Archive for the ‘lectio divina’ Category

Advent 3: The Art of Blessing

December 11, 2010


The Hour of Lauds: Visitation © Jan L. Richardson

Canticle for Advent 3 (alternate reading): Luke 1.46-55

Two nights ago we gathered for the Wellspring service, the contemplative worship gathering that Gary and I offer each month. On that Advent night, in that quiet and prayer-soaked chapel, our primary text was Luke 1.39-56, in which we find the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and of the song that Mary pours forth when Elizabeth welcomes and blesses her. This song, which we have come to know as the Magnificat, is our canticle for this third Sunday of Advent.

At the service, during our time for conversation (because, at Wellspring, the act of proclamation is not solely the work of one person), we spoke of how Mary’s song—this song of how God turns the world right side up—comes from Elizabeth’s blessing of her: how Elizabeth’s words seem to release the song, set it loose from Mary’s lips and from her very soul. We spoke of the intimacy of this story, how it is in their meeting, kinswoman to kinswoman, that the blessing and the singing take place. We spoke of how blessing takes place in community, how it depends upon community, how it takes being in community to offer and receive the blessings that will enable us to proclaim the song that God has placed within us. We spoke of how sometimes the best way to receive a deeply needed blessing is to offer a blessing ourselves. And we spoke, too, of how there are times when God calls us—challenges us—to simply receive a blessing that is meant for us, without feeling compelled to respond in turn.

This intimate scene, this exchange between these two woman who find themselves in a stunning intersection of heaven and earth, is the stage by which Luke describes how God transforms the world. And it rests, in large measure, upon the act of blessing: one woman laying her hands upon another and speaking words that penetrate whatever anxiety and uncertainty may be present in Mary as she sets into a wild and uncharted terrain.

Later, after the service, the power of Elizabeth’s blessing, and what it unleashed, lingered with me. I picked up John O’Donohue’s book To Bless the Space Between Us and turned once again to his brilliant essay at the end of the book, “To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing.” Here he writes,

We never see the script of our lives; nor do we know what is coming toward us, or why our life takes on this particular shape or sequence. A blessing is different from a greeting, a hug, a salute, or an affirmation; it opens a different door in human encounter. One enters into the forecourt of the soul, the source of intimacy and the compass of destiny.

Our longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless. Regardless of how we configure the eternal, the human heart continues to dream of a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.

This wholeness is intended not just for the one who receives it;  it is linked with the wholeness of the whole world.

“Blessed is she who believed,” Elizabeth the Blesser cried out.

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” Mary the Blessed sings in response, “and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things . . .”

O’Donohue writes this, too:

Who has the power to bless? This question is not to be answered simply by the description of one’s institutional status or membership. But perhaps there are deeper questions hidden here: What do you bless with? Or where do you bless from? When you bless another, you first gather yourself; you reach below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you—namely, the soul. Blessing is from soul to soul.

In this Advent season, how will you use the power you have to bless? How might God be calling you to offer a blessing—or to receive one?

From my soul to yours and back again: blessings.

[For previous reflections on the Magnificat, visit Door 11: In Which We Get to Sing and Door 14: Remembering Forward.]

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

Advent 3: When the Prison Bars Bled Light

December 9, 2010


When the Prison Bars Bled Light © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2, Year A: Matthew 11.2-11

A week in which I haven’t had a lot of hurry left in me. Much to do that seems important, much of it done, but in the midst of it, a craving for Advent quiet and rest.

Finally, last night, a few hours in the studio. Laying gold paint upon the papers that will find their way into the collages to come. One layer of gold, then another. Placing them to dry on newspapers on the floor. Gary pokes his head into the room, sees the papers, comments on the pathway of gold.

Later, after the drying, I pick up a few of the shimmering sheets. Cover the gold entirely with gray. Let the gray dry just enough, then take sandpaper to it.

All through the painting, the drying, the sanding, watching the gold emerge from the gray, I am thinking about John the Baptist, the Preparer of the Way who now sits in prison. His path brought to an abrupt and unjust end.

This is the John of whom we read in Luke 1, where his mother, Elizabeth, says to her kinswoman Mary, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” A leap of recognition, Luke means us to see: even in his mother’s womb, John the Way-Maker, John the Messenger, is able to discern and recognize the One for whom the world has longed.

It is a far different enclosure that John finds himself in now. He will not emerge from this one into life, as when he left the safe confines of his mother’s womb. This enclosure will lead instead to his death at a gruesome dinner party.

