Sailing to the Origins of the World: Medieval Journeys to Eden

I’m a sucker for spiritual journey stories. Earlier this spring, my Twitter friend Ellen Mandeville published a good one–it’s an article about a sailing trip that turned into a spiritual journey. Because of the incredibly beauty of  some of islands she and her husband visited, she titled her article “Sailing to Paradise.” It’s a great read—you should check it out.

I confess that I liked Ellen’s article so much partly because it reminded me of the Middle Ages, when travelers tried to reach a literal paradise.

On the Hereford Map, a map of the world from ca. 1300, we see an island at the very top, in the far east. This is Eden, or Earthly Paradise as it was called in the Middle Ages. It appears as a circular, walled garden cut off from the “mainland” of the earth by a narrow strip of water.

Eden area - Hereford facsimile

Eden, of course, evokes the creation of the world. It’s part of cosmic history. In the medieval era, Eden was also believed to be an actual location on planet earth. I mean a location that you could visit. We have accounts of travelers trying to go there.

It wasn’t an easy journey. Many historians and theologians thought that Eden was hidden from view—on a mountain so high that no one could see it, separated from the mainland of earth by an impassable ocean, or even encircled by a ring of fire that reached to the heavens. You can see this ring of fire surrounding Eden on the Hereford Map.

Medievals loved telling stories about sailing to the Garden of Eden. In their thinking, even Alexander the Great is said to have made a go. In one medieval version of his story (Journey of Alexander the Great to Paradise, 12th c.), Alexander made it to the gates of Eden and from its keeper learned the folly of worldly ambition. In another version (the Alexandreis, 12th c.), Alexander died trying to storm the garden.

I don’t know that any medieval traveler claimed to have actually reached Eden. The travel writer John Mandeville said that many people perished trying to do so:

Many great lords have assayed with great will, many times, for to pass by those rivers towards Paradise, with full great companies. But they might not speed in their voyage. And many died for weariness of rowing against those strong waves. And many of them became blind, and many deaf, for the noise of the water. And some were perished and lost within the waves.

One Dutch cleric named Johannes de Hese said that he glimpsed Eden as he sailed through the Far East in the fourteenth century. He wrote:

And around the hour of vespers, when the sun goes down . . . the wall of Paradise can be seen in great clarity and beauty, like a star.

These stories are usually considered to be charming and a more than a bit naïve. Sailing to Eden? Really? But something struck me recently. These are, in a way, spiritual journeys. And they display an earnestness and a faith that we don’t often see in our world. In the Middle Ages, God’s cosmic story was so real that people believed, or wanted to believe, that they could sail right into it. Eden was part of the everyday world. It was a reality that people plotted on their maps. And a place they tried to reach in their ships.

Is God’s story as real to us today?

We study God and box him up and parcel him away. We experience him in church or in prayer or when we decide we want to. The medieval worldview—the one with Eden at the top of the map—reminds us that God’s presence fills the earth. His story is not just something to study. It’s a landscape in which to live. Take your ship and sail far enough, and you might sail into the origins of your faith.

So what do you think? Is it naïve that medieval Christians thought Eden was an actual location they could visit? Or is it amazing that God’s story was such a real part of their world?

Living Out God’s Story: AFFN 2015

The fourth annual gathering of the Ancient-Future Faith Network (AFFN) took place last week on the campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. AFFN, for those not in the know, is an ecumenical association that calls for “the return to classic Christian orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and a hunger for renewal in the worship and spirituality of the church.” Be sure to check out the new website.

What a wonderful gathering we had! Each presentation featured a blend of theology and practice. The talks made you think, and they also inspired you to ask, how can I live out my faith in this way?

I’ll begin with an ending. Our last session was a round-table discussion of Robert Webber’s book, Who Gets to Narrate the World? I’d like to work backwards from here, because I think this book became the theme of the gathering, or a thread that ran through it.

