The following sermon was preached at WBB by Alicia Smith, a post-doc at PIMS, on 1 November, 2022.
This morning I want to bring you treasure from two places: from God’s Word and from the heritage of the medieval Church. The image of God that I was asked to speak on is of a hiding place, as we heard in Psalm 32: and to help us think about this, I want to offer you a word-picture used in medieval literature, which is Christ’s body as a dovecote. A dovecote is just a house for domesticated doves: usually a tall house or tower studded all over with small entrances for doves to shelter in. It’s not the most obvious of metaphors for Jesus’s body!
But images like this can do us good simply by making us stop and think, by stepping outside our usual selection of imagery and words for God. My hope is that it will help us think in a fresh way about God’s wounds, our wounds, and the protection that the one can offer the other.
My academic background is in medieval English literature. I first encountered this image in a Middle English ‘Meditation on the Passion’. This is sometimes said to have been written by a man called Richard Rolle, a hermit and spiritual maverick who died in the Black Plague. But it isn’t certain that he was in fact the author.
The author of this Meditation takes us slowly through the narrative of the Passion, demonstrating how medieval readers were supposed to pay careful attention to every detail of the scene and turn it into prayer. The text lingers for a long time on the image of Jesus’s dying body, often using vivid and even gruesome terms. It addresses Jesus directly throughout, making it an intimate encounter that the reader can enter for themselves. Let me read some to you:
Sweet Jesu … Your body at that time was like the sky, because just as heaven is full of stars, so your body was full of wounds.
And again, sweet Jesu, your body is like a net, because just as a net is full of holes, so your body is full of wounds. …
Once more, sweet Jesu: your body is like a dove-house, because just as a dovecote is full of openings, so your body is full of wounds, and just as a dove being chased by a hawk is safe enough if she can only get to an opening in her dovecote, so, sweet Jesu, your wounds are the best refuge for us in every temptation.
The author goes on to compare Jesus’s wounded body to a honeycomb, dripping sweetness from every cell, a book written in red ink, and a meadow filled with flowers and health-giving herbs.
So in Middle English, Christ’s body is like a dufhouse, a dove-house, a dovecote. ‘Your body is like a dovecote, for as full as a dovecote is of holes, so full is your body of wounds.’ We’re supposed to use our visual imaginations first of all, grasping the sheer quantity of Jesus’s wounds, how they are all over his body.
But we aren’t supposed just to look. We’re not even supposed to stop where Thomas did, putting his hand to the wounds of Christ. Here is where it gets weird: we are supposed to go close, to go in, to be enclosed in this broken-open body and find safety there. ‘Your wounds are the best refuge for us.’
The desire to enter into Jesus’s wounds isn’t unique to this text in medieval literature. Late medieval spirituality in particular was intensely concerned with the physical body of Christ, most of all at the point of his death. When you look at visual art of the Crucifixion as it developed through the Middle Ages, over time you start to see Jesus transform from an almost stoic, still figure on the Cross, to one visibly wracked by pain, his limbs twisted, his blood running freely.
This intense, tactile focus led to a particular devotion among many medieval people to the wounds Jesus received, particularly the wound in his side. It’s not uncommon to find illustrations of that wound in medieval manuscripts which are smudged from being touched by reader after reader. People wanted contact with Jesus’s wounded body. They wanted to be close to him, close enough to be protected by him, in the very moment when he gave up any protection for himself.
This brings me to our Bible passage, Psalm 32. You don’t find a dovecote here, but you do find a description of God as a ‘hiding place’, someone who surrounds us with love and protects us from trouble. This verse has been important to me for a long time – I actually wrote it on the ceiling above my bunkbed as a teenager – I don’t think my parents were necessarily on board with me defacing the paint! But I didn’t know until I was preparing this sermon that the word for hiding place in the verse, the Hebrew noun seter, is in fact the same word used in the closest Biblical source we have for the dovecote image.
This is in the second chapter of the Song of Songs, where the Lover says to the Beloved:
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
It might not be immediately obvious to us what the link is between this wild dove in the mountains, which is an endearment for the Beloved bride being wooed in the Song, and the manmade dovecote of the Meditation, which is an image of the wounded Christ. But it would have been simpler for medieval people. They were used to highly allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as representing the love between Christ and the human soul. So the twelfth-century Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx makes the connection, when he says this about Christ: ‘wounds have been made in his limbs, holes in the walls of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide’.
The image of the hiding place is used differently in the two Scriptural passages I’ve mentioned. In the Song, the Lover is calling to the Beloved to come out from the hiding places in the rock, whereas in Psalm 32, the speaker rejoices in how protected they are by God as their hiding place. But let’s think for a moment about this psalm, and what it says God is protecting us from.
In verses 3 and 4, the speaker of the psalm is suffering. They are weak and wasting away, unable to sleep, groaning in pain. And the reason for this is that they have kept silent about something they need to speak aloud: an acknowledgement of sin. Physical wounds are the symbol of a moral or emotional woundedness, a brokenness that can only be remedied by hiding themselves in God.
Often when we pray for protection or deliverance, it’s from external circumstances: illness, physical threats, conflict with others or in our world. The psalm is aware of the need for protection from these ‘mighty waters’.
But while we certainly face danger ourside ourselves, if we’re honest, we know there are dangers within as well. I’m probably not the only one who relates to Paul’s words in Romans: ‘I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.’ Many of us face turmoil in our emotions or thoughts that it feels hard to escape. We can end up trapped in patterns of behaviour that hurt ourselves and others, and then we’re further trapped by shame that stops us speaking about them.
The psalmist knows this, and the author of the Meditation on the Passion knew it too. That’s why, I think, the dovecote of Christ’s bleeding body is said to be a refuge for us ‘in our temptations’, which pursue us like hawks.
Now, the intense, even obsessive focus on Jesus’s broken, hurting body can feel uncomfortable to us. It’s a lot! And this is a pretty mild example of that trend in medieval culture, to be honest. I’m often thrown off by how unfamiliar this way of thinking feels to me. But I want to say to you, and to myself, that it is really, really important that Jesus Christ is our hiding place precisely because he is a wounded body to whom we can bring our wounds.
In some ways, if you think about it, the medieval image doesn’t make a lot of sense. A wound is by definition an open space that shouldn’t be open. It’s a place where what is inside is laid bare and pain is the result. The inside becomes the outside. So it doesn’t seem like the most promising place to hide.
But that is the point, I think, and it makes an important connection with Psalm 32. The speaker of the psalm becomes sure of the protection and surrounding love of God at the moment when they lay their troubles bare.
It can be painful to be honest with God, let alone other people. But it opens up a path to blessing, and to a safety much greater than the secrecy of shame. We don’t need to cover up our own wounds because Jesus was already wounded. We are safe enough to speak honestly. Maybe there is a way you can live in that radical safety this week.
One way of doing that is to sing, because this is the kind of safety that brings joy. The Lover of the Song says: ‘Let me hear your voice’. The psalmist says, ‘Rejoice, be glad, and sing.’
I’ll close with another voice, the poet Siegfried Sassoon. This is a poem called ‘Everyone Sang’.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.