And yet, even here, John’s powers of discernment are at full force. Enclosed within his cell, John has not closed in on himself. This one whom Jesus calls a messenger is still receiving messages. Is still keeping his ears and eyes open. Is still able to turn his attention beyond himself. “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing . . .” Matthew writes. That phrase. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing. How the Word permeates even the prison walls. Shines forth even through the prison bars. Illuminates the darkest cell.

I think about these things as, beneath the sandpaper, gold begins to peek through the gray. Think of how John in his confinement refused to stop looking, stop preparing, stop seeing. Even in his enforced and final enclosure, John persists in turning an eye toward the Messiah. Seeks him. Inquires after him. When John’s disciples return to him with news of the blind who see, the lame who walk, the lepers made whole, he knows. Recognizes once again. Leaps, perhaps, for joy.

And what of us? In these Advent days, how do we turn our attention beyond our own walls, beyond our own limits? How do we open ourselves to hear and see past what presses in upon us, that we may receive the message, the Word that comes to us?

In this season, may you hear and see the One who comes, and proclaim the news of what he is doing. Blessings.

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

Righteousness Seeking Peace for Friendship, Possible Relationship

December 7, 2008

advent-door-blog2008-12-6
Meeting © Jan L. Richardson

Lection 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.

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.

Visit ◊The Advent Door◊ home.

Advent 1: I Spy with My Little Eye

November 30, 2008


Waiting for the Revealing © Jan L. Richardson

Lection from the Epistles, Advent 1: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9

Thanksgiving week has found me hanging out with my family, for whom this holiday is a big reunion time. For the past few days I’ve had a makeshift studio set up on my parents’ kitchen table, where I’ve been creating collages in between the fortifying feasts that we’ve enjoyed. Being in a slightly less solitary space than my studio at home, the kitchen table studio has afforded a few opportunities to receive feedback on the work that’s been taking shape there. As I was working on the collage for this reflection, one family member looked at it and said, “A prayer rug!” Another, upon seeing the completed collage, mentioned Venetian blinds. Now I cannot look at the collage without thinking of either of these things.

Hearing what others notice in my artwork has provided a good reminder of what a multivalent and revelatory process art is. As an artist, I live with an awareness that each image I create reveals something about who I am, including some things that I may not necessarily intend for my work to reveal. The ways that I see, the experiences and stories that I carry, my skills as well as my shortcomings, my creative vision as well as my blind spots: all these aspects and more enter into the artistic process, entwining themselves with my work and giving form to it. I’ve found that it’s best not to fixate too much on what might become revealed in the process, otherwise I would never be able to send any of my work into the world.

Beyond my own artwork, I find myself fascinated by exploring the revelatory creative process with others. When I’m engaging folks in an artful mode in a retreat or workshop, one of the things I love to do is take them through a form of lectio divina with a piece of art they have created, most often a paper collage. Artwork, after all, can be a sacred text, no less so for being nonverbal. As with written texts, doing lectio with a piece of art—our own or someone else’s—invites us to notice the connections between the image and our own life, and to meet God within those connections. Call it collagio divina, perhaps. After I’ve invited participants to reflect on their work and what it reveals about their own story, I sometimes invite them to reflect on one another’s collages and to share what they see—what they read—in those visual texts. Seeing the collage from within their own story, the viewer has her own reading, his own perspective. Hearing these responses from others often deepens the creator’s experience of their own work. It also reveals something about the one who sees.

In much the same way that a piece of art reveals something about the artist, what others see in that work reveals something about their own selves. What we see, and how we see, tells about who we are, what has formed us, what experiences we carry, what texts—sacred and otherwise—we harbor within us. The revelatory quality of art—what it tells about the artist, what it tells about our own selves—can be both wondrous and threatening in the ways that it challenges and confronts us with our habits of seeing.

It’s Paul who has gotten me thinking about this business of revelation here at the outset of Advent. In the passage from 1 Corinthians that is today’s reading from the Epistles, revelation is Paul’s concern. In greeting the church at Corinth, Paul writes of the power of the spiritual gifts that sustain them as they wait for the revealing of Jesus Christ, who, Paul writes, “will strengthen you to the end.” The word that Paul uses for revealing is apokalypsis, from which we derive the word apocalypse. Though we most often use the word to refer to a destructive ending of momentous magnitude—namely, the end of the world—at its root, apocalypse simply means revelation: how God unhides Godself.