Webber’s book addresses the master narratives that inform the way we live. Many such narratives exist. Webber addressed three—radical Islam, American narcissism, and the Christian narrative. As Christians, we believe that God’s story is the most compelling—the cosmic account of God working through time to redeem all of creation. “Look at all the religions of the world and you will find no better story than this, ” Webber said in The Divine Embrace (22-23).

Webber wrote this book at the end of his life, so the question of who gets to narrate the world had particular urgency for him. Not everyone participating in the round-table discussion agreed with Webber’s assessment of radical Islam. Yet panelist Duane Arnold of The Project said,

Bob wrote this book concerning a narrative as he was dying… It reminded me of St. Augustine revising the City of God, again an approach to a Christian narrative, as he was dying and he could hear the Goths and Vandals besieging Hippo from his death bed . . .

Perhaps Webber saw God’s narrative more clearly, and saw the problems of the world around him, because he was dying. That should make each of us think. Our time is coming. What story do we cling to? How will we live in the time that we have?

This raises a further question: if we believe God’s cosmic story to be the most compelling, how do we live it out? As Rev. Robert Brown remarked, we can’t (nor would we want to) force it on the world, or on ourselves, for that matter. Several papers responded to this question, mostly in a church and worship context.

We heard from Sean Matthew O’Brien, lead pastor of Church in the Round in Cleveland, Ohio. This church, set to have its official launch in September, was founded from the beginning on ancient-future principles, including weekly communion, liturgy, evangelism, and music. The church space is organized “in the round,” with the center of God’s story, Jesus (represented by the Table), at the very center of the congregation.

Dr. Ouida Harding, Minister of Music for Worship, discussed music that tells of God’s story of redemption in the Black Church. She had us sing, too. Some of us (ahem) were a bit timid, but she coaxed the passion out of us. “Is that all you got?” she demanded. Dr. Harding also made a distinction between music ministry and music performance. The former prepares worshippers to hear God’s message that will sustain them the entire week.

The Project’s Duane Arnold and Michael Glenn Bell led afternoon chapel by performing their soon-to-be-released album, Mystic Chapel, a narrative based on the Easter Vigil of St. John Chrysostom. As I listened to their music, it took me—and all of us, I think—on a meditative journey of redemption. “We’re here because of Robert Webber,” Duane said in his and Michael’s talk earlier that day. And we could all see why. Through narrative and ancient liturgy, The Project’s music helps us to travel through God’s story—in worship and in our heart.

And me? I did a presentation on medieval world maps. These maps relate to Webber’s work in a surprising way. The Hereford Map (ca. 1300) narrates God’s story from creation to consummation and centers on the saving work of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. It shows that God narrates the world. Within this narrative, medieval Christians plotted their own story, in the form of their cities and other points of interest in their world.

A World Transformed Book
The Hereford Map, ca. 1300. Image courtesy of University Library Groningen.

This brings out another wonderful part of the gathering. All the presenters, myself included, told pieces of their personal story—how they came to this point in their ministry, how they discovered or journeyed with Robert Webber’s work. I don’t believe this storytelling aspect was planned—it just seemed like a natural thing to do. At heart, these were stories of redemption. They were wonderful examples of how each personal story is embedded within the larger story of redemption that God is telling about the world. We embody God’s story not only through worship, liturgy, and music, but also through living faithfully each day.

On a personal note, I was excited because the gathering gave me a new context in which to see medieval world maps. I usually discuss these maps in terms of spiritual formation. As each talk was presented, I began to see that the maps might also be ways to conceptualize liturgy, worship, and music. They provide a Christ-centered “diagram” for living out God’s story in the church and the world.

T-O Map 1472- wikimedia
Printed T-O Map, 1472

I was struck, for example, how much the simple T-O maps (see left) resemble Robert Webber’s diagram for worship space. Sean O’Brien showed us this diagram during his talk—like medieval maps, it is a circle with a center.

Another example: during his comments on Webber’s book, Duane Arnold said, “There’s no longer a center to hold onto in much of what we see in church life today.” Can medieval maps help us to find it again? The maps show us a world—whether it’s church, worship, or cultural narrative—with a center. This center will hold. We need to cling to it.

