Recently, former postdoctoral fellow, Lisa K. Deam released her book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade Books, 2015). Deam’s work brings her study of medieval history and theology to her exploration of spiritual practices for twenty-first century readers. Intrigued by this new book, I sat down (virtually) with Lisa to find out more about her work.
Mary Beth: When did you first become interested in Medieval Maps and how did that interest develop into this book, A World Transformed?
Lisa: For my dissertation, I studied a 15th-century chronicle that included a map of the world as one of its illustrations. The map was “old-fashioned;” it was a type that was popular around the year 1300. This led me to investigate the tradition of medieval maps. At first they seemed rather quaint—monsters at the edge of the world! Jerusalem at the center! But they helped me to understand the manuscript I was exploring. I gradually began to realize that the features that seemed so strange were also spiritually compelling.
Here’s the way it began. One Sunday, at the English-speaking church I attended while living and researching in Brussels, Belgium, the pastor said in his sermon that our lives are like circles. We all want the circle of our life to be perfectly round; no one wants a squashed, lopsided one. So we draw and redraw the outline of our circle. We smooth it out here, only to find that it’s bulging on the other side. We rush to fix it, but now it’s caving in somewhere else. We run frantically around and around the circle, unable to keep the outline round and smooth. In the meantime, the center of the circle doesn’t move at all. It is the only fixed point, the only source of stability in our collapsing world. The center of our circle is, of course, Christ Jesus. We should fix our eyes on the center, not the circumference.
The pastor’s message reminded me of medieval world maps. They, too, are circular in shape. They have a circumference and a center. Not just any center. Their center is the city of Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and resurrected. At that point, I began thinking of the maps not just as a representation of the medieval worldview, but also of a Christ-centered worldview that could shape my own life. When I finished my dissertation, I couldn’t get these beautiful maps out of my mind! I began writing and speaking about them, and soon I realized there was so much to say about their worldview that I needed to write a book.
MB: The process of developing and writing a book does not always go smooth nor is it a straight path. To borrow from your book, it can be quite the “journey.” How did you get from a pastor’s sermon in Brussels and a dissertation to this book? Are they all connected?
L: As you say, it’s a long way from an insight or idea to an entire book! The Lilly Fellows Program helped me begin that journey. At the beginning of my fellowship, we fellows were asked to choose an image that symbolized our scholarly and spiritual journey thus far. Having recently finished my dissertation, I thought immediately of medieval maps. The maps worked well for this exercise since they are divided into three continents, each with a distinct character, which provided three spaces in which I could plot the different areas of my life; all three are centered on the sacred city of Jerusalem.
At the end of the year, I returned to medieval maps to write the reflection that the first-year fellows presented in Colloquium. Here I further developed the metaphor of medieval maps as an image of life and faith. It was wonderful to combine two sides of my life that had previously been kept fairly separate—the scholarly and the spiritual.
The LFP helped me to discover a new way of thinking and writing that integrated scholarship and faith. I began to write essays that intertwined the two. Eventually, I combined this type of writing with my belief that medieval maps have something to say to a wider audience, not just academics. I wanted people in my church to know about the maps and receive encouragement from them. I began working toward the goal of writing about medieval maps for a general audience. But it was years before I was finally able to organize my thoughts into a book that really worked!
MB: You begin A World Transformed by talking about “spiritual GPS.” How did you develop this idea and why are medieval maps relevant to today’s readers?
L: The idea of a “spiritual GPS” came about as I was trying to make a connection between today’s readers and maps of the Middle Ages. We use maps all the time to orient our movements and to get us where we want to go. But what about a map for where we want to go spiritually? Isn’t that the journey for which we need the most assistance? My argument is that medieval world maps provide orientation for our journey of faith.
Then I realized that we don’t actually use maps, at least, not the folded paper ones–we use GPS units and other satellite devices and apps. To show readers that medieval maps really are relevant today, I compare them to GPS units. There are some interesting comparisons (and contrasts). GPS units organize the world around us and our movements. But is our spiritual world organized that way? Should we be at the center? It bears thinking about.
MB: Whether we use (or don’t use) maps or GPS to find our way in the world, your work gives readers a way to consider their spiritual path (or journey) through tangible, tactile objects. In particular, I am thinking of your fifth chapter, “Journeying to Jerusalem.” You articulated some of these ideas in a different way in your piece in The Cresset, “A Packing List for Jerusalem.” Can you say a little more about how you use the material culture that is a map to get at spiritual journey?
L: Let me answer by picking up on your term “spiritual journey.” When we think of spiritual journeys today, we often use the term “pilgrimage.” In fact, we are encouraged to do so by the Hereford Map, which prominently features several pilgrimage destinations. Yet for the people who saw this map, pilgrimage meant something quite different than it does to us. When I delved into medieval pilgrimage accounts, I was struck by how physical and, well, worldly, these journeys seemed. They were filled with battles with weather, animals, other human beings, seasickness, tedium, and fear—to name a few things. I’m almost surprised that anyone ever went on a pilgrimage! To me, these very real and physical journeys help us understand what we face, give up, and battle as we make our own journey to the cross. My take is that if we’re going to borrow a term from the Middle Ages, we should explore what it meant in the Middle Ages. Pilgrimage is one example of how medieval maps give us an entree into cultural practices that in turn can shine a light on how we practice faith today.
MB: Who do you hope will read your book?
L: Thoughtful individuals who want to be intentional about their journey of faith will, I think, enjoy the book. It will give them a new way of seeing and practicing some of the classical spiritual disciplines. But I also hope that individuals who have never read about spiritual disciplines (or maybe even about Christian history) will be surprised to find themselves in its pages. I hope they’ll be drawn in by the language and imagery that medieval maps give us to express our faith and our doubt. I think I’m preaching to the choir in this forum, but I always encourage potential readers who might be wary of the book’s historical focus to let themselves be surprised by the marvelous, monstrous Middle Ages!
If you wish to learn more about A World Transformed and Lisa’s work, check out her guest post at Caryn D. Riswold’s Patheos blog, Feminismxianity. And if you are in the Mooresville, NC area May 13, head on over to the Centre Presbyterian Church from 7 – 9 pm for Lisa’s book party.
Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly