Liesborn Gospel - Prayer Wheel - Latin to English translation. Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.

My real-life Da Vinci Code moment

A Latin to English translation of the Liesborn Gospel Prayer Wheel. Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Langdon examined the thick vellum sheet. Written in ornate penmanship was another four-line verