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.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! This week we have a beautiful roundup of posts we hope will help you on your quest for peace, silence, resilience, and faith.

Blessings,

Lisa and Prasanta

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Hollowed via Emily Polis Gibson (a poem about keeping vigil)

Outward Noise; Inward Silence via J. Brent Bill (the silence that feeds our spirits says, “Don’t just do something, sit there”)

We have to be willing to begin again via Kathleen Norris (when you experience failure in writing, in faith, and in life itself)

The Final (or Possibly Second-to-Last) Frontier via Amanda Cleary Eastep (on facing change and crossing the next threshold)

A Law of Deceleration: How I dumped the internet and learned to love technology agai via Paul McDonnold (on living a life of greater peace and stillness)

The Hobbit! via Malcom Guite (indulge in some comfort reading–listen to poet Malcom Guite reminisce and read aloud from The Hobbit)


FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome back to Friday Favorites! We hope this Friday finds you enjoying the birth of spring and clinging to the promise of resurrection in all things. Enjoy these posts and podcasts as part of your reading and reflection time.

With love,

Lisa and Prasanta

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Pietà via Matt Schultz (a poem)

Thank God for the Poets via Margaret Renkl (poetry reminds us that life is our birthright…read this opinion piece for the many links to wonderful poems)

Bray & Keane: A Primer on The Book of Common Prayer via The Laymen’s Lounge (a podcast episode providing an introduction, overview, and step-by-step guide)

Making Space for Each Other’s Grief via Michelle Reyes (grief can bind us together if we resist the urge to judge how others grieve)

A Specific Love via Courtney Ellis (finding love–and God’s love–in the small and specific)

How Does an Introvert Emerge from a Pandemic? via Afton Rorvik (an introvert’s guide to venturing out once again)


“I Trust That I Can Soar”– An Excerpt from The Seeker and the Monk by Sophfronia Scott

Last week, author Sophfronia Scott released her new book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton. Scott mines Merton’s private journals for guidance about life and faith. I love the way she converses with Merton, asking him questions, giving him advice (from time to time), and learning from the monk’s faith and foibles.

Today, I’m featuring an excerpt from this book for our community. In the passage below, Scott describes how she began to pray the Daily Office in the Episcopal Church and, through it, learned to soar.

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Merton recognized his prayer life was often grounded—unable to take off, let alone soar. Though he had time alone in his hermitage, he found the quality of his prayers could still be disrupted by his own lack of focus. Just as any of us can be distracted during prayer and meditation, Merton no doubt had a lot on his mind—schemes for his next publication, communications from his friends, how much wood he needed to chop for his fire, whether the dermatitis he sometimes suffered from on his hands would ever heal.

It’s like his wing-flapping was woefully ineffective and he knew it: “I realize now how weak and confused I have become—most of the time I have simply played around and daydreamed and am sadly unequipped to take a real uprooting. Hence the need of prayer and thought and discipline and the self purification.”

How does one strengthen a prayer life? Maybe we can take a cue from professional athletes: quality practice. Just as they have to practice well to play well, if we cultivate a strong prayer life, we will be strong in prayer. It starts with the discipline of routine. Merton maintained the practice of praying the schedule of the Daily Office as he did in the monastery. He knew walking in the woods and being in solitude helped foster his communion with God, but he would still be subject to daydreams and distractions. In his routine, the discipline of reading his prayers aloud helped him stay on point: “Solitude—when you get saturated with silence and landscape, then you need an interior work, psalms, scripture, meditation.” Note that he’s talking about sacred text, not philosophy or theology. Reciting the Psalms was of particular importance to Merton. Among the belongings he left behind was a tattered copy of the Psalms in Latin, the pages so well thumbed that they are crumbling and the cover has separated from its binding.

I have to admit, for a long time I never understood the point of praying with prewritten prayers or of reciting Scripture to oneself alone in a room. Then, in 2011, I joined the Episcopal Church and learned about the Book of Common Prayer. The church defines the book as “a treasure chest full of devotional and teaching resources for individuals and congregations, but it is also the primary symbol of our unity.” Every day, churches and individuals around the world pray the same words from this book for Sunday services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, in addition to a Daily Office of morning, afternoon, and evening prayers.

