, she didn’t have to be worry about what happens next.

Living by faith as the servants of God makes it possible to approach the challenges of each day with a peaceful confidence in God’s provision.