Praying for a World In Need

Today, as the world is stunned and grieving again, heed these words from Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. In this beautiful passage from his De institutione inclusarum (The Formation of Anchoresses), Aelred exhorts us to pray and more than pray for a world in need:

What is more useful than prayer? Give it. What is more gracious than pity? Spend it. Hold the whole world in one embrace of love; consider the good to congratulate them, the wicked to grieve over them; behold the afflicted and compassionate the oppressed; call to mind the miseries of the poor, the groans of orphans, the desolation of widows, the sorrows of those who weep, the needs of pilgrims, the vows of virgins, the perils of men on the sea, the temptation of monks, the cares of the clergy, the hardships that soldiers endure. Open your heart to all, spend your tears on them, pour forth your prayers for them.

It seems that we need these prayers more than ever today.

Source: For Crist Luve: Prayers of Saint Aelred Abbot of Rievaulx, trans. Rose de Lima (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), p. 10.

Sayings of the Dessert Fathers

St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons). Note the bird who is bringing them a cookie.

While doing research last fall, I found a previously uncatalogued manuscript in a European research library (I won’t name the library because it would probably embarrass them to have everyone know that they left a manuscript uncatalogued). The manuscript contained several standard prayers and a Life of Christ, but it really got interesting in the final few folios, which proved to contain an unusual selection of sayings from monks who lived around the time of St. Anthony and other Desert Fathers and Mothers. Based on the tendency of these sayings to focus on baked goods, as well as what appeared to be grease spots dotting the parchment, I dubbed this section the Sayings of the Dessert Fathers.

I transcribed and translated these sayings in the winter but felt I needed to wait until Lent was over to unveil them to the public. Further research is necessary to understand these sayings within the context of early monastic culture, but even a cursory glance reveals a wisdom that I think will surprise you. Where possible, I have indicated the source of each saying.


Here begin the Sayings of the Dessert Fathers –


Go sit with your éclair, and your éclair will teach you everything.


Why, dessert cart, did I let you get away? I have often been sorry that I passed on carrot cake, never that I indulged. (Abba Arsenius)


Keep the hour in which you will eat the donut ever before your eyes.


Take away temptation, and no one will eat dessert. (Abba Evagrius)


An elder said, “He who does not receive all desserts as equal but discriminates, such a one is not perfect.”


An elder said, “She who has the last piece of pie with her does well not to bring anybody else into her cell.”


They used to say of Abba Arsenius that all his life long, when he was sitting, he had a rag on his lap on account of the crumbs that fell when he ate cake.


Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, “Can a man try a new dessert every day?” The Abba said, “If he works hard, he can try a new dessert at every moment.


A soggy pie is the worst of all baked goods. It is the mother of all bad desserts. (Abba Peter of the Desert)


Ordering dessert does not require a lot of language. Reach out your hands, saying, “Give me that one.” (Abba Macarius)


An Egyptian hermit said, “If you desire a pilgrimage to TCBY, begin by getting in the car.” (Unknown source)


If you start on the cake, do not let a person discourage you. Your endurance will defeat the person. (Amma Syncletica)


God is equally pleased by all desserts. Whatever attracts you at the bakery is good. (Abbot Nestero)


What can get through all the traps of a sweet tooth? Humble pie. (Abba Antony)


In the same way a pudding is not ready until it has had time to chill, so it is with us. (Anna Theodora)


Eating without distraction is wonderful, but eating dessert without distraction is superior. (Abba Evagrius)


How can love function when there is a lack of freshly baked brownies? (Abba Elias)


Whatever helps us to get dessert, we must follow with all our might; whatever hinders us from it, we must shun as a dangerous and hurtful thing. (Abba Moses)


Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh tart.


