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Marguerite d’Oingt

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Jeremiah 31:31-34

The reason we are able to have this Lenten study on the mystics is simple but important: they all told their stories. They felt compelled to tell others what they had seen, heard, or experienced. “There were basically two motivations for writing—to tell one’s own spiritual history and to teach others about God.  These were not really separable motivations for medieval women, for one’s own spiritual history was the discovery of the self-made in the image of God, and to tell one’s story was to teach about God.”[1]

Marguerite d’Oingt wrote down her visions and meditations in not one but three languages precisely because she wanted to teach others. But she had another reason for writing down her visions.  They made her sick.  “She began to write only because she was so overwhelmed by her visionary experiences that she became ill.”[2]  As long as the thoughts stayed in her mind, she obsessed on them, could think of little else, until she thought she would go mad.  She wrote about herself in the third person, so here are her words, about her own experience: “[Her visions] . . . were all written in her heart in such a way that she could not think about anything else. . . . She thought that if she were to put these things in writing, as Our Lord had sent them to her in her heart, her heart would be more relieved for it.  She began to write everything that is in this book . . . and as soon as she put a word in the book, it left her heart.”[3]

Some of us know the healing power of writing. Many years ago I read a study that was done with men 55 and older who had been laid off from their jobs.  Half of the group was instructed to write for just twenty minutes every day about being laid off—how it affected them, how they felt.  (The other half was given no writing instruction.)  The study was so long ago that I can’t find the article, but if recollection serves, after three months, the men who wrote about their experience were three times more likely to have found employment.  The practice of writing helped them process their experience, so that they were not taking that pain and anger into the next job interview.  Writing can be a clarifying, healing act.

But, having said that, that’s not exactly what Marguerite d’Oingt meant. She saw herself as “not a vessel but a text, a body in whom or on whom a text is inscribed.”[4]  She saw the vision as being written on her heart.  So when she wrote it down, the text written within her was transferred to the pages of the book, which is why she said it left her heart.

Her major written work includes the stories of several visions. In the first vision she sees Christ holding a closed book, as if to teach from it.  There is writing on the clasps of the book, written in three colors, and she interprets what each word and color means.  More importantly, she sees Christ as both the holder of the book and the book itself.  Christ is also a text.  The word of God is written on Christ’s body, especially through the wounds.  Through her meditation she is led to compare Christ’s book to the book of her own conscience, and the contrast between Christ’s book and her own is so great that “she is moved to amend her life to conform more closely to the pattern suggested by Christ’s book.”[5]

In her second vision, Christ opens the book, and I am reminded of a story that Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells in the foreword to a book called Our Lives As Torah, which some of you have read.  In preparation for Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, the preschool teacher at the synagogue had asked him to give the children a tour of the prayer hall.  He writes: “I intended to talk about why their parents would all want to be in the same room at the same time.  Then, for the piece de resistance, I planned to open the floor-to-ceiling curtains that covered the ark—the chamber containing the handwritten Torah scrolls of the Five Books of Moses.  Then I would remove one scroll, open it on the reader’s desk, and invite the children up to the bima, where they could look inside and, if their hands were clean, they could pet the white part of the parchment.  Initially things went as planned, but before I realized it, time must have gotten away from me.  I saw the teacher at the back of the room discreetly signaling that school was almost over. . . . Not wanting to rush through removing the Torah scrolls from the ark, I decided to postpone that for a later lesson.  ‘Next week, boys and girls, when we meet again, I’ll open these curtains and show you something very special inside.’  The next morning, their teacher showed up in my office with the following story.  Apparently, my hastily concluded lesson had generated a heated debate among the [children] as to what exactly was behind the curtain. . . . One child, doubtless a budding nihilist, thought the ark would be empty.  Another, of a more traditional bent, guessed it held an old Jewish holy book or something.  A third, apparently already a devotee of American television consumer culture, opined that ‘behind that curtain was a brand new car!’  But one child, the teacher recounted, explained to the rest of the class, ‘You’re all wrong. Next week, when that rabbi man opens the curtain, there will be a giant mirror!’  Somehow that fourth little one intuited the great mystery of every sacred text: It is holy because in its words we meet ourselves.”[6]

I love this story because I think it is true. In many ways scripture is a mirror.  Reading scripture holds a mirror up to our own lives, so that we, like Marguerite, can see the difference between the life of Jesus and our life, the difference between how we are living and how we’re called to live.  It is also, though, a mirror because we bring to it our own expectations and beliefs, and the Bible can be used to reflect back what we want.  (I may have told you this story before, I can’t remember.)  A seminary professor of mine told us that when she was a child, she attended church only when visiting her two grandmothers.  One grandmother attended a church that focused mostly on the Old Testament stories,   and the other grandmother attended a church that focused on the New Testament.  One grandmother attended a church that preached hell, fire, and damnation, and the other grandma attended a church that preached a loving, forgiving God. But the church that preached hell, fire, and damnation was not the Old Testament church, but the church focused on the New Testament.  The church that preached grace and forgiveness was the one that taught more from the Old Testament.  This is not what many of us would have assumed, because too often we find in the scriptures what we expect to find.

I think this is an important idea for us to consider, but this is not the kind of mirror that Marguerite experienced in her vision. And I apologize because this is the second time I’ve explained something and then said “that’s not exactly what Marguerite meant,” because it’s so easy for us to assume we know what an ancient person is talking about, that we fail to dig deep enough to really understand.  (We do this even more so with the Bible.)  In Marguerite’s vision of the book, she saw a mirror that showed a beautiful place larger than the world.  This place was “the source of all good: wisdom, power, charm, strength, kindling of love, unthinkable joy.  The angels and saints look on God and sing forever a new song; they are within God like the fish within the sea, and just as waves go to the sea and flow back again to the shore, so all beauty and sweetness pour forth from the Lord and flow back to [the Lord.][7]

This vision was not just an ordinary open book because the book could be dismissed as fantasy; it could be science fiction. In her vision the book is a mirror in order to tell us that such a world does exist—this world of unthinkable joy and a kindling of love.  It’s just that it reflects a world which we do not yet know or cannot yet see.

Marguerite said the angels and saints look on God and sing, for eternity, a new song—as one song is not quite ended, a new song begins. Now consider your resistance to singing three verses of an unfamiliar hymn!  Marguerite was, of course, using a metaphor.  She was saying that an old song could never speak to the truth of God because God is always more than we currently understand or can express.  To experience God we must be open to change, to what new thing God wants to do.  This is how we get to that place larger than we can imagine, that place of unthinkable joy.  In this place of joy the saints are in God like the fish are in the sea.  The fish are not aware of the sea; they don’t feel the water.  But the water holds them, feeds them, and gives them life.  So we are in God—even when we cannot feel, even when we cannot hear, even when we long for a vision of a world that is good and we have little evidence that it exists.

Let’s go back now to where we started in Marguerite’s visions. She saw herself as “not a vessel but a text, a body in whom or on whom a text is inscribed.”[8]  God wrote the vision on her heart.  This sounds, of course, very much like our scripture passage from Jeremiah.  Before the fall of Jerusalem Jeremiah had been the prophet of doom and gloom, but once Jerusalem fell to its enemies, he turned to offering comfort and hope. In this passage Jeremiah promised hope because of a new covenant.  The new covenant didn’t replace the old covenant in content.  It was still based on Torah, and it still contained the same rules: worship only God, and treat others the way God had treated them.  “It would not be new in terms of content … but in terms of place.  This new covenant which would be made available to them would not be imposed upon them from the outside, but would be ‘within them,’ ‘on their hearts,’ or ‘in their center.’”[9]  This new covenant that God promised to them, and to us, is that it will emanate from within rather than be imposed from outside.  God will write on our hearts.

We are the text.  We are the book.  God writes in our hearts, yes, for our sake, but also for the sake of others  so that when others see us, when they read the book of our hearts,   they will see God. They will see a world that is possible but not yet here.

Jeremiah says that with the new covenant, we won’t need to teach one another anymore. This doesn’t mean simply that I’ll be out of a job.  It means we won’t have to teach because our lives will point to God.  Our stories will tell the story of God and God’s interaction in the world.

God longs to write on our hearts, to teach us a new song, to show us a world we cannot yet imagine but we somehow already know. It is our job to tell the story.

[1] Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature. Page 44.

[2] Ibid., p. 278.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 280.

[6] Ochs, Carol. Our Lives as Torah, pp ix-x.

[7] Petroff, p. 280.

[8] Ibid, p. 278.

[9] Duncan, Stan. “Written on Their Hearts.” homebynow.blogspot.com

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