As with each of the readings this week, Paul’s words speak to the community’s longing for God to take form and be present in their lives. In concert with Jesus, who tells of how the Son of Man will come with power and glory; and with the writer of Isaiah, who challenged God to tear open the heavens and come down; and with the psalmist, who prayed for God’s face to shine upon him and his community, Paul reveals his desire to fully know and be known by God.

These texts that have ushered us into this first week of Advent are bracing, to say the least; they pose potent questions about how we will enter this season of expectation. These passages remind us that the season of Advent calls us not only to remember and celebrate Christ’s birth—his first coming—two millennia ago, but also to give attention to how we anticipate his second coming, an aspect that mainstream Christianity has had a far more difficult time talking about. How we respond to these texts and to this Advent invitation reveals something about who we are and how we see. Is the Christ for whom we wait, the Christ whom we anticipate, a Christ whom we see as vengeful, a deity who will dole out punishment when he comes? Or are we waiting and looking for a Christ who sees us as beloved, who desires to know us completely?

Each of these readings challenges us to consider what it is that we think of this God who wants to be intimately involved in our lives, this God who is working not only toward Apocalypse-with-a-capital-A, however that will look, but who also works within the daily apocalypses that accompany us. The God who often takes eons to bring about a particular result also works moment by moment, constantly revealing Godself, taking flesh and form in the daily unfolding of our lives. This God beckons us to perceive the ways the divine is at work and to respond even now.

In his greeting to the church at Corinth, Paul reminds them, and us, that there is work to do in the waiting. He writes of divisions that need healing, brokenness that needs mending, relationships that need tending, spiritual gifts that need fostering, wisdom that needs deepening. He calls this community to see what is important, to resist the behaviors that distract them from the real work at hand, and to give themselves to loving one another and the One whom we will one day see face to face, and know fully, even as we are now fully known (1 Cor. 13.12).

So what are we looking for in this season, and what does this reveal about us? How do we open our eyes to the possibility of seeing the Christ who is not merely waiting for an Apocalypse before he shows up but who is in our midst even now? How do we perceive this quotidian Christ who is already present in the everyday-ness of our lives, who comes in all manner of guises, who calls us to work even as we wait?

This is the Christ I pray to see, even as I sometimes resist the kind of knowing to which he calls me. Annie Dillard’s words that I shared at the beginning of this week still linger with me: What is it that I’m doing in seeking to see and know this Christ? Do I want to know and be known with such fullness, with such completeness? Do I really want to reveal that much of myself?

I look again at today’s collage and think, yes. Yes to that kind of knowing, that kind of seeing, that kind of seeking. With my face pressed to the prayer rug, with my searching eyes peeking out through the blinds, I pray to see the Christ who comes, and who is already here, revealing his presence in this and every season.

In all his guises, may we see him. Blessings.

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

Advent 1: Through the Door

November 23, 2008

advent-door-blog2008-11-23
In Those Days © Jan L. Richardson

Gospel lection, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37

I admit it. When I realized that Mark 13.24-37 was the gospel lection for the first Sunday of Advent this year, I cringed. Sometimes called the “little apocalypse,” this passage contains Jesus’ description of the end of the age. “But in those days,” he says, “after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Jesus goes on to talk about how, on a day and hour that no one knows, the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and glory, and he exhorts his followers to “keep awake.”

In describing the end of the age, Jesus draws on imagery that we find embedded in the Hebrew scriptures, such as the book of Joel:

The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2.10)

It’s the same kind of imagery that fuels John’s vivid, visionary account in the book of Revelation, as in this passage:

…I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. (Rev. 6.12)

In this text that launches us into Advent, Jesus employs a complex and sobering visual lexicon that’s rich with ancient layers of symbolism and meaning. In doing so, he offers his hearers a vision that disrupts their everyday world. Jesus calls upon them to attend to the signs around them, to look beneath the surface of their patterns of relationships and rhythms of life. He urges them to discern for themselves the activity of God.

We should not wonder that immediately following Jesus’ discourse, Mark tells of the plot to kill him.

I have been wishing for an easier start to the season, for words that would welcome us into Advent with a more graceful sense of hospitality. This lection doesn’t so much beckon us across the threshold as it throws open a door, tosses a cup of cold water in our face to wake us, and shoves us through.

But perhaps, instead of a cozy welcome into the season, this is precisely what we need as we enter Advent: a heaping serving of mystery, a vivid reminder that we can’t know everything, can’t see everything, can’t predict everything that will happen in the days to come. With its depiction of sun and moon going dark and stars falling from heaven, this passage challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, to question our typical ways of seeing, so that we may receive the God who comes to us in the dark.

Mystery is rarely comfortable. We want to understand what it is we’re doing here, to see more clearly how God is at work, to know how the future will unfold. This gospel passage confounds us, reminds us that God works in the darkness as well as in the daylight. In the book of Isaiah, God says through the prophet,

I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (Is. 45.3)

Here at The Advent Door, I’ll be exploring some of those secret places—the texts, images, symbols, and stories that this sacred season offers to us, approaching them as doorways into the mystery of the God who comes to dwell among us. In the spirit of having some space to breathe during this season, I’ll be posting several times a week rather than every day, as I did last year. I would love to have your company on the path.

If you’re new to The Advent Door, welcome! It might help to know that the reflections here emerge from a practice called lectio divina, a Greek term that means sacred reading. An ancient way of praying with sacred texts, lectio invites us to find the connections—the thin places, to borrow a term from the Celtic tradition—between the landscape of the scriptures and the landscape of our own lives, and to meet God there.

The images that accompany these reflections are painted paper collages. They’re not meant merely to illustrate the reflections; rather, they are part of my lectio process. They are a way that I pray. Creating artwork gives me a doorway into these Advent texts. These images, too, become texts of their own, creating a visual vocabulary that helps me navigate and articulate what I’m finding in the landscape of this season. Though the collages tend toward the abstract, they draw much inspiration from medieval artwork, particularly as found in illuminated manuscripts such as the jewel-like Books of Hours, Psalters, and the like. The luminous images contained in those medieval manuscripts did more than elaborate the texts they accompanied; rather, the images had their own story to tell. They offered doorways into the mysteries that words alone could not contain.

And so may it be here. May the words and images that emerge in this season offer entryways into the story of the One who came in the midst of darkness to be with us. As we cross the threshold into Advent, what do you need to carry with you? What do you need to let go of, so that you can receive what lies ahead?

Welcome to Advent! Blessings on your way.

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

Door 20: Getting the Message

December 20, 2007


Getting the Message © Jan L. Richardson

One of the things that intrigues me about medieval artwork is the way that it has its own stories to tell. In depicting biblical scenes (which provided the material for so much artwork in the Middle Ages), medieval artists sometimes incorporated visual stories that we don’t find in the Bible. Though without an actual scriptural basis, the symbolic text the medieval artists gave us can engage the imagination, raise questions, and illuminate a given story beyond what the written text provides. It works something like an artful midrash that invites us to imagine the worlds between the words.

Here’s my favorite example. In many medieval (and Renaissance) depictions of the Annunciation—that moment when the archangel Gabriel comes to Mary to ask her to become the mother of Jesus—Mary is depicted reading. (The chronic reader in me loves this.) Usually she’s depicted with a book that indicates that she’s at her prayers when Gabriel shows up. Sometimes, in a wonderful bit of anachronism, it’s a Book of Hours that Mary is reading. (The Book of Hours was a popular prayerbook in the Middle Ages. Often lavishly illustrated, Books of Hours always included a section of prayers in honor of Mary, with artwork that illustrates scenes from her life…including the Annunciation, in which the artists depict her reading…a Book of Hours…it’s kind of like one of those time-twisting Star Trek episodes I wrote about earlier.) Other times, her book is open to Isaiah, specifically to a passage from the Hebrew text that the lectionary gives us for this week, in which the prophet says this to King Ahaz:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

The Christian tradition came to interpret this passage as a foretelling of the birth of Jesus, God-with-us, to Mary. In depicting her reading this very text, the medieval artists did some intriguing time-twisting of their own, opening an imaginative portal between the sign given to King Ahaz and the miracle given to Mary.

(Okay, here’s a weird thing: though I should probably turn off my e-mail when I’m trying to write, and I often do, I just received an e-mail from a friend containing several ultrasound pictures, of a gestational sort; there’s a bit of online technology I’ve never experienced before. Intriguing that it should come through while I’m pondering Mary and the Annunciation.)

Though the image of Mary reading at the moment of the Annunciation doesn’t appear in the biblical text, I love this artful notion of the reading, praying Mary. It reveals something of the medieval view of Mary, and it offers evidence of a kind of visual lectio divina the artists did as they pondered Mary’s story. In depicting her with a prayerbook or with the sacred text of her tradition, the artists conveyed the compelling idea that Mary was already immersed in the word before the Word became immersed in her.

This image of Mary challenges me to ponder what texts—written or otherwise—I’m steeping myself in. What words, what images do I give my attention to: on the page, in conversation, in the course of my daily life? In a culture that inundates and sometimes assaults our eyes and ears with messages in all manner of forms, how do we read in a way that keeps us attuned to the sacred?

Am I, like the medieval Mary, immersing myself in the word in a way that helps me notice when a divine messenger shows up with an outrageous invitation? That’s what the word angel means in the original Greek: one who comes with a message. How do I cultivate an openness to that message, to the Word that longs to find a home in me, in us?

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

Door 17: In Which We Knock from the Inside

December 17, 2007

advent17.jpg

One of my absolute favorite things about my vocation is getting to witness what emerges when folks are given time, tools, and space to reflect on their lives. In retreat and workshop settings, I always make some collage supplies available as one possible avenue for reflection. Collage is great because anyone who made it through kindergarten has the necessary skills to do it. Cut. Tear. Paste. Voilà! Even folks who tend to freak out in the face of an invitation to create are sometimes able to engage the collage process, which I work to make as user-friendly as possible (and I make it clear that doing art is always an invitation, not a requirement).

At a workshop I did a bunch of years ago, one of the participants picked up a few pieces of paper and spent the next bit pacing and chanting, “I’m a linear thinker, I’m a linear thinker…” Eventually he settled in and created an amazing collage. The amazing part lay largely in his willingness to enter into the process, in which he found himself able to think in a different way about something that was going on in his life.

My favorite collage exercise involves inviting folks to think about their lives as a landscape. I ask them to reflect on their commitments, their relationships, whatever makes up the terrain of their days, and then to create a collage that evokes something of that landscape. Often I give them just a small, 4 x 6 piece of paper for the background, to make it as manageable as possible for them.

It’s amazing what a landscape people can fit into 24 square inches.

I like doing a quick process of lectio divina with folks who have created a collage. A little collagio divina, if you will. (Lectio collagina is probably more accurate but is more cumbersome on the tongue.) In much the same way that we can read a written text, we can also read the visual text of a piece of art, whether it’s something we’ve created or a piece that we’ve encountered. I invite them to silently ponder their collage as I offer a few questions. One of the questions I ask is this:

When you turn your collage—your landscape—in a different direction, what do you see?

Things turn up in collages that we’re not always aware of at the time, and getting a different perspective helps us notice these things.

I’ve been thinking about landscape-of-life and perspective lately as I’ve been pondering the Advent texts. The Advent lections are full of God’s reversals: swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, wolf living with the lamb, cow and bear grazing together, the desert blossoming, the blind seeing, the lame leaping, streams flowing through the desert, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things. God reverses not simply for the sake of reversing—though one might hope that it would help keep us on our toes and increase our ability to recognize and receive God’s surprises—but to bring about restoration, a theme that we hear echoed in this week’s lection from Psalm 80:

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
(Ps. 80.3)

It seems especially fitting to think about reversals on this day. It’s the anniversary of the death of the Persian poet Rumi, a mystical Sufi poet who lived in Afghanistan between 1207-1273. In the Sufi tradition, the night of December 17 is called the Wedding Night, celebrating Rumi’s union with the Divine Beloved.

As a poet, Rumi delights in turning things on their heads, shaking up our assumptions and tightly-held beliefs, seeing what different perspective he can stir up in himself and his hearers. In one poem (or, rather, in a version of it by Coleman Barks, who, though he’s often called a translator, does not himself read Rumi’s language and is more accurately termed an interpreter of Rumi’s work; a brilliant one, but it’s important to remember that we’re getting a very filtered version of Rumi. But that’s another story…) As I was saying, in one poem, Rumi speaks of how he has lived on the lip of insanity, knocking on a door, then realizes: “I’ve been knocking from the inside!” (Copyright considerations prevent me from including the entire poem here, though I’ve managed to allude to practically the whole thing, but I have no compunction about inviting you to another site where you can read it: visit World Prayers.)

Is there any place you’ve been pushing intently, when pulling back might clear the path? What helps you gain perspective, a different view of the landscape of your life? Is there any piece that needs turning, considering from a different angle, in order to better see what’s there?

Sometimes the reversal that we need, the shift in perspective, is one that we have to find within us rather than looking everywhere around us.

On this Advent day, on this Wedding Night, may you open a door from the inside.

Door 12: The Day of the Lady

December 12, 2007


The Day of the Lady © Jan L. Richardson

How lovely that the lectionary offers us the Magnificat during a week that contains a day of celebration in honor of Mary. Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which commemorates the appearances of Mary to a man named Juan Diego between December 9-12, 1531, in Mexico. Known by various names including the Mother or Patroness of the Americas and La Virgen Morena (The Brown-skinned Virgin), Our Lady of Guadalupe is a culturally unique and passionately beloved manifestation of Mary.