For he was a man full of discernment and the good odor of freshly baked pie. (an Abba of Rome, probably Arsenius)


Someone asked Abby Anthony, “What must one do in order to get something sweet?” The old man replied, “… whoever you may be, always have the dessert cart before your eyes…”


When we turn our spirit from the contemplation of cheesecake, we become very hungry. (Abba Theonas)


I hope you enjoyed this selection of Sayings of the Dessert Fathers. I am diligently working to get a facsimile published soon. In the meantime . . . don’t forget to eat dessert first.

Note: For the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which bear a strong resemblance to the sayings quoted above, please see The Book of the Elders and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Announcing The Contemplative Writer

Big news! Today I am taking the helm at The Contemplative Writer, a website offering (near) daily soul care for writers. It was founded by my friend Ed Cyzewski, a wonderful writer and contemplative Christian. (Be sure to check out Ed’s books, such as Pray, Write, Grow and Write without Crushing Your Soul). Ed created a beautiful site, and I’m thrilled to be able to help keep it going.

At The Contemplative Writer, you’ll find a short tidbit nearly every day of the week: book of the month reviews, weekly prayer, and resources on writing and the contemplative life. Today’s post features our Book of the Month, the Cloud of Unknowing. Here’s a taste:

The Cloud of Unknowing is a contemplative treatise written in the late 14th century. It forms the basis (along with a few other historical texts) of the modern Centering Prayer movement.


The Cloud‘s anonymous author was a monk or priest who addressed his treatise to a young disciple just setting out in a religious vocation. Although written in a monastic context, the Cloud (and its “sequel,” the Book of Privy Counsel), has advice for anyone who wants to pursue a life of prayer.


Reading the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m especially drawn to the author’s description of contemplative prayer as rest and even akin to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I think rest is something most of us need in a culture characterized by a lot of striving. Are you tired and anxious? The Cloud author writes . . .

Join me at The Contemplative Writer to read the rest of today’s post, and while you’re there see if you’d like to sign up for the weekly newsletter and/or the daily emails.

Blessings on your journey today!

Man walking with backpack

How to Recognize a Pilgrim

Last week at the gas station, a man I didn’t know approached me at the pump and asked me if I could give him some change to help him fill up his car. “I’m running short on money this week,” he said.

I hesitated. Should I give this man money? I didn’t know anything about him—where he’d come from or where he was going. I didn’t know what he’d really do with any money I gave him. But then, as the fuel pumped through the hose into my car, the truth pumped into me. Maybe I didn’t know who this man was. But I knew what he was. He was a pilgrim.

I’ve been studying medieval pilgrims lately, as well as biblical pilgrims, and I’ve come to see these travelers as fellow passengers on the journey of life. The guy at the gas station had all the symptoms of pilgrimage. Trust me, I know this condition when I see it. After diagnosing him, I knew I had to help him. He was, after all, a fellow traveler. I just wish I hadn’t hesitated.

For my own benefit, and perhaps for yours, I drafted this list of 4 ways to recognize a pilgrim (hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with a staff, a scrip, or a funny medieval hat):

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are strangers
That person you just met or who just asked you for help may be unknown to you, but their very “strangeness” might make them a pilgrim. In Roman times, a peregrinus, the Latin word from which we get “pilgrim,” was someone “not from these parts.” It was a legal term. The Bible teaches that Christians are pilgrims because we’re not from these parts, either. (Heb 11:13) We don’t belong to the world and its ways. We’re all strangers here.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are travelers
In the Middle Ages, peregrinus morphed to mean someone on a journey, usually one of sacred import. Have you encountered any travelers lately? Maybe someone fueling up at the pump next to yours? Or someone on a difficult path through life? Every person is on his way somewhere—or trying to be, if he gets a tank of gas.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are in need
Some pilgrims are happy, healthy, and wealthy. But historically, pilgrims traveled in desperate circumstances. Medieval pilgrims frequently were ill or were atoning for sin or crimes. Many arrived at their destination completely broke. They relied on others to help them. I’m reminded of the guy at the gas station, who didn’t have any money for his journey. And maybe reminded a little of myself. I’ve never lacked money for gas. But I’ve come close to not being able to pay the rent and other bills.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are the faces in the mirror
I’d have been better prepared to recognize a fellow traveler if I’d glanced in the mirror before I got out of the car. In my own face, I would have seen all the symptoms of pilgrimage—like the man I met, I’m a strange traveler with lots of needs.