If a conference stretches the boundaries of your world, I’d say it’s a success. Thank you, AFFN, for enlarging my world through new friends, new ways of thinking, and new ways of worship.

The Tweeter’s Prayer of St. Francis

It is said, after all, that St. Francis loved tweets, er, birds . . .


Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1480-85

Lord, make me an instrument of thy PC.
Where there is hatred, let me sow tweets (never subtweets);
Where there is injury, emoji;
Where there is doubt, quotes;
Where there is sadness, a caring reply in 140 characters.


O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be DMd as to DM;
To be mentioned as to mention,
To be HTd as to HT;
For it is in following that we are followed;
It is in favoriting that we are favorited;
It is in retweeting that we are born to eternal click-throughs.

(For the original Prayer of St. Francis, click here.)


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!

The Hereford Map and a Story of Healing

The one thing missing from my book on medieval maps is medieval faces—the ordinary people who viewed and interacted with these extraordinary views of the world. That’s partly because I wanted to explore our interaction with the maps today and partly because we know so little about the people who “used” maps in the Middle Ages. There’s almost no direct evidence about people viewing these maps and their reactions to them.

But there is some indirect evidence. There are stories.

Today I want to tell a story about one medieval family and the Hereford Map. It involves a drowning, a belt, a wax image, and a miracle.

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

In 1287, a five-year-old girl named Joanna drowned in a pond outside the tavern her parents were visiting in Marden (a town north of Hereford). After she was dragged from the pond, her father, Adam, “measured” her to St. Thomas with his belt—meaning that he used his belt to measure her so that a wax image of her body could be made, and while he did so he called on the saint to heal his daughter.

This St. Thomas was Thomas of Cantilupe, a bishop of nearby Hereford Cathedral, who was in the process of being canonized because of his many miracles. While Adam measured his daughter, all the bystanders prayed. Later, Joanna miraculously revived. Thomas had healed her from afar.

The next day, Adam took Joanna to Hereford Cathedral, where “bells were rung, a procession held and the miracle ‘published.’”* A wax likeness of Joanna hung near St. Thomas’s tomb for many years before it finally fell apart (the first Madame Tussaud’s?).

Every year thereafter, Joanna and her parents made a pilgrimage, barefoot, to Hereford Cathedral, where they left an offering at St. Thomas’s tomb.

Several scholars believe that the Hereford Map hung right next to the tomb. (You can see a picture of how it might have looked in chapter 2 of my book.) When they visited St. Thomas’s tomb, Joanna’s family would almost certainly have seen the map. It was a key object that played a role in Joanna’s life – along with a belt, a tomb, and a wax image. It was part of this family’s yearly pilgrimage to the cathedral.

hereford and surroundings
Hereford is the smudgy-looking town at the bottom of this image.

Exactly how they interacted with the map remains unknown. Maybe they reached out and, in honor of Joanna’s healing, touched the town of Hereford. (We know that many pilgrims did—in fact, they nearly wore the ink away!). Maybe they listened to a cleric talking about the map, like tourist guides do today. Maybe they gave thanks to Jesus, who centers the world shown on the map. Might they have knelt before the map, as before an altarpiece? We really don’t know.

But I like knowing their names. And I like knowing a little of their story. It reminds me that real people with real stories—real hurts, needs, and faith—saw the Hereford Map. It played a role in their journey of faith.

Like Joanna’s family, we are pilgrims, too. We journey with our own stories and needs. The Hereford Map, with its vision of Christ centering the earth, is a welcoming place to bring our faith (or doubt) and our need for healing. We can let it embrace us and draw us into its world. It is the very world we need—one centered on and transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.

What story do you bring to the map and its Christ-centered world today?


*This amazing story, and others, is related in Diana Webb, Pilgrimage in Medieval England (London: Hambledon and London, 2000), pp. 74-75. Webb doesn’t discuss the Hereford Map in relation to these pilgrimage visits.

10 Fun Places on Medieval Maps

Launch week for A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, begins Monday (April 27)! I’ve talked so much about Jerusalem centering medieval maps, and you can read all about it in the book. So why don’t we branch out and explore some different places on the maps? From the zany to the serious, this list showcases the diversity of the medieval world.


1. An emoticon island


On the Ebstorf Map, the island of Sicily is for lovers! It’s a great example of cordiform geography (“cordiform” being one of my new favorite words).

2. A classical labyrinth

MediterraneanOn the Hereford Map, we see the labyrinth built by Daedalus on the island of Crete. The Athenian hero Theseus found his way through the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur that was imprisoned there. It’s not quite the meditative journey we think about in relation to walking the labyrinth today! (And yes, that’s a mermaid swimming in the Mediterranean Sea above.)

3. A colorful sea

Red SeaIn Asia, the Red Sea is literally colored red on the Hereford Map. It’s one of the easiest places to spot on the map. (Just look at the cover of my book, where the Red Sea vies for attention with the title itself!) At the bottom, the sea has been parted to show the miraculous event that let the Israelites pass through on dry land. For more on this journey, see my earlier blog post.

4. A forbidden garden

Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden), detail from the Hereford Map

In the Middle Ages, the Garden of Eden, known as Earthly Paradise, was thought to be a physical location on earth. It is plotted at the top of medieval maps, at their easternmost point. Eden is often depicted as a circular garden showing the story of Adam and Eve . . . and plenty of monsters.

 5. Three desert monasteries

St. Anthony

Monsters aren’t the only thing on the edge of the world. On the rim of medieval Africa/Asia are the monasteries of St. Anthony, one of the first desert fathers (the third monastery, on the far right, is obscured by damage to the Hereford Map). Just below the monasteries roams a satyr, one of the beasts that tempted the saint.

6. An anti-Eden

HesperidesNear the southwestern tip of Africa on the Ebstorf Map lies the Garden of Hesperides, encircled by a feathered dragon. In Greek mythology, this garden contained a tree with golden apples, a wedding present to Zeus and Hera. It is sometimes known as the Greek Eden or an anti-Eden.

7. The setting sun

image4-1 At the western edge of the world, we see the tow columns erected by Hercules during his labors. This is as far as you can go! Beyond these columns lies the great unknown.

8. The city of lights

Paris Burning burning i sayParis is always worth a visit, right? On the Hereford Map, Paris is the largest city on the continent of Europe. On the whole map, it is second in size only to the Towel of Babel. Paris and Babel . . . hmmm. Interesting connection. The scratch marks on Paris are the cause of speculation–are they the result of anti-French sentiments in England, where the map was made? Or just from something cutting into the parchment?

9. The camp of a conqueror

Alex jpeg

If Paris seems too mundane (been there, done that), pay a visit to the camp of Alexander the Great, who conquered the world. The tent’s location on the border of Asia and Africa probably alludes to Alexander’s subjugation of the African continent.

10. O little town


I’ve spoken many times of the cross at the center of the Hereford Map. But the map also pictures Bethlehem, in the lower right of the picture above, where Jesus was born. The beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly life are very close on the map. It all comes together in the center of the world!

What’s your favorite site on medieval maps?

A World Transformed Excerpt: Why I Wrote This Book

Release week for my new book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, is April 27! Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from the introduction that describes why I wrote this book. (Hint: it’s because we really need what medieval maps can offer.)

This book, born from my studies and my groping, imperfect faith, is for every Christian who wants to see more of God in her world. I wrote it because sometimes we feel lost on our journey of faith: we need to pause, pull over to the side of the road, and reach for a map to guide us. In this book, I am going to suggest that we reach for the Hereford Map.

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

This map, which pictures the creation transformed by the presence of God, teaches us to find our place in the world. If we heed the map’s lessons, we can learn to see our ordinary lives inscribed in God’s plan of redemption that was set in place at the beginning of time. Our faith matters. So do our jobs, our struggles, and all the mundane hours that make up our days. They are an integral part of an incredible, Christ-centered world.

