A World Transformed Excerpt: “Begin with the Center”


Every week or so I’ll be sharing an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. It’s releasing this spring from Cascade Books! The book shows how walking the medieval world can help us walk our world with God.

This excerpt sets the stage for what the book unpacks . . .


I always find it fascinating when a work of art reveals something about the way it was made. In a Rembrandt painting, for example, globs of paint ride the surface of the canvas, revealing each dab and stroke of the master’s brush. Paintings in medieval manuscript books, by contrast, can be so transparent that the artist’s preliminary sketch peeps out from under the surface. In both cases, we see a bit of the creative process at work.

God the Architect of the Universe, Austrian National Library, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, f.1 verso, ca. 1220-30
God the Architect of the Universe, Austrian National Library, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, f.1 verso, ca. 1220-30

Medieval maps sometimes reveal their making, too. In the center of the Hereford Map, there is a small pinprick or hole that is clearly visible to the naked eye (as long as you are close enough to the map to see it). Scholars believe that this rupture in the parchment marks the spot on which the mapmaker anchored his compass as he drew the circumference of the earth. Given the map’s four-foot diameter, that must have been some compass!

This small record of the map’s making has a great deal of meaning. The little pinprick lies in the exact center of the world. And there, in that spot, an artist drew the city of Jerusalem. Above the city, another artist sketched in a small picture of the Crucifixion. We can almost compare the hole in the parchment to the holes in Christ’s hands, feet, and sides as he is nailed to the cross. The map’s makers may not have thought of the pinprick in this way, but they certainly knew the significance of Jerusalem. With their pinprick and picture, they were following a time-honored tradition that placed this most sacred of cities in the center of the inhabited world.

Jerusalem, detail from the Hereford Map, ca. 1300. Image courtesy of University Library Groningen
Jerusalem, detail from the Hereford Map, ca. 1300. Image courtesy of University Library Groningen

What a beautiful way to make a map! Begin with the cross. Let Jerusalem shape the contours of the earth. The map’s making contains an echo of what God did in the beginning, creating the world and ordering it around his son.

It also leads to questions about our world. Each day, we give shape to our world through our beliefs and our way of life. What does our world look like? Does it begin with the cross? Is it given form and coherence by Jesus Christ? Or has it begun to lose the perfect shape the creator gave it? These are challenging questions, even for Christians. So many things clutter our world—so many distractions, competing beliefs, and false promises—that Jesus sometimes gets crowded out. We forget the place that he once occupied in our life, the passion that we once had for him. Our world may no longer be recognizable to us.

Maybe it’s time to reshape our world. Time to order it, chart it, plot its contours anew. To do so, we need to think like cartographers of old. We need to think medieval. That is the task of the present chapter. As we become familiar with medieval maps, we will discover how mapmakers saw their world, especially its sacred center. In the process, we may get the urge to become cartographers, too. By chapter’s end, we may find ourselves pulling out our own compass and redrawing our little world.

Watch my website for the release date and news about the book’s launch!

How to Pray Through Interruptions

“The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory.” – Eugene Peterson

I usually think whatever I’m doing is soooooo important. I have my schedule. I guard my time. I’ve made my plans. Woe to the one who decides to burst in on them!

I especially worry about being interrupted when I’m working — which means writing, thinking, dreaming. Writing is often how I pray. It’s when I sort through my ideas about God and praise him in the best way I know how.

Except when it’s not the best way.

In the mid fourteenth century, an Augustinian canon named Walter Hilton wrote a treatise addressed to a wealthy layman. The recipient of this treatise loved God and seemed to feel guilty that he was not a monk or a priest. Hilton’s response is wonderful. Embrace the life you have, he says. And that means embrace interruptions.

A contemplative quality of life is fair and fruitful, and therefore it is appropriate to have it always in your desire. But you shall be in actual practice of the active life most of the time, for it is both necessary and expedient.

Therefore, 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.*

A medieval cellarer--a man leading "the active life." Creator:Monk of Hyères Cibo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
A medieval cellarer–a man leading the “active life.” Creator:Monk of Hyères Cibo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Hilton is believed to have lived as a hermit for a time, but he seems to know how things work for those leading the active life. He knows that the second you try to pray, your children need you. The moment you find some blessed peace and quiet, your neighbor comes around wanting you to take her to a doctor’s appointment.

How often have I gotten angry about these kinds of interruptions? Or worse, how often have I told my children, “Just a minute — I’ll be right with you,” never taking my eyes from the computer screen?

In Hilton’s advice I find a gentle reproof. Do not be heavy handed. Don’t be so worried! And I find a “spirituality of interruption.” It tells me: I don’t leave my devotions when I take my children into my arms. This interruption is my devotion. I don’t leave my work when I assist someone. The neighbor who needs me is my work. This spirituality is, frankly, a challenge.

