Righteousness Seeking Peace for Friendship, Possible Relationship

By Jan Richardson

Meeting © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Psalter, Advent 2: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13

In her imaginative work The Book of Qualities, writer and artist J. Ruth Gendler assembles an ensemble of human emotions and attributes. One by one she evokes their personalities with poetic detail, describing each with the skill of someone who is intimately acquainted with them. Among her cast of characters is Wisdom, who “likes to think about the edges where things spill into each other and become their opposites”; Despair, who “papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain”; Change, who “likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I am at my drawing table”; and Devotion, who “braids her grandmother’s hair with an antique comb.”

Gendler’s impulse to personify these qualities places her in good and ancient company. For generations, humans have sought to understand and describe the emotions and characteristics that animate us by, in turn, animating them, personifying them as human figures. We have sought to do this with the Divine as well, exploring the aspects of God by singling them out and giving them form, life, and agency. This week’s lection from the Psalms provides a great example of this—more than one, in fact, for in Psalm 85 the psalmist offers us a quartet of God’s qualities that, in the psalmist’s hands, take dynamic form:

Steadfast love* and faithfulness** will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.

*sometimes translated as mercy
**sometimes translated as truth

The medieval imagination took this impulse to personify the attributes of God and brought it to full flower. In that period, characteristics of the nature of God became a cast of characters that ranged across visual art, literature, poetry, and drama. A number of these characteristics became known as the Virtues, often appearing in contrast to a series of personified Vices. Among the Virtues, four in particular were singled out as the “Daughters of God”: Mercy, Peace, Righteousness (sometimes known as Justice or the wonderfully poetic Rightwiseness), and Truth, our friends from Psalm 85.

These four Daughters of God became the subjects of a medieval allegory that took various visual and literary forms. They starred, for instance, in a 15th-century English morality play called The Castle of Perseverance, in which Justice, supported by Truth, debates with Mercy, aided by Peace. The subject of the debate is the soul of a man who has allowed himself to be taken in by a character called World, whose servants Lust and Folly dress the man in expensive clothes and lead him on misadventures. Ultimately, God sides with Mercy and Truth, and the man is saved. As Lynette R. Muir notes in The Biblical Drama in Medieval Europe, presenting the Daughters of God in the mode of a debate is a typical motif, derived in part from the work of theologians who sought to reconcile the seeming tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy.

We see the personified attributes of God moving also through mystical literature as well as the lives of the saints. St. Francis’ “Lady Poverty,” whom he called his bride, is perhaps the most well known example of this. Wisdom is among the most frequently personified qualities, often holding greater status than the other Virtues; her ubiquitous appearance and high status perhaps owe to the richness with which the Bible personifies the wisdom of God, as in Proverbs 9, where she appears as a woman calling her hearers to join in her feast. In the medieval period, Wisdom appears, for instance, in the visions of the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who in her work Scivias (Know the Ways) describes Wisdom as a beautiful woman standing on top of a high dome, crying out to the people of the world to come and receive the help of God.

Barbara Newman offers an intriguing approach to these personified qualities of God in her work God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Newman observes that these characters, which medieval artists, writers, and visionaries depicted so often as women, made the qualities of God accessible to the imaginations of medieval folk and invited them to “participate in divinity” by embracing and embodying the qualities of God in their own lives. By appealing to the religious imagination, the dynamic and lively Virtues helped cultivate one’s devotion to the God who defies definitive description.

So where do we see the qualities of God at play in our own day, in our own imaginations? How do the infinite characteristics of God live and move and take form in our contemporary world? In art, in writing, in liturgy, in the daily living out of our desire to follow Christ, how do we see God taking shape around us and within us? Where do we witness the meeting places of mercy and truth, of peace and justice? In this season of celebrating the incarnation, how do we open our own selves to be a meeting place for the qualities of God?

Here’s one way I imagine it happening.

Saturday Morning, 10 AM

Justice and Peace meet at the café,
sit together,
hands folded around steaming cups,
heads bent over the paper.

They are not taking in
the news of the world
with sorrowing eyes
and the clucking of tongues.

They are instead planning their itinerary,
plotting their map,
looking for the places where
they might slip in.

Their fingers touch, release,
touch again as they read,
moving with the half-aware habits
that come only with long living alongside.

They have met, parted,
met again on countless mornings
like this one, torn and taken
by turns.

They put the paper aside
they brush away the crumbs
they talk quietly
they know there is work to do.

But they order one more cup:
there is savoring they must do before
the saving begins.
They lean in,

barely touching
across the table for
a kiss that makes a way,
a world.

—Jan Richardson

In these Advent days, may we witness and work for the meeting of mercy and truth, justice and peace around us and within us. Blessings.

[To use the image “Meeting,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

One Response to “Righteousness Seeking Peace for Friendship, Possible Relationship”

  1. phyllis Says:

    Thank you for these personifications. It makes the qualities of mercy and truth; justice and peace come alive and surround me. Your research and insights always open new avenues of thought and understanding for me, Jan.

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