I don’t know how much clearer God could have made things. He taught me about the journey of life AT A GAS STATION. I did what I could for the pilgrim I met. It wasn’t much because I didn’t have much to give him. I’m not ashamed of that, because we give what we can. But I am ashamed that I hesitated. I hope my list—and perhaps a mirror—will help me to diagnose a fellow pilgrim more quickly the next time I see one.

Every Christian a Contemplative: An Introduction to Walter Hilton

Scale of PerfectionToday, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers the English mystic, Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396). It’s a great opportunity to learn about this little-known figure from Christian history.

Walter Hilton was an Augustinian canon (a priest who takes vows and lives under a rule) known for his letters and treatises providing spiritual counsel. Evelyn Underhill calls him “One of those . . . quiet and secret friends of God who have never failed the Church.”

I’m in awe of many of the contemplatives and mystics from our Christian past. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that kind of faith. But in many ways, Walter Hilton is very accessible to us today. Here’s why:

Hilton struggled with his vocation – Hilton is a mystic for every person who doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up. He began by studying law; then he may have lived as a hermit for a time; finally he joined the Augustinian order as a canon. It comforts me that this great Christian thinker did not have it all figured out (at least, not at first)! I also think it’s interesting that Hilton did not choose to become a monk – as a canon, his was a public ministry. He was drawn to monasticism but seems to have had a heart for “the world.”

He said that interruptions can be a way to serve God – We (okay, I) usually bulldoze ahead with our schedule and our priorities, especially if we think we’re doing God’s will. But in a letter to a wealthy layman, Hilton counsels us to accept the interruptions that inevitably come our way:

If you are interrupted in your devotions by your children, employees, or even by any of your neighbors, whether for their need or simply because they have come to you sincerely and in good faith, do not be angry with them, or heavy handed, or worried — as if God would be angry with you that you have left him for some other thing — for this is inappropriate, and misunderstands God’s purposes.*

I try to remember this every time my children come bursting in on me!

Hilton said that all Christians are called to the contemplative life – In the letter I mentioned above, Hilton told a wealthy layman that Christians “in the world” can open themselves to the love of God, just as cloistered monastics can. In fact, he encouraged the layman to adopt a rhythm of work and prayer in his active life.

Hilton helps us to see that wherever we are, we can love and seek God. Even in the active life, we can rest in God. We can walk with him and seek to be transformed into his likeness.

If you want to read some of Hilton’s works, I recommend the Epistle on the Mixed Life — the letter I quoted from above. Also, read his fantastic passage on the Christian life as a pilgrimage in his treatise, The Scale of Perfection. I wrote a blog post about it here.

By the way . . . it’s neat that the late medieval mystic Margery Kempe is remembered by the Church today, too. We know that she read some of Walter Hilton’s works! I love it when things are connected.

*Toward a Perfect Love: The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans. David L. Jeffrey (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), p. 18

Lisa’s book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, is on sale (Kindle version) for $2.99 for a limited time. Check it out and share the news!

New Review of A World Transformed


I’m grateful for this new review of A World Transformed at the Canadian Theological Review. This is a meaty one; the reviewer, Matthew Forrest Lowe, takes us through the book chapter by chapter. I appreciated such a careful reading. If you’ve ever wondered what’s in my book, this review is a great way to find out!

I’ll leave you with a few excerpts from the review*:

Thankfully, Lisa Deam’s book is really and truly accessible: it’s a genuine pleasure to read, a skillfully laid path that engages our minds and our spirits with each inviting step. From the outset, Deam is winsomely honest about her own surprising journey, initially inspired by undergraduate encounters with medieval art. ‘I loved the way that medieval artists saw their world: with creativity and in intimate connection with the creator. It became the way I see my own world, or the way I try to see it’; in particular, the seven-hundred-year-old Hereford Map ‘transformed not only the course of my scholarly career but also my journey with God’ (1). As the book unfolds, the challenge Deam faces is that of persuading us that this and other medieval maps can offer us similar guidance on our own journeys.
Throughout the book, readers will benefit from illustrations taken from the maps in question, as well as from sets of ‘Reflections and Practices’ at the conclusion of each chapter. These exercises are well-chosen, pushing us just enough into new territory, as it were, to challenge us to grow.
[T]he book as a whole remains a marvellously reorienting read, supplying insights for mind and soul on nearly every page. As Deam says, in dialogue with Augustine, ‘No person lies beyond [God’s] reach. God redeems the edge, making it a place of miracles as well as monsters’ (55).
Monstrous creatures roam the edge of the Hereford Map

Lowe seems to especially appreciate the maps’ definition of Christ as monster-defeater. This is an aspect of medieval maps that I love, too. So I’ll leave you with a question: how has Jesus defeated the monsters in your life?

*To read the entire review, scroll down to page 9 in the link provided.

Lisa’s book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, is on sale (Kindle version) for $2.99 for a limited time. Check it out and share the news!




A Journey in Word and Song: The Project’s “Mystic Chapel”


This week I’m over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network reviewing Mystic Chapel, the fantastic new album by The Project. Here’s a peek:

CoverMystic Chapel is the newest offering from The Project—musical artists Duane Arnold and Michael Glen Bell. Perhaps you know their first album, Martyrs Prayers (if you don’t, you should!). I grabbed a copy of The Project’s new CD just before Christmas, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this is the album that will journey with me through 2016.

Why? Because Mystic Chapel is itself a journey, one that echoes the walk I find myself on.

In word and song, Mystic Chapel tells the story of a man for whom faith is a distant memory. Weary from his search, the man finds his way to “a small clapboard building with a broken cross on a small steeple.” Once within, he dreams that he enters a garden and sees a stone rolled away. But is it a dream? Perhaps it is a vision and the man a mystic.

IMG_8914 - Version 2Click here to read the rest of this review at the Ancient-Future Faith Network!

And be sure to get your CD or download of Mystic Chapel at



A Medieval Prayer for the World

Today, the Church remembers Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. I wanted to share with you a beautiful passage from his De institutione inclusarum (The Formation of Anchoresses) on praying—and more—for the world.

What is more useful than prayer? Give it. What is more gracious than pity? Spend it. Hold the whole world in one embrace of love; consider the good to congratulate them, the wicked to grieve over them; behold the afflicted and compassionate the oppressed; call to mind the miseries of the poor, the groans of orphans, the desolation of widows, the sorrows of those who weep, the needs of pilgrims, the vows of virgins, the perils of men on the sea, the temptation of monks, the cares of the clergy, the hardships that soldiers endure. Open your heart to all, spend your tears on them, pour forth your prayers for them.*

It seems that we need these prayers more than ever today.

*For Crist Luve: Prayers of Saint Aelred Abbot of Rievaulx, trans. Rose de Lima (Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), p. 10.


An Advent Gift from God

I suddenly recalled, this fourth week in Advent, that my book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, contains a seasonal reflection! I decided to share it today as an excerpt. Read on for a gift from God via the wonderful world of the Hereford Map.

I will never forget the first time I caught a glimpse of God’s plans for the world. I was a teenager, and it was Advent. On Christmas Eve, the church in which I grew up held a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a type of service that originated in England in the early twentieth century. The lessons began with readings from the book of Genesis and proceeded through the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus before culminating in the familiar Christmas story from the Gospels. I loved sitting through this long service. The hour was late. The church was candlelit. The lessons brought us closer and closer to Jesus. All was anticipation.

Yet what thrilled me most, what I remember most, was the first lesson of the service. The reading took us to the Garden of Eden, after the fall of humanity, when God reveals that Adam’s seed will bruise the serpent’s head:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen 3:15).

Waiting for Jesus, I was suddenly transported to the beginning of time. Christmas was revealed for what it is: not an isolated feast, but the center of a vast history that began in the mind of God and that will not end until the day of judgment. Driving home after the service, beneath a dome of glittery stars, I knew that Jesus was part of something incredibly big. And since I claimed Jesus, whose birth I was celebrating—or rather, since he claimed me—I was part of something big, too.

What a wonderful moment. My place in the world, my significance in the grand scheme of things, was presented to me like a gift from God. Since that night, I have tried to hold on to this certain knowledge of my significance. But it’s difficult. The world seems bent on putting me in my place—a very small place. As we all do, I face rejection on a daily basis. I compare myself with other people and come up wanting. I feel misused and overlooked. Sometimes, at the end of a difficult day, it can seem that God himself has forgotten about me.

The Hereford Map, ca. 1300. Image courtesy of University Library Groningen.
The Hereford Map, ca. 1300. Image courtesy of University Library Groningen.

History tells me otherwise. And when I feel small, I need a big dose of it—a dose the size of the Hereford Map. God’s people need to tell his story. We need to rehearse it, revel in it, and get lost in its grandeur. When we do, we realize how wide—and at the same time how welcoming—God’s story really is. Dorothy Bass reflects,

Amazingly, even though this story began before time itself and reaches beyond the end of time, it is a story that has room in its narrative for each individual who encounters it in the present day.[1]

When we get lost in God’s story, we find ourselves.

Embrace Your Place

Bass suggests that we enter God’s story by celebrating the church year, which, through its liturgical seasons, takes us through key points in the “life of God.” I like the idea of paying attention to sacred history throughout the year, as I did at that Christmas Eve service long ago . . .

I find another point of connection to God’s story in the Hereford Map. Sitting down with a good reproduction of the map, I let history wash over me. My eyes roam over the map’s sacred sites, from Eden to Africa to Jerusalem to the gates of heaven. If you try this exercise yourself, you will see that the map organizes these sites in a particular way. It lays out salvation like a diagram. The creation and the birth of sin take place at the edges of the world, as if to show their distance from human experience and understanding. Jesus lies at the center. Time ends, and eternity begins, at the top.

In between these pivotal sites in the history of salvation, there is a lot of room—all the room in the world. There is room for the medieval Christians who were the map’s first users, and room for you and me. Room for our stories. Room for our mistakes. Room for our redemption. Room to recover our significance.

image0In fact, every follower of Christ finds herself on the map of salvation every day, in ordinary but breathtaking ways. Have you ever had a bad day? Have you ever let sin get the best of you and then knelt humbly to ask God’s forgiveness? That’s part of my day every day. It’s also part of the grand design of God. When we sin and ask forgiveness, we are playing our role in the drama of salvation—the very drama illustrated on the Hereford Map. We journey from the monstrous races at the edge of the world to the cross at the center. We make the journey of God’s saving grace . . .

Let us, then, learn to embrace our place in God’s plan. Let’s learn to think big. No more false humility. No more wondering where we belong or whether we matter in the grand scheme of things. We do matter. And we belong on the map of salvation.


[1] Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 80–81.

Wow, I had forgotten how much I love my book! Let me clarify—I love what medieval maps allow us to see about God, his love, and his plan for humankind. Read more in A World Transformed.

10 Advent Practices

Advent wreathThis year, as I’ve attempted to keep Advent and—of course—prowled social media, I’ve noticed some interesting practices here and there. So I decided it was time for an Advent round-up! This is not meant to be a definitive compilation, just some neat things I’ve found. Some are historical, some new, some strange, and others just kind of fun. Maybe there’s something for you.

So here you go—10 Advent Practices for 2015!

1. Fast. Advent began as a season of preparation for the baptism of Christian converts, which took place on Epiphany. Consequently, Advent included fasting for much of the Middle Ages (and still does in some churches today). This may seem difficult given the season’s culinary excesses. But there is more than one way to fast. Check out this great post on The Nativity Fast to see how “fasting is not just about food.”