According to the legend, Our Lady of Guadalupe made her appearance to Juan Diego about a decade following the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, who brought with them, among other things, the practice of Roman Catholicism. An early convert to the new faith, Juan Diego was walking from his village toward what is now Mexico City when, on a hillside, the Virgin appeared to him and, speaking in Diego’s native language of Nahuatl, told him to take a message to the bishop that a sanctuary should be built on that site. Diego made several visits to Bishop Zumárraga, who was naturally skeptical of this peasant man. Finally the bishop asked for a sign. The Virgin provided one. Sending Juan Diego to the top of Tepeyac Hill, Mary told him to pick the roses he would find there. Gathering the out-of-season blooms in his tilma (cloak), he set out once again to see the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his tilma in the presence of Bishop Zumárraga, the stunning December roses spilled forth, but Mary had one more miracle in store: to the amazement of those present, the empty tilma bore an image of the Virgin.

The Lady received her sanctuary.

In the succeeding centuries, controversies have attended the Virgin of Guadalupe, including disputes over the authenticity of her appearances and of the image on the tilma, which still survives. Her role as an indigenous manifestation of Mary receives much attention; emerging from the encounter of native Mexican religion with the Catholicism of the conquistadores, she is perceived by some as a sort of syncretistic, Christianized goddess. Whatever her origins and meanings, Our Lady of Guadalupe persists as a powerful presence of hope and a beloved sign of Mary’s love for the Americas.

In a bookstore several years ago, I picked up a small volume titled Felicidad de México. Published in 1995 to commemorate the centennial of the coronation of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the book is in Spanish, which I understand muy poquito and read just barely enough to be dangerous. I got it for the pictures. Filled with wonderful images of Mary, the pages offer many versions of the apparition of Guadalupe. In these depictions, the blue-cloaked Mary wears a crown, hovers above an angel-held crescent moon, and shimmers in a penumbra of sunlight with rays like knife blades. Always, there are roses.

The depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe resonate vividly with the image of the celestial woman who appears in Revelation 12. Garbed with the sun, with a crown of stars and the moon beneath her feet, the woman cries out in travail as she gives birth to a male child “who is to rule all the nations.” At her feet, a dragon waits to devour her child. The visionary John tells of how the child is saved and of how, in a particularly evocative scene, the woman flees into the wilderness, where God has prepared a place of sanctuary and nourishment for her.

Across the centuries, many have interpreted this vision of the heavenly woman to be an image of Mary, who brought forth Christ. Despite its resonance with the mother of Jesus, this passage from Revelation 12 doesn’t appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, in any season. (For now, I’ll save my thoughts on mainstream religion’s tendency to leave the Book of Revelation in the hands of those who have badly misused it.) In the Roman Catholic tradition, the woman makes her appearance in the lections for the Feast of the Assumption.

Despite its absence from the Revised Common Lectionary, Revelation 12 is a good passage to visit during this Advent season. Historically, Advent—from the Latin adventus, which means coming or arrival—has been a time not only to reflect on the birth of Christ, his first coming, but also to anticipate his second coming. My experience in the mainline church is that we give a lot of happy attention to the first sense of Advent, and much less attention to the second sense. Not without reason; it’s a tricky topic. It’s challenging to talk about endings, especially The Big End. Christianity uses the word eschatology to refer to Final Things, a word that, while useful, tends to sap the poetry right out of the subject.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Final Things last year when I decided to set out on an artful pilgrimage through the strange pages of Revelation. (Hello, my name is Jan, and I’m an eschatologist…) It was something of a continuation of a journey that had begun years ago in a seminary class on Revelation, a remarkable course taught by a team of professors from the fields of worship, preaching, storytelling, and drama. It was the first occasion I’d had to hear Revelation all the way through, from beginning to end, rather than hearing fragments of it, usually picked out by people using it to manipulate or inspire fear. The book is bizarre, and it is beautiful. In its wide visionary sweep, it offers some of the most powerful poetry of the Christian tradition (some of the canticles I wrote about yesterday come from Revelation) and some of the most hopeful images of a God who longs to be in relationship with us and to set creation right.

