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Christina of Markyate: Visionary Truth

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Acts 11:1-17

The woman we call Christina of Markyate was born in 1096 into a wealthy merchant family.  She was originally named Theodora.  We know much about her because she was revered enough to have a vita written about her.  It is technically a biography rather than an autobiography, since it was written by others, but it was clearly written with her input, from stories she told, for the details are very personal in nature and it was written during her lifetime.  Theodora was a very spiritual child.  Even at a young age she prayed to God as if God were standing next to her.  In her early teens she visited a monastery and was so inspired by her experience and by the life that the monks led            that she took a private vow of chastity and dedicated her life to the service of God.

It was sometime after that when she crossed paths with Bishop Flambard at her aunt’s house.  Her aunt is referred to in the literature as one of the bishop’s concubines, and the bishop desired Theodora as well.  She got trapped in his room with him and he attempted to persuade her.  In her vita or auto/biography, it was written: “To consent was out of the question, but she did not dare to resist him openly for had she done so she would certainly have been overcome by force.  Hear, then, how prudently she acted.  She glanced back at the door, and saw that though it was closed it was not bolted.  So she said, ‘Allow me to fasten the bolt, for even if we do not fear God at least we ought to fear men, lest they should catch us in this act.’ He demanded an oath from her that she would not deceive him but that she would do as she said and bolt the door.  And she made the oath to him. And so, being released, she darted out of the room, bolted the door firmly from the outside, and hurried quickly home.”[1]

The bishop was furious that the young woman not only escaped his clutches but also fooled him so “he then exacted revenge by brokering a marriage for her with a young nobleman named Beorhtred.”[2] Her parents agreed to the marriage, but Theodora refused.  She had made a vow of chastity and intended to keep it.  Her parents did everything they could to fix that situation.  They put her in seclusion and refused to allow her to visit anyone, especially anyone who might have advised her on spiritual matters.  Her mother hired “old crones” to mix potions that were supposed to “make Christina mad with desire,” but they failed.  Her mother even became physically abusive, causing emotional and physical scars that never went away.  They put her in dangerous and compromising positions, and she still refused.  At some point Theodora agreed to marry Beorhtred but still refused to consummate the marriage.  Her parents gave Beorhtred access to her room one night, assuming he would take her by force  but when he entered her room she was awake and dressed and proceeded to give him a three-hour lecture on chastity.

Another night he entered her room and she hid behind a tapestry.  Still another time he was chasing her, and she came to a tall fence with spikes on top.  She miraculously leapt over the tall fence, leaving her pursuer on the other side.  Then she had a dream or a vision of escaping from Beorhtred and the marriage she never wanted, and being welcomed into the arms of the church.  When she woke up her pillow was wet with tears, and she determined that if her tears were real, then the dream was real as well.

So one day she dressed in men’s clothing and escaped with the help of a hermit who knew of her plight.  She was taken to Alfwen the anchoress, and that same day she put on the religious habit, and changed her name to Christina, as a sign of her covenant with God.  But her family began searching for her, promising to bring her back home in shame, and to kill anyone who aided her.   She had to stay in complete seclusion or her protectors would be killed.  The story written about her says “Hidden out of sight in a very dark chamber hardly large enough, on account of its size, to house her, she remained carefully concealed there for a long time, finding great joy in Christ.”  After a while she had to be moved again, this time to the care of Roger, a hermit and sub-deacon at St Alban’s Abbey, whose cell was at Markyate.  Remember that a cell in this context is not a jail cell, but a monastic cell—so a small room or perhaps a very small hut.  But Christina still had to be hidden, within this small space.  So for two years she lived in a space 13 or 14 inches wide, hidden behind a log, let out only twice a day, in the dark, to go to the bathroom and to pray.  Look at that piece of paper you were given when you came in. It is 14” long.

Finally, after several years, Beorhtred gave up his claims to marriage and released her from her vows,             which freed her to pursue her life calling without being in hiding.  When Roger died, Christina took over the hermitage where she continued to experience frequent visions of Jesus, Mary, and St. Margaret.  There are several things that amaze me about Christina of Markyate, and the first is her resolve.  I cannot imagine being so sure of one’s calling that one would be willing to endure that kind of suffering.  I mean, I feel called to ministry, and am honored to be your pastor, but I would not live in a 14” space for two years for the privilege.  I would think, “You know, if everything is working against me this much, I must be on the wrong path.”  When we feel a call from God, we wisely do not expect it to be easy, but frankly, Christina’s level of commitment is beyond what I can comprehend.

But it’s her visions I really want to talk about because they have two lessons for us.  First, her visions speak the truth of her reality.  The story of the events in her life simply lays out the facts—         this is what happened and this was her response, etc.  They name the horrible things her mother did, they tell of the abusive behavior, but they do not reveal the depth of her pain.   It is in her visions that we see the true scars.  “The historical narrative shows her planning, proceeding rationally to protect herself; but in the visions we see how great an effort this is, how much pain it cost her.”[3]  In her visions we see her doubts and her struggles and the truth of her pain.  God-given visons are honest.  They do not deny our reality.  They do not minimize our pain.  They speak truth—even truth we are unable or unwilling to speak ourselves.  That is part of how we know they are from God.