Columba Altarpiece detail
Rogier van der Weyden, Columba Altarpiece (detail). Note the crucifix hanging above the infant Jesus.

2. Look for the four comings of Christ. Instead of using the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love when lighting your Advent wreath, reflect each week on one of the four—yes, four—comings of Christ as taught by medieval theologians. I did some research on this and was surprised by the rich and complex tradition of Christ’s comings. See my recent reflection on this topic.

3. Read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. I admit that this is a strange practice, and it’s a highly personal one. Almost every year, I read Willis’s time-travel thriller during the Advent season. Why? Set in December in medieval England (and 21st-century Oxford), it offers a totally unsentimental look at the kind of love and hope that pierce the darkest of human days. For more, see my review of Doomsday Book from this summer.

Stations of the Birth4. Celebrate the Stations of the Birth. Led by Emily Stone, the women of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC began a unique practice this year— celebrating the Stations of Christ’s birth as an Advent parallel to the Stations of the Cross. Readings, poetry, and visual aids took participants through stages in Mary’s journey, including her response to the angel, her visit to Elizabeth, and Jesus’ birth. Each station helped the women prepare for what Christ is birthing in their own life. Doesn’t this sound like a neat tradition?

5. Wait. The Feast of the Nativity doesn’t begin until December 25. The four weeks preceding are a time of preparation. How can we spend some time this Advent preparing instead of partying? We may not be able to do much about office parties or Christmas music blaring in public. But how about in our homes? Perhaps we don’t put up the tree until Christmas Eve. Or we sing songs of preparation instead of Christmas carols. Worried you won’t get enough holiday cheer? Remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas follow Advent. They are a liturgical season of feasting unto themselves.

6. Read a poem a day. My Twitter friend Marguerite is having an all-poetry Advent (check the hashtag #poetryonlyAdvent on Twitter). She writes, “All my ‘recreational’ reading is going to be poetry. This will mean much more intense, careful reading.” Some of her favorites are Christian Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing” and John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Reading something completely different can slow us down and help us to pay attention.

Starbucks cup7. Walk into Starbucks and order your favorite drink in a new size—the (Ad)venti!

8. Do your shopping before Advent. This tip comes, again, from Marguerite. I imagine a whole new countdown—just 14 shopping days until Advent! By getting this task out of the way early, we can spend time preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ.

9. Ban violence. This is another medieval tradition, one I discovered on In the 11th century, a series of decrees called the Truce of God forbade violence (such as feuding, war, personal revenge, and military activities) during Advent. In 1063, the Bishop of Terouanne wrote,”You shall also keep this peace every day of the week from the beginning of Advent to the octave of Epiphany.” What if we banned violence—arguing, passive-aggressive behavior, baiting, and so on—in our own hearts and homes? What if we kept the peace this Advent?

10. Mix up your music. Kate is changing her listening habits this Advent: “No radio, more silence and classical music. Deeper listening.” What might a little silence and more careful listening do for us this time of year?

And a bonus “practice”–

11. Embrace the chaos. Here the truth comes out. How many Advent practices have I actually kept this year? Not many. The tree went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving (I blame the kids). I’ve picked fights (I blame the stress). I haven’t fasted (I blame . . . you get the point).

I’m grateful to my friend Phil Steer for reminding me that keeping Advent is worthy but not mandatory:

Phil links to Paul’s letter to the Galatians: You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you” (Gal. 4:10-11).

I don’t know if I’m trying to earn God’s favor, but I do know that sometimes I can’t seem to do Advent. I like the practices I rounded up above and genuinely think they (or others) can help us prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. At the same time, I realize that I can’t save the season—or myself. This awareness is perhaps my greatest practice. It’s why I need Jesus to come this and every year.

How about you? How are you keeping—or embracing the grace of not keeping—Advent?