I decided to experiment with reciting Morning Prayer daily on my own, sitting on the cushions in front of a lit candle in the small meditation space I keep in a corner of my home office. As my practice went on from days to weeks and from weeks to months, I noticed something different about my thoughts, about the material my brain happened to access in any given moment. In the same way that a song might come to me that I can hum or sing, I now had words of prayer in my mind’s playlist. Instead of thinking, in a tough moment, “It’ll be OK,” I hear, “The Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.” Or I hear this, one of my favorites, when I’m getting ready for the day or to speak at an event: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” I can’t tell you how comforting it is to feel these words, like an invisible security blanket wrapped around my being.

The apostle Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). I believe walking around with words of prayer imprinted within me is a way of doing that. And I understand why it’s important: Because the work of God is ongoing—creation is ongoing. I’m praying to figure out my role in that creation. A wonderful story that explains this well comes from the book The Shack and its film version. The story is about a man whose life and faith are shattered after the murder of his youngest child. He has an encounter with God during which he expresses his anger—really giving God what for—and demands to know why God doesn’t stop bad things from happening. God, embodied by the actress Octavia Spencer, explains she doesn’t make these things happen, nor does she stop them. But she is constantly working to make something of what has happened. She also wants us to know she is always here—especially when the horrific events happen. We are never alone.

Praying without ceasing reminds me of who I am and to whom I belong. And because I remember this, I can trust the air that upholds me when it’s time to glide. I trust that I can soar.


From The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton by Sophfronia Scott copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.

By the Garden Gate: A Journey with Robert Campin

My book on pilgrimage releases next week! And because I have pilgrimage on the brain, I wanted to share an article I wrote a few years ago for Epikeia Magazine. The article shows how pilgrimage can become an intensely personal journey to the heart of our faith. I hope it opens the gate to a journey of your own.

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A few years ago, in New York for a conference, I made a pilgrimage to The Cloisters museum and gardens. I use the term “pilgrimage” advisedly. Like a medieval traveler going to a shrine, I went to see a sacred object—the painting known as the Merode Altarpiece by Flemish artist Robert Campin. From Midtown, the Cloisters was enough out of the way to make the journey a little difficult, the gratification a bit delayed. The museum’s medieval setting enhanced my sense of sacred purpose.

Once at the Cloisters, I discovered that Campin’s painting has its own gallery, called the Merode Room. I made straight for it. At the time of my visit, the altarpiece hung above a medieval bench opposite the gallery entrance. By some miracle, the room was empty. The painting beckoned me forward, and I walked toward it as to an altar…

Please head over to Epikeia to continue reading!

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! As we come to the end of another eventful week in an already eventful year, enjoy these posts that bring us poetry, the timelessness and constancy of God, and the pursuit of God’s voice.

Be well and be blessed,

Lisa and Prasanta

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In This Place (An American Lyric) via Amanda Gorman (discover more poetry by the National Youth Poet Laureate who read at the inauguration)

“The Cup” / “Maundy” via Matthew J. Andrews (two poems that look ahead to Holy Week)

The End Which is Really the Beginning via David Russell Mosley (the planets, stars, time, and God’s time)

A Regime of Small Kindnesses via Jen Pollock Michel (on how we imitate the constancy of God’s care)

The Wonder of Truth: Caring for Words as an Act of Discipleship via Charity Singleton Craig (how do we, as Christians, commit ourselves to the pursuit of truth?)

Listening For God In The “Unquiet City” via April Fiet (learning to listen to and discern God’s voice)


FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Happy Friday, everyone! For Friday Favorites, we have a collection of Advent posts for you to savor as we wait the last, long week before the Christmas feast. We wish you a joyous season and all of God’s blessings.

Love,

Lisa and Prasanta

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A Global Advent Calendar via#AdventWord (join an international community in prayer to explore the mystery and wonder of Advent)

Wait of Glory via Nichole Woo (an Advent prayer based on Luke 3:25-38)

God Struck a Match via Maggie Wallem Rowe (what happened 2000 years ago was revolutionary–incendiary, even)

Advent and the Burning Bush via Phoebe Farag Mikhail (a Coptic Orthodox Advent tradition and the mingling of cultures)

Advent and the Trees via Rob Ebbens (a poem and reflection on the weight of waiting)

Mary, Martha, and My Holiday Kitchen via Carlene Hill Byron (kitchens, baking, and doing what matters)

When God’s Work Feels Too Small & Slow via Emotionally Healthy Leader Podcast (Advent doesn’t feel very hopeful or expectant this pandemic year…)


Inner Pilgrimage in a Time of Pandemic

This week I wanted to share with you a guest post I wrote for Abbey of the Arts. In it, I reflect on inner pilgrimage during a time of pandemic, especially during Advent and Christmas. I hope you enjoy!