It is no small thing to find our spiritual journey written into the history of the world. It reassures those of us who feel lost or who want to deepen our faith beyond the Sunday school lessons we hear in church. “Perhaps somewhere in the subterranean chambers of your life you have heard the call to deeper, fuller living,” writes Richard Foster in his influential book on the spiritual life, Celebration of Discipline.[1]

Have you heard this call? Do you long to experience a deeper, more vibrant faith? A faith that matters? If so, medieval world maps are for you. They can help you to more fully live out your faith by showing you your place in the overarching story of creation, sin, and salvation. This is our story, but it is not one that we always hear. In an effort to be relevant to modern life, many churches today have cut themselves loose from history—the history of Christianity and the history of salvation itself. As a result, we have a heightened awareness of our story and our needs and a far dimmer grasp of the story God is telling about the world. Yet I can think of nothing more relevant than understanding our role in God’s divine plan. We are relevant—cherished, significant—to the creator of the universe. And we can learn to live as though we are.

We need the vision of history shown on medieval maps to deepen our sense of belonging in God’s world. We need the testimony of medieval Christians who help us learn to think about our faith this way. If we are overly worried about the question of relevance, we can bring the Hereford Map into the twenty-first century by comparing it to the maps we use all the time. Most of us would never dream of taking a journey, at least a long and complicated one, without the aid of a map. We rely on maps to show us where we are and to get us where we need to go. Shouldn’t we do the same on our spiritual journey?

But, come to think of it, most of us do not use “maps” at all. Gone are the days of wrestling with unwieldy paper creations that can never again be folded into their original form! Today we use positioning systems and devices, such as mobile apps and GPS units. We program and interact with them. Sometimes, we talk to them. Perhaps we can think of the Hereford Map as an app for our time. In this map, and others from the medieval era, we find a spiritual GPS for our journey with God. It is fully programmable, highly interactive, and will get us where we need to go. It will take us to the heart of our faith and help us to travel in a world centered on Jesus Christ.

[1] Richard J. Foster, A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: HarperSanFrancisco), 1998, 2.

You can buy A World Transformed here. Join me in releasing the book and celebrating the heritage of medieval maps!

How Medieval Maps Ruined My Vocabulary

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard these words or maybe even said them:

I used to _______ when I was in the world.

Be in the world but not of the world.

Since I began studying medieval maps, such phrases jar me.

I know some of these ideas are biblical. Jesus prayed, “I  have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). But it seems that when we cite verses like this, the world becomes something dirty. Something we can’t wait to get away from and something that Jesus would surely reject. There is nothing spiritual about the world.

Whenever I hear any of these phrases about “the world,” the image of a medieval map pops into my head. I know that makes me strange. But the fact is, these maps have changed how I understand terms that are popular in evangelical circles.

When Christians talk about “the world,” we often use the term metaphorically. It means the way we live or part of our culture that we don’t like. It’s the part we want to reject.

But medieval maps show the world literally. Take a look at the Ebstorf Map below. Here is the world – the beautiful world God created at the beginning of time. The world Jesus came to redeem. The world with its teeming humanity, its breathtaking beauty, and, yes, its perennial problems. On this map, Jesus does not reject the world. In the city of Jerusalem, at the very center, he saves it.

The Ebstorf Map, ca. 1300.
The Ebstorf Map, ca. 1300.

But there is more. Take another look at the circumference of the Ebstorf Map, and you will see Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peeping out. The world becomes Christ’s body. Jesus exists in intimate relationship with it.

I look at this map, and it’s impossible for me not to love the world, as Jesus clearly does. “For God so loved the world . . . ” I see it as something beautiful, something deeply spiritual. Perhaps Jesus is not of the world; but the world is of him. It is part of his very being.

Our world has problems, yes. It has sin. It is fallen. But Jesus is making all things new. The world is groaning as if in childbirth, but Jesus has promised to deliver it.

This world is also where our work is. God has placed us here. We don’t leave the world behind when we become Christians. We don’t need to hide from it. Instead, we struggle in it and with it. We love it because Jesus made it. And by following Jesus, we participate in its redemption.

So, thanks to medieval maps, my Christian vocabulary is ruined. I am genuinely surprised when I hear “the world” spoken of negatively. I do a double take. When I hear someone say, “When I was in the world . . . ” I think, “Well, where are you now?” Because I, for one, am still right here. I am of Jesus.

Let’s reclaim “the world.” And breathlessly await what Jesus is doing in it!

A World Transformed Excerpt: The Pilgrimage of Life

My book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, is releasing in April! Hope you enjoy this excerpt. It’s about one of my favorite sites on the Hereford Map (ca. 1300)–the Exodus route in medieval Asia.

Of all journeys illustrated on the Hereford Map, the Exodus is the only one marked in ink. You can see, in the picture below, that the mapmaker(s) drew a line connecting the relevant sites in this journey, similar to the highlighted line that marks a route on a GPS today. This line invites us to follow the Israelites’ path from beginning to end, perhaps even to walk it with our finger. It provides our first clue that the Exodus is meant to guide us on our own journey through the world.

Exodus route, detail from the Hereford Map (ca. 1300). Photograph courtesy of Groningen University Library.

The Israelites’ route begins in Ramses, close to the pyramids or, as the map calls them, the “granaries of Joseph” (lower right). It then crosses the Red Sea, which has been miraculously parted. Following along, we see Moses receiving the tablets of the law atop Mt. Sinai and the Israelites worshiping the golden calf below. The path then takes several loops and turns before passing the Dead Sea, in which is visible the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife stands nearby, turned to a pillar of salt as she glances back at the destroyed cities. Finally, the Israelites cross the Jordan River and arrive in Jericho (lower left).

As we follow this extraordinary route, we get more than a lesson in Old Testament geography. We meet a surprising sight and receive a gift of grace. The clue to this surprise is found in the giant bird perched alongside the Exodus route—a bird as large as Mt. Sinai itself. This bird is the phoenix. According to medieval lore, only one phoenix existed at a time. Every five hundred years, it built a nest of spices and flapped its wings until it burst into flames. Another phoenix rose from the ashes to repeat the cycle.

Because of its powers of regeneration, medieval writers viewed the phoenix as a symbol of the resurrection. Its presence along the Exodus route deepens the meaning of this Old Testament event. The phoenix becomes an ingenious way to show, in pictorial form, the foreshadowing of which Paul speaks in his letter to the Corinthians:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10: 1–4)

Paul describes the Israelites’ journey as a baptism into Jesus Christ. It is one of the many instances in which Old Testament events prefigure the coming of the savior. The phoenix, which looks innocuous yet resonates with resurrection, recalls Paul’s interpretation of the Exodus. It turns the Israelites’ trek into a journey that every Christian takes—our walk to salvation in Christ.

Each of us walks this walk. From the moment God calls us out of captivity to the day we stand before his throne, we journey through the wilderness of this world. The Israelites walked to Jericho, but we are on our way to Jerusalem, at the center of the map. With every step we take, we get closer and closer to the home God has prepared for us.

 Watch this website for news on the release of A World Transformed!


We All Wander. But Do We Return?

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I’m drawn to medieval mystics. Having spent the better part of my life studying, the mystics teach something I need to hear: we come to know and love God not through our intellect, but through our heart.

One of the most popular mystical texts was written by my favorite author — Anonymous. In the late 14th century, this man (probably an English monk) penned a guide to contemplative prayer called the Cloud of Unknowing.

These days, the Cloud of Unknowing is one of the main texts used in the practice of centering prayer. It has many techniques and words of wisdom. I’m especially drawn to the part where the author talks about failing at prayer. Because we all do. Our monk says:

No sooner has a man turned toward God in love when through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm is done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection.

I like this monk’s down-to-earth approach. When our mind wanders, we return to God. We don’t worry about it; we don’t dwell on it. We simply return. I find such grace in this message!