My artful apocalyptic pilgrimage was also fueled by my research into medieval manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, the Book of Revelation received the fascinated and fascinating attention of commentators, scribes, and artists who created some of the most compelling illuminated manuscripts that remain from this period. 13th-century England produced an especially intriguing collection of illuminated Apocalypses. In these versions of the book of Revelation, the artists sometimes depicted the visionary John as a pilgrim, complete with a walking staff. From page to page, he appears at the margins of the artwork, sometimes peering through a doorway or window into the unfolding apocalyptic scenes. Suzanne Lewis, in her book on the 13th-century Apocalypses (titled Reading Images), comments on how these illuminated manuscripts invited the reader/viewer to accompany John on his journey to the holy Jerusalem that appears at the end of Revelation. In a period when the Crusades made it unsafe to undertake a physical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the illuminated Apocalypses offered what the medieval writer Hugh of St. Victor called a perigrinatio in stabilitate: a pilgrimage in place.

Inspired by the seminary class and the medieval manuscripts, I began my creative pilgrimage through the pages of Revelation, with a piece of charcoal for a pilgrim’s staff. (To see its results, visit Art of the Apocalypse.) As I went through this intense experience of artful lectio divina, I was struck by how the themes of Revelation persist in our daily lives. Birth, loss, hope, tribulation, desire, devastation, resurrection, destruction, redemption: all these themes and more are writ large in the pages of Revelation, but they form the text of our own lives as well. In some sense, we are living the Apocalypse daily, continually making a pilgrimage both toward and with the God who stands at the beginning and ending of time and in every place between.

On this feast day of the beloved Lady of Guadalupe, here at this midpoint of Advent, I’m giving some thought to where I am in this journey through the season, and through my life. At this place on the path, I find myself feeling both comforted and challenged by the images that centuries of faithful folks have offered of the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. John’s vision of the celestial woman, and Juan’s vision of the Lady of Guadalupe, are both cosmic and intimate, awe-inspiring and inviting. They call to mind the words of the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, who wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

In these Advent days, where are you seeing signs of the coming of the Christ who was, and who is, and who is yet to come?

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

Door 7: I’m Ready for My Close-Up

December 7, 2007

advent7.jpg

Yesterday’s collage got me thinking about my friend Daniel Nevins. Daniel is an artist in Asheville, North Carolina, and his work in this world is to create amazing paintings. Ranging from small, icon-like artwork to nearly daunting expanses, his work is involved and intimate, textured with folklore, myth, and poetry. One critic has observed that with their intricate layering, the surfaces of Daniel’s paintings possess a memory of their own.

Leaves are a recurring motif in Daniel’s artwork. Tiny leaves, leaf after leaf in patterns that aren’t always immediately visible to the eye. I first became familiar with Daniel’s artwork through reproductions, and I assumed that he painted the leaves as he painted everything else on the surfaces of his artwork. The first time I visited his studio, I discovered otherwise. Daniel cuts out the leaves—hundreds, thousands—by hand. He adheres them to the surface of the wood on which he works, and only then does he begin to paint them. To see the texture of the leaves, you have to get up close.

Thinking of Daniel’s leaves, I found myself wondering, what would it be like to read a text this way? To get this close, closer, close enough to see the textures, to perceive the intricacy of detail and the layers of memory that a text holds?

I pick up the lectionary readings for this week and look again. I read for the images, lift them from the text, bring them close to my mind’s eye. From Isaiah, the Psalter, Paul’s letter to the Romans, Matthew’s Gospel: my eye takes in the bark of the Jesse root, the leaves of the shoot, the lips of the judge, the fur of the wolf. Wool of lamb, spots of leopard, muzzle of cow. Arc of the mountains, blazing of sun, brightness of moon, that rain-drenched mown grass. Scrub of wilderness, clothing of camel’s hair, locusts and honey, water for baptizing. A way. Vipers. Stones. Ax. Wheat and chaff. Fire.

What do those images stir? What among them is familiar and resonant with my life and its landscape; what is foreign? What is appealing; what is fearsome? What layers of memory do the images open? What passageways do they carve between the text on the page and the text of my own life?

I look at the lectionary readings again, this time for the words that connect with what is less tangible. Spirit, wisdom, counsel, knowledge, righteousness, prosperity, deliverance. Peace, glory, encouragement, hope, welcome, truth, mercy. Power, repentance, crying out, confessing, wrath, winnowing, threshing.

What do these words stir, what connections and memories and associations? What invitations do they carry?

I can’t remain forever at this close range; closer, and closer, I eventually go cross-eyed, lose my focus, let go whatever clarity I had. But perhaps that’s the point?

I think of Annie Dillard and pull out my copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I look at its yellowed pages and wonder that I’ve reached the point where a gift from an old boyfriend could be showing such age. (It’s just too much acid in the paper, I’m sure.) Dillard has a brilliant chapter on seeing. She draws from Marius von Senden’s book Space and Sight, in which he describes the experiences of some of the first people to have cataract surgery. For those who had been blind since birth, and whose brains had not learned what to do with the images that their eyes offered them, the experience was initially (and, for some, permanently) terrifying. Others took up the work of learning how to see. One man, newly sighted but still bereft of depth perception, practiced tossing his boot and trying to gauge its distance from him. Another, a girl, “was eager to tell her blind friend that ‘men do not really look like trees at all,’ and was astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally,” Dillard writes,

a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed; “Oh, God! How beautiful!”‘

Dillard writes of how, under the influence of von Senden’s book, her vision is affected for weeks. She sees differently, as she looks differently: patterns of light and texture appear to her, what is hidden reveals itself under the intensity of her gaze. She discovers, too, what comes when she loses her focus, when she sees without agenda, when she allows her eyes to blur. “When I see this way,” she writes, “I see truly.”

“But,” she goes on to observe, “I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad.

All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod…

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

That’s the challenge, and the invitation, of lectio divina: to see at close range, to wait for what will unhide itself—in the text, in myself—when I draw near; and to allow space for surprise. And then to step back, and farther back still; to stand where I can take in the big picture once again, but differently this time, because I’ve caught a glimpse of what’s there in the artful layers. I’ve seen the textures left by the painter’s hand.

Door 6: A Time to Root Around

December 6, 2007

advent6.jpg

Sitting down at my drafting table sometimes feels like opening a door to some other world. I often find that as I engage the creative process, as I give my attention, my desire, my devotion to the materials at hand, I am visited by all manner of stuff that wanders in. Often what arrives are memories, like some kind of soul-creatures who quietly come to attend the creating, attracted by who knows what: the colors, the materials, or perhaps simply the quality of focus that’s present at the table.

In collage, as I work with the pieces in order to find patterns and create something new, I notice that a similar process takes place on a soul level. It happens spontaneously, with little intention or agenda on my part. There is a sifting of memories that occurs, and in that place I am a witness, noticing what presents itself, what connects, what new landscape takes shape.

In his book Original Self, Thomas Moore offers some observations about memories that have helped me understand and engage my own impulse toward being creatively present to the past. He writes,

Being present to the life that presses upon us does not mean simply being alert and full of consciousness. Surrendering to a daydream or a memory may be a way of being engaged with the present. Drifting into reverie might bring us to the full immediacy of the moment, which may be properly focused on invisible things…

The principle of being present to life is also complicated by the soul’s odd sense of time, so different from the literal measurements of the clock and calendar. The soul exists in cycles of time, full of repetition, and it has equal portions of flowing temporality and static eternity.

What happens at my drafting table is an informal way of doing what one author has called lectio on life. In his illuminating introduction to lectio divina, Fr. Luke Dysinger, a Benedictine monk, writes about doing lectio with our own experiences. He encourages us to think of our lives as texts that can be read with the same contemplative spirit that we bring to the written word. Lectio on life helps us recognize the presence of God in ways that we might not have been aware of during the experience itself, and it also helps us remember that, as with a written text, our experiences rarely contain just one meaning. (Fr. Luke’s article “Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina” is on his community’s web site; in the menu, click An Introduction to the Practice of Lectio Divina.)

I created today’s collage while reflecting on an image that appears in two of the readings for this Sunday. Isaiah 11.1-10 and Romans 15.4-13 both refer to the root of Jesse, from which a branch of hope will grow (which Christianity has interpreted to refer to Jesus). It’s a potent image that speaks to the power of memory. The scriptures remind us repeatedly that our lives are collectively rooted and grounded in what has gone before, and specifically in the story of God’s saving, liberating action on behalf of God’s people. Many of the readings for Advent call our attention backward and beckon us to remember, to recall, to return to the roots of our shared story, and to perceive how the story continues to unfold: in the birth and life of Jesus, in our own life, in the life of the world.

Advent is a season to sort through our memories. These days invite us to do this not in a way that has us wallowing in the past or giving it so much energy that we become estranged from the present. Rather, this season beckons us to look at our stories with an eye toward finding new connections, different patterns, deeper layers of meaning. It’s an invitation to enter into memories not just for memories’ sake but to see what God might create from them. Going to the root, what new thing might spring forth?