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Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all become a little monkish, whether we want to or not. I’ll admit that the recent months of isolation haven’t always felt very sacred to me. As I continue to restrict my movements out of extra caution, I’ve deeply missed the ordinary activities of daily life, such as gathering with friends and writing in coffee shops. And I mourn the loss of larger opportunities. For example, a friend invited me to join a pilgrimage . . . just before the pandemic began.

Wrestling with the “new normal” of pandemic life, I’ve found it worthwhile to read the Christian mystics, many of whom did not travel because they were enclosed monks, nuns, or anchorites. Perhaps because they accepted a life of voluntary restriction, they understood that journeys do not always involve footsteps. These mystics are good companions as we sit on our sofas and dream of roads not taken. . . .

Please head on over to the Abbey of the Arts to read the rest of this post!


FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! Click the links below to explore poetry, Advent resources, and gratitude as we continue our journey through the season.

May God bring light into your darkness.

Lisa and Prasanta

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Turning Darkness into Light: A Soft Shroud’s Folding via Emily Polis Gibson (Rowan Williams and the beauty of Advent)

Untitled via Trischa Goodwin (a poem)

The Advent Project via Biola University (a daily devotional series celebrating the Advent season through art and Scripture)

Advent Calendar via Visual Commentary on Scripture (discover an artwork each day during the Advent season)

12 Tiny Things to Grow Gratitude in Your Home via Ellie Roscher (small practices to grow gratitude)

10 Best Books to Buy a Writer for Christmas via K. M. Weiland (writing-craft books for the scribbler on your list–or for you)


Learning to Pray in the Dark: A Post via Prasanta Verma

I’m going to be honest with you.

I’m quite new to liturgical readings and practices. I didn’t grow up in a tradition (hello Baptist Deep South!) that followed a liturgical calendar. The word “Advent” was not part of my Christmas vocabulary, and if you had used the word “Compline”, I might have thought you were awkwardly trying to pay me a compliment. I am learning about liturgical practices only now, as an adult.

I am also new to the Book of Common Prayer. I could not pass a quiz about it, and I hardly know what to do with it. But I am delving in, as well as reading a book called Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren, to be released in January 2021.* I was drawn to the book’s description and hooked by this question: “How can we trust God in the dark?” I knew I wanted to read more, and as it turns out, the book is framed around a nighttime prayer of Compline.

I have read others’ testimonies of how the prayers of the saints gave them the language of prayer when they needed it in their own lives. Perhaps that is another reason I was drawn to this book. What I have been lacking in my own faith life just might be the voices and steady faith and prayers of past believers who clung tightly to these words and practices.

I used to reason that I would not like the repetition of such prayers, and thought I would find it dull and devoid of the spirit and life. Those were thoughts, however, I had when I was much younger, before I had any inkling I would be fumbling through my own paths of darkness and wilderness and not able to pray. For those who grew up in a liturgical tradition, the prayers may have helped you find the way when it could not be found. Perhaps it was a respite to draw upon the familiarity of the offices, and give you the words you needed.

For someone like me, who does not have the background and experience of these prayers, and though the comfort of familiarity does not exist, perhaps it is a means by which I may learn to pray again. These prayers offered by others give me a hope of authenticity that a Person is there, listening, behind my present veil of darkness. Nothing is familiar in the dark; a familiar landscape can look like an alien planet at midnight. We can’t see who is there and who isn’t, only shapes and shadows and mysteries, so I find myself siphoning strength from a congregation of believers who came before me as I stumble along.

“When we’re drowning we need a lifeline, and our lifeline in grief cannot be mere optimism…We need practices that don’t simply palliate our fears or pain, but that teach us to walk with God in the crucible of our own fragility,” Warren writes. These words resonate with me. Maybe this is what I have been missing. Not that having such practices or tradition would prevent any dark nights of the soul—no, not at all—but that now it may help bring me back, lighting my footpath in the dark. Like Advent candles lit week by week, maybe this is the path of light pointing toward hope during this walk in the wilderness.

*I paid for and pre-ordered the book, requested to join the launch team, and was provided with an advance digital 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.


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/.