Recently I’ve seen other thoughtful people wrestling with this idea. A recent post by Ken Chitwood describes those moments when someone, perhaps someone unknown, has been “thrust into our hectic schedule” as momentary vocations — they are God’s invitation to join him in caring for the world. “Momentary vocation” is a lovely term for interruption, isn’t it? God puts these interruptions, er, vocations right under our noses, if we’re not too busy building our kingdoms to notice them.

I’m coming to believe that God has written these interruptions into my schedule, as immovable and sacred as fixed-hour prayer. I imagine God adding them to my calendar when I’m not looking. “Won’t she be surprised!”

Yes, she usually is.

Most of us aren’t monks. But that doesn’t matter: our active lives are sacred callings. I’m learning that there are no interruptions to prayer. Just different kinds of prayer.

*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!

What I Wish St. Augustine Had Said

Justus van Gent, St. Augustine, ca. 1474

When I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead a few years ago, I was struck by something the character of John Ames proclaims towards the end of the story: “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (2004, pp. 245-46)

It certainly rang true to me. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that God loves the whole world. Doesn’t he play favorites like the rest of us do? When I read that line in Gilead, I immediately took to the idea of being God’s only child. One of a kind. Special. Uniquely loved.

Historian that I am, I went to look up this quote in Augustine’s works. I was pretty sure it came from the Confessions. But try as I might, I couldn’t find it. As I searched, I came across the same loosely quoted phrase, with no citation, in a nonfiction book. And I’ve seen it other places on the web.

Finally, after consulting a friend who specializes in the early Christian tradition, I discovered what Augustine really said:

You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.*

Here’s the context. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s mother, Monica, wept for his soul. God comforted Monica in a vision. Augustine writes:

How could this vision come to her unless ‘your ears were close to her heart?’ You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.

In this statement, Augustine paints a vivid picture of God’s overwhelming love. God rests his ear on Monica’s chest and listens to her heartbeat, her tears, her pain. In Monica’s moment of need, everything and everyone else fades from God’s view, and Monica becomes his only care and concern.

But Augustine did NOT say, “God loves each of us as an only child.” He does not explicitly cast God as a parent. Augustine might have been thinking about God as a father, but maybe not. Perhaps he was thinking of God as a pastor, a doctor, a mentor, or a teacher — someone who has another in his or her care.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail)

I have to admit that I’m disappointed. Having gotten it in my head that Augustine was talking about an only child, I found the real quotation to be somewhat watered down. I don’t want to be someone in God’s care. I want to be God’s child. You don’t run into your doctor’s or teacher’s outspread arms. You run into your father’s (or mother’s) arms. That’s the kind of care-giving relationship I crave — the complete trust and intimacy between parent and child. I know I have this relationship, for Jesus exhorts us to be “little children” many times.

But here’s the kicker — I want to be God’s only child. I yearn for the undivided attention of a beloved parent; to climb up on God’s knee and know that I am his only one. He’s not going to get distracted by the other children out there. He’s not going to run out of time or energy for me.

I’m not above acting like a child desperate for attention, either. “Look at me!” I cry out to God. “I bet those other kids can’t do a one-handed cartwheel!” Do you do that, too? (I mean the showing off, not the cartwheel.)

We look to the greats of the Church to tell us about our deepest longings. Augustine didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but he did teach me something about myself. My search for Augustine’s quotation, and my subsequent disappointment, reveals the state of my heart: a heart that’s desperate to be someone’s one and only.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, since this passage from the Confessions has been misquoted (perhaps a better word is paraphrased) more than once, even by the likes of Marilynne Robinson! I think it points to one of the tensions of the Christian faith — we have a God who stretches his arms around the whole world yet loves each of us as the one perfect and beloved child he’s always longed for. It’s a tension I’ll wrestle with for a long time, since I’ll always be a child at heart.

*Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.11.19, p. 50.

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!

“When Jesus Did the Dishes”

Dishes in a dutch kitchen By Miguel Pires da Rosa from Braga, Portugal (Recycle) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Last week I wrote about dishwashing as a spiritual discipline. By channeling the wise words of a Buddhist monk and a medieval master, we can “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” We introduce tenderness into a chore that usually invites frustration.

Today—dishwashing as a moment of delight.

We begin by doing the dishes as a form of imitatio Christi. Surprising—unless you’re familiar with the medieval way of approaching Jesus.

In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote about the boyhood of Jesus:

Thus Christ was subject, as he was to you, Mary and Joseph,

What kind of subjection did he wish for himself?

Was he not showing obedience in your midst, as one who rightly serves?

Carefully and often he lights the fire and prepares the food;

He does the dishes and fetches water from a nearby fountain.

Now he sweeps the house, gives straw and water to the donkey.*

We do the dishes because Jesus first did them for his parents. Is it any wonder I love the Middle Ages?

This tidbit about Jesus is, as you’ve doubtlessly realized, extra-Biblical. Gerson uses his imagination to bring to life the Bible’s brief statement that the boy Jesus was obedient to his parents (this was after Jesus was “lost” for three days in Jerusalem–see Luke 2:51).

Gerson’s poem represents the medieval imagination at its finest. Like Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (discussed in my previous post), it paints a picture of Jesus meant to delight us and to invite us into his life.

This kind of imagination doesn’t often figure into modern approaches to Jesus. We usually stick to what we know. But I was pleasantly surprised when my Sunday school class recently veered off our assigned topic (Jesus’ public ministry) and began discussing, in a very imaginative way, what the Holy Family’s life might have been like. What was it like for Mary, raising Jesus and knowing–but maybe not knowing–who he was and what he was destined to do? What opinions did the Holy Family’s neighbors have about the boy Jesus? Did they think he was exceptional, and maybe a bit peculiar, without realizing that he was the Messiah?

This discussion filled me with delight! It was, for a moment, like being in the Middle Ages, when church officials and laypeople alike loved talking about the “lost years” of Jesus’ life.

What do you think about this kind of discussion? Is it legitimate to “flesh out” Jesus’ obedience and other events in his life? Have you yourself ever wondered about all those moments we know nothing about?

Here’s another moment. In this miniature from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (ca. 1440), Jesus is shown taking steps in a baby walker. (This is a few years before he learned to do the dishes!) Nearby, Mary weaves while Joseph planes a piece of wood. This scene of delightful intimacy may have been intended to help the book’s owner, the Duchess of Guelders, prepare for her (hoped-for) role as mother.


By Clèves Master [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s some theology behind these wonderful little scenes. Gerson himself said there is no better way to soften hard hearts than to let faith see God acting as a child. He wanted to help Christians delight in the boy Jesus and to affirm that God became human—a small human with parents, chores, and child-like faith. Gerson’s imagination is in service of the incarnation.

I think we could use a little more imagination in our faith today. We are so good at studying the Bible. We parse its meaning verse by verse and even word by word. We defend our beliefs with arguments and analysis. We listen to three-point sermons that tell us how to live.

Sometimes, this approach leaves me exhausted. I feel like I’m drowning in meaning and interpretation. I recently turned down an invitation to join a Bible study because, frankly, it seemed too labor intensive. It involved too much homework, too many workbooks, and too many lectures. I love God’s word, but sometimes, instead of study guides, I need to be guided to some lighter moments. I need to enjoy my faith and to delight in who Jesus was and is. “God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God,” writes Richard Foster about experiencing delight in our Lord.

Gerson’s poem opens the door to a moment of delight, one I can experience even at the kitchen sink. Thanks to this medieval chancellor–and that wonderful discussion in my Sunday school class–I can no longer do the dishes without imagining the boy Jesus scrubbing away at the nearby fountain. I think of the incarnation, which is good. I remember that Jesus participated fully in the messiness of life. Very theological.

But more than all that, I smile. I like thinking that God did the washing up, in more ways than one.


*This quotation and other information about Gerson are from Brian Patrick McGuire, “When Jesus Did the Dishes: The Transformation of Late Medieval Spirituality” in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 131-152.

Hnd Wash Dishes, (c) Quadell CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Kitchen Sink Spirituality

Hnd Wash Dishes, (c) Quadell CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: “Hand wash dishes”, © Quadell (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons 

Washing the dishes isn’t included in the books on spiritual disciplines—not in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline or Adele Calhoun’s more recent Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which describes a whopping 62 disciplines.

But maybe it should be.

In recent months I’ve come across three references to people who have made doing the dishes into a discipline of sorts. Three! That can’t be a fluke. Is there something about dishwashing—other than its obvious need to be done—that recommends it to Christians today?

Let’s take a look at what people are saying about doing the dishes:

Christine Berghoef gets poetic about dishwashing in a post last year at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation:

In the predictable rhythm of liquid warmth swirling through my washcloth as I swab away remnants of the day’s nourishment, the liltingly light splash of the faucet rinsing the suds, and the movement from rinse to dry rack, I am soothed. Unwound. Almost tranquilized. It forces me to pause, to ruminate over the events of the day, to be still.

In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, 2013), Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, describes the small discipline of doing the dishes as an exercise in humility. Tackling the crockery before he leaves for a speaking engagement, he says, helps him to limit “my own exercise of godlike freedom and significance” (pp. 241-242).

On his website, Jim Forest tells a story about his friend, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh once told him, “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” Forest was puzzled. Then his friend advised him to “wash every dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

I love all three of these! Each brings to the fore a different spiritual benefit of doing the dishes—being still, being humble, and being present with Jesus.

Which benefit speaks to you the most? Where do you need to see Jesus reaching into the mess of your daily life?

I’m especially drawn to the story about Nhat Hanh. When I read it, I was immediately transported to the Middle Ages, my favorite time period. Nhat Hanh’s advice may be about presence and mindfulness, but it also sounds just like something a medieval devotional master would say.

One devotional text I’ve always liked, the Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony (14th c.), tells lay Christians to imagine holding and caring for the baby Jesus:

Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.

And later:

[T]he holy Virgin, following the law that had been established, left the city of Bethlehem with Joseph and the infant Jesus to go to Jerusalem, five miles distant, to present Our Lord in the temple. You go, too, in their company, and help them carry the child.

I never fail to be moved by the tenderness of this invitation. Ludolph asks his readers not just to meditate on Jesus, not just to think about him or rehearse the events in his life. He invites every person to enter into Jesus’ life. This reverses the way we usually approach Jesus. Instead of asking our Lord to help us, we help care for him. We kiss and hold and carry his infant self. For a moment, we are his mother.

I’m fascinated by the way a contemporary Buddhist monk channels this text. I doubt that Nhat Hanh meant to get medieval on us, but he did–and together with Ludolph of Saxony, his advice helps to transform a small part of our daily life. “Wash every dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

Doing the dishes can make me so angry. I’m tired at the end of the day. I see the piles of dirty plates, not all of which will fit into the dishwasher, and I don’t want to wash them. But how could I be angry washing the baby Jesus? How could I refuse an invitation to take him into my arms?

I need this kind of spirituality, one in which tenderness and imagination melt away my frustration. One in which Jesus becomes startlingly present in my life. What, after all, could be more startling than suddenly seeing Jesus in your kitchen sink? It’s the jolt needed to restart and soothe my troubled heart.

If henceforth my family sees me weeping at the sink after dinner, it will be because I hold not only dishes, but also the infant savior.

Dishwashing as a spiritual discipline? Surely so. One that I practice each day. One that brings me to Jesus. One that washes me of anger even as I wash the dishes clean.

birth stories by lisa deam christian author speaker

Birth Stories

birth stories by lisa deam christian author speaker

When people ask about my daughter’s birth, I usually describe the weather. I tell them a story, a true one, about the blizzard that raged the day she came—about my prayers that the baby woulfd stay put during the storm and the telling pains that nevertheless arrived, with no warning, to wreak havoc on my body, just as the blowing snow made mischief for the cars that slid by my window. I tell them about my husband’s frantic shoveling to free the car from the mountains of snow in the driveway and our harrowing ride to the hospital, during which we made cautious haste—cautious so that the car would be able to stop, haste so that we would make it in time. I tell them, finally, about the baby that was born eleven minutes after we traversed the long hospital corridor to the inner sanctum at its end.

People like this story. But I intend it primarily as a metaphor, a way to talk about certain aspects of this birth that are difficult to describe in polite society.

**Published at: The Cresset, Trinity 2011 (Vol LXXIV, No. 5, pp 26-32)

Read More

Bloom: Rembrandt, Red Meat, and Remembering the Flesh

Bloom: Rembrandt, Red Meat, and Remembering the FleshIn his 1655 painting, The Slaughtered Ox, Rembrandt gives us a disturbing image. We come face to face with a giant ox carcass hanging from a cross beam, its hind legs splayed and skin flayed to reveal the bone, fat, and muscle beneath. The animal dominates the image space; the viewer can find virtually nowhere to look for relief. Even peripheral details, such as the wooden planks of the interior and the clothing of a woman in the background, take on the colors of the slaughtered animal; subdued browns, reds, and whites dominate. The painting belongs to the later, “impressionistic” part of Rembrandt’s career, as the rather loose brushstrokes indicate. But surely to segue into a discussion of impasto represents a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the reality of this image. There is no way to get around it: in his painting, Rembrandt offers not merely thick brushstrokes, but the convincing illusion of dead and soon-to-decay flesh.

I always have liked Rembrandt, but I never thought much about the The Slaughtered Ox. Certainly I never sought out this painting on my occasional visits to the Louvre, where it now hangs. With art history classics like Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano in nearby galleries, why focus on an animal carcass? A few years ago, however, I found myself face to face with the kind of flesh that Rembrandt depicts. This time, my encounter took place not at a museum, but at the meat department of a large midwestern grocery warehouse. I had taken a job at the warehouse, called Roundy’s, where I sold all kinds of fresh and processed meat to grocery stores in a tri-state area. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the kinds of carcasses I previously had found so distasteful. In this most unlikely of situations, I discovered that Rembrandt and I—and his painted ox, too—had something in common.