One of the most beautiful stories in Scripture, and one of the most familiar, is about returning to God. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. I love the way Rembrandt paints the moment of the wandering son’s return. The tender embrace between father and son captures, for me, the way God longs for each of his children to come home — no matter what we’ve done, no matter how far away we’ve gone.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail), ca. 1669

We often think of the Prodigal Son as a parable about returning to God after a time, perhaps a long time, spent away. Might it also be about the way we return to God each day? I’ve come to see the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for my everyday prayer life. When I pray, I begin strong. I’m ready to take hold of the riches. Then, despite my best intentions, I begin to wander. Before I know it, my treacherous mind is far from the place it began — I end up, alongside the prodigal son, in a metaphorical pig sty of my own making. But God is always waiting, arms outspread, for me to return.

I hear the reassurance of God’s untiring welcome when I read the Cloud of Unknowing. I have to admit that it’s also nice to hear it from someone living in my own century. One day, after “failing” an exercise in contemplative prayer, I admitted my wandering mind to a friend.

“I had to restart my prayer about thirty times,” I complained.

“Thirty times? That’s great! You actually thought about Jesus thirty times!” my friend exclaimed.

She sounded, in her own way, a lot like the Cloud of Unknowing. And I realized she was right. During my prayer exercise, I’d drifted away. There’s no question about it — I’m full of what our 14th-century monk calls “human frailty.” But when I wandered, I came back. And each time I did, Jesus was there. It’s reassuring to know that I may drift away, but he never will.

We all wander. But do we return? That is the real question.

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 World Transformed Excerpt: Jesus our Mother

Last week I took a break from the blog because my article on medieval pilgrimage and spiritual journeys was published. Now I’m back with an excerpt from my book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, which is scheduled to release next month.

This excerpt is about the Ebstorf Map (ca. 1300):

Look closely at the map, especially the edge, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet appear. Jesus does not just hold the world; he embodies it. Round and full, the earth becomes his torso, from which his extremities (somewhat awkwardly) protrude. The map is actually a full-length portrait of our Lord.

Ebstorf Map - wikimedia
Ebstorf Map, ca. 1300. By User:Kolossos (own work (related to the stiching)) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ body contains the world but also swells with the world. To my mind—and I believe this was the intention of its makers—the Ebstorf Map pictures a pregnant body. It is round and swollen. It completely subsumes the normal proportions of the human form. And at the center of this pregnant body lies Jerusalem, which, in Jewish and Christian traditions, was often called the navel of the world. In the early fifth century, Saint Jerome wrote, “Jerusalem is situated in the middle of the earth. This is affirmed by the Prophet, showing it to be the navel of the earth, and by the psalmist expressing the birth of the lord: ‘Truth,’ he says, ‘rose from the earth’; and next the passion: ‘[God] worked,’ he says, ‘salvation in the middle of the earth.’”

Of all the names and concepts for Jerusalem that we’ve examined in this book—geographical center, pilgrimage destination, heavenly city—I find “navel” the most evocative. In many geographical texts, “navel” simply means “center.” But of course, it also carries connotations of gestation and birth. It describes wonderfully the place of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Jerusalem, Jesus gave life to the world, much as the umbilical cord carries sustenance to a new human being through the site of the navel. The city of Jerusalem signifies that our earth is forever linked, as if by an unbroken cord, to the one who carried it and brought it forth.

Together with Jesus’ swollen torso, the navel gives us a new and perhaps a challenging image of our Lord. We think of God as our father and Jesus himself as our friend and brother. By picturing Jesus with a pregnant body, one that delivers nourishment through the earth’s navel, the Ebstorf Map presents Jesus as mother—a mother to the world. The map may have been made by the nuns in the Benedictine convent in which it was displayed. Yet its theology does not spring from a “female mind.” In the Middle Ages, men of the church also thought of Jesus as a mother. This arresting tradition, so foreign to the way we address Jesus today, was quite widespread at the time the Ebstorf Map was made.

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