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.


A Medium Aevum Advent (a post at the Ancient-Future Faith Network)

Rogier van der Weyden, Columba Altarpiece, ca. 1455

This week I’m over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network with an Advent reflection. How does a medievalist mother experience the coming of Christ? What does a battered manger scene have to do with it? Here’s a peek:

I’m heartened to see more and more Christians keeping Advent— not rushing to the feast, but spending time in holy expectation. The historian in me approves. When we observe Advent, we deepen our preparation for Christ’s coming by embracing the liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church. Some historical Advent practices, such as fasting, most of us do not keep today. Others, like the annual Christmas pageant, are still going strong (in the medieval Church the pageant was performed by choirboys).

This year, as I watch my daughters perform one of their own practices, I’ve been drawn to some wonderful medieval teachings on Advent. Perhaps I should say Advents. In one of his sermons for the season, written in the mid-twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of not one but three comings of Christ. A century later, Thomas Aquinas adds yet another. That’s three more comings than most of us prepare for. It has taken my two children to help me absorb what these four advents might mean for me.

Christ’s first coming, no surprise here, is his historical advent. My daughters have developed an elaborate practice to prepare for this event. That practice? The manger scene. My girls set up their scene with the precision of an HGTV reality show. Everything must be just so. The picture on the box is consulted: Mary must stand here, Joseph there. The manger must be centered. Then and only then is the baby tenderly placed therein. But he’s not there long; Jesus requires much more attention than that. I sometimes think God sent his son as a baby for the benefit of maternally inclined four-year-olds.

Click here to read the rest at the Ancient-Future Faith Network!

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.