How to Recognize a Pilgrim

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

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

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”

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

A Medieval Prayer for the World

Aelred of Rievaulx (ms.)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.