“He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
You may think it odd to begin a presentation about a famous set of prayers by a Swedish nun by spending time with a German painting. But this painting was directly inspired by the devotional writings of Bridget of Sweden, especially her Revelations, a book of visions of the crucified Christ. Bridget never saw this painting, as it was completed 130 years after her death. But had she been able to paint, I believe she would have created something just like this.
This is the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthaeus Gruenewald in 1515 for the hospital chapel at Monastery of St. Anthony in a village near Colmar in Alsace, now a part of France. One of the masters of the Mannerist style, this is Gruenewald’s greatest work. A similar “Small Crucifixion” is in the National Gallery.
The monks who served at the monastery of St. Anthony were a community dedicated to treating those who suffered from the plague and ergotism. There was no remedy, and the monks’ mission was to provide physical care and spiritual consolation. The painting appropriately reveals Jesus who suffered as we suffer and who shows the extent of God’s love through offering Himself to destruction. Jesus is present in our pains and reveals His mercy as we face the certain prospect of death.
Bridget of Sweden lived in a time overshadowed by death, when Europe faced spiritual crisis and social collapse. She was a woman of the 14th century (1303-1373), who lived through the “Little Ice Age,” which caused catastrophic crop failures and famine, the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. Like all Europeans of her time, she lived in dread of the dramatic advance of militant Islam, the Turks who threatened the survival of Christian civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. The Western Church was scandalously divided during her lifetime, with two rival popes, one in Rome and one in Southern France. This scandalous condition was known as the “Babylonian Captivity “of the church. Bridget would lend her considerable political acumen to trying to mend the division but it was not resolved during her lifetime.
The opening passage from Isaiah 5w was part of an oracle revealed to God’s people at another time of crisis, during the original Babylonian captivity. The Israelites were deeply disoriented, living amid the collapse of their spiritual institutions. But in that moment, God revealed the promise of a Redeemer who would heal their diseases and bring them lasting peace, through His self-giving love, His suffering on their behalf. “He was wounded for our transgressions,” He wrote, “he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”
The time before Bridget, the high middle ages had been marked by a triumphant piety and elegant visual arts. One can see great confidence in scholastic syllogisms, Gothic arches, crosses studded with gems as Christ wore the crown of victory. This changed dramatically in the 14th century. This time of horrors was also an age of intense concentration on the sufferings of Jesus: as seen in realistically carved crucifixes, devotions to prayers to the holy wounds, and a proliferation of sermons about preparing for death. This was also a time of deepened devotion to the Sorrowful Mother. The Stabat Mater is a hymn of this era, a tale of a woman weeping for her fallen child, as so many women of that age did.
The most influential figure behind this flowering of piety was Bridget, a Swedish noblewoman who wrote a variety of works and founded a religious order that spread across Europe, carrying her devotion to the suffering Christ with them. She and her nuns wore diadems studded with red stones, reminders of the five wounds.
Bridget first had a vision of Christ crucified at the age of twelve. These revelations continued throughout her life, and many of them were collected and translated into Latin by her confessors. Women couldn’t study theology or publicly preach, but if God granted them visions, these could be shared. She was one of a series of female mystics of her era who received such visions and wrote lengthy descriptions. Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe were seeing similar visions and writing about them at roughly the same time.
Unlike most medieval spiritual writers, Bridget was a married woman for much of her life, and bore eight children. She was a lady in waiting to the queen of Sweden. But after her husband’s death became a tertiary Franciscan and devoted her life to prayer and care of the poor and sick. Eventually she was inspired to found a religious order, the Order of the Most Holy Savior. She made a pilgrimage across Europe in 1350, the most severe year for the Black Death, to ask permission from the pope and to work for reform and unity in the Church. She would wait for twenty years, but was eventually granted permission and her order still continues, with houses around the world.
The Fifteen Os of St. Bridget are a series of prayers associated with a vision in which Bridget asked Christ to tell her how many wounds he had suffered in his crucifixion. Christ gave her a series of fifteen prayers, and told her that if she prayed them each once a day, along with 15 Our Fathers and Fifteen Hail Marys, in the course of a year, she would say one prayer for each of his 5480 wounds.
Scholarly consensus today has turned against the idea that Bridget herself wrote the prayers. They don’t appear in the earliest versions of her writing. They may have been written by an early member of her community at the motherhouse at Vadstena or even in England, where the order was widespread. Nonetheless, the spiritual focus of the prayers is fully consistent with the visions the saint did receive, and the fifteen Os were spread by her monastic community from the very beginning.
They became intensely popular almost right away, and appear in the primers and books of hours compiled for pious lay people all over Europe in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There has never been one fixed text of the Os, and the texts were translated into different languages at a very early date so common people could use them. The text we will be using during this quiet day was edited by an Episcopal priest and lay scholar for the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book in 2012. They are somewhat shorter than the versions generally in circulation among Roman Catholics and use several phrases drawn directly from the Book of Common Prayer.
It is striking that each prayer begins with an O—a cry of pain and sorrow. We look on Christ’s sufferings and the sufferings around us, and there is little that we can say. We can sometimes do little more than weep alongside a world where all things are so deeply broken by human sin. Bridget was a woman who knew intense pain: giving birth to eight children, two of whom died in infancy; losing her husband to an early death, facing criticism as she waited for twenty years to have her order approved. Bridget saw deep human suffering all around her. She fixed her eyes on Jesus, and each of her prayers began O—
I was surprised when I first came here that there is no image of the crucified Christ in this church, especially because the real Saint Francis was so profoundly a man of the passion. If this were a church of St. Francis deep in Appalachia or in the slums of Calcutta or out in the African bush, I wonder if we wouldn’t demand at least one image of Jesus, with his blood poured out and his eyes heavy with pain.
Many of us live very comfortable lives. We are relatively isolated from sickness, poverty, strife, grinding oppression. But we live in a time of dramatic change, in which many of our formerly solid social institutions seem to be giving way. There is fear on many sides that an age of horrors may soon await us. It may be a time to cry out O, once more, and to fix our eyes on the crucifix, to see the one who knows our pain because he has suffered, who was bruised for our iniquities, by whose stripes we are healed.