The second important thing about Christina’s visions is that they showed her the way to live the life to which she was called.  They showed the way to freedom.  This is what God-given visions do: They show us the way to the live the life to which we are called.  They open the door to liberty.  They point the way to justice.  They set us free.

All of this brings me to our scripture today from the book of Acts.  The apostles and other believers were upset with Peter because he had preached to the Gentiles.  Not only that, but he went to their homes and ate with them.  At that time, a good Jew, even a Jew who followed Jesus, could not eat with Gentiles.  They were unclean.  What was Peter doing?  He knew better than this!  He defended himself by telling the story of his vision.  He saw a sheet being lowered from heaven, with unclean animals on it.  A voice told him to kill and eat, but he refused because they were unclean, which was against everything he had been taught as a good Jew.  Three times this happened, and then the voice said “Do not call profane what God has called clean.”  When he woke up, he had visitors—  visitors who were not Jewish, but Gentile, visitors he once would have called unclean.  But they wanted to know the gospel of Jesus Christ and so he went with them and taught them.  It was the vision that enabled him to see the path before him.  God’s vision showed him the way.  God’s vision showed him the truth.  God’s vision widened him. God’s vision showed the way to freedom—for everyone.

That’s what God’s vision does.  Now, I think I know what you may be thinking: “That’s all fine and good, but I don’t have mystical dreams and I don’t have visions, and if I did, I might think I needed a psychiatrist.”  OK, I don’t have visions like Christina’s or Peter’s, either.  I’ve had a couple of dreams that have pointed me in the direction I was intended to go, but usually I dream about stupid stuff like it’s Sunday morning and I forgot to write a sermon.  But there was one time, a long time ago . . . I was an associate pastor, and I knew it was time for me to move on, to get my own church.  But I loved where I was.  I never had a hometown, and that town was more home than I’d ever known a place to be.  And that church had recognized my call and nurtured me, sent me off to seminary, then welcomed me back on staff.  They had stood behind me during a difficult struggle for ordination.  I loved that place and those people and I never wanted to leave, even though I knew, deep down, that it was time.  Then one night I had a dream.  I was at a church picnic, out at someone’s farm.  There was a big open field where we were eating, and off to the left was a great big red barn, with a weathervane on top.  I kept sneaking off, leaving the picnic, so I could go behind the barn . . . and fly.  In my dream I knew how to fly, but I couldn’t let the people know that I could fly, and so I hid behind the barn and I flew low to the ground and kept my wings close to my body so that nobody would see.  When I woke up I knew it was time.  It was time to spread my wings and fly.

I wish I had more dreams like that.  I wish every time I needed direction, I got a vivid, wonderful dream—but I don’t.  I don’t have visions.  But I hope, I pray, I have vision, singular.  I hope we all do.  I don’t mean mystical visions, and I don’t mean sight.  I mean do I, do we, hold a vision of a better world, vision of a world where we can send our children to school without fear; vision of a world where food is not taken out of the mouths of the hungry in order for the wealthy to have more; vision of a world where no one is abused or treated inhumanely; vision of a world where people of all faiths and no faith live in peace.  We have such a vision.  We share it, you and I.  We share this vision of a better world.  It is God’s vision, too. We know because it is honest; it speaks truth; it does not deny our pain.  We know it is God’s vision because it widens us, enlarges us.  We know it is God’s vision because it leads to freedom and shows us the way to live the life to which we have been called.

When Peter was criticized for widening the message to include Gentiles, he defended himself against the accusations by pointing out that God’s Spirit came upon the Gentiles, just as it did on them.  And then he asked, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”  Are we hindering God?  Are we hindering God’s vision when we choose the couch over the protest rally?  Are we hindering God’s vision when we choose to believe the Facebook post             rather than research its validity?  Are we hindering God’s vision when we value our comfort over another’s pain?

God’s vision is global but it is also personal.  What is God’s vision for your life?  You don’t need to live in a 14 inch space to achieve it.    In fact, you need plenty of room to stretch and grow.  So I want you to take that 14” paper home with you, and write on it: What is God’s vision for the world or for your life?  And what will you do, by Easter Sunday, to pursue that vision?  You will know it is God’s vision if it is honest about your pain or the pain of the world, You will know it is God’s vision if it widens you.  You will know it is God’s vision if it leads to freedom. Open my eyes, Lord. Help me to see your face. Open my eyes, Lord. Help me to see.

[1] I have used many sources to gather this information on Christina of Markyate, including the book Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, articles “Christina of Markyate: A Medival Woman Who Refused Marriage” and “Women’s History Month: Christina of Markyate” and others. This quote is from her biography.

[2] wikipedia

[3] Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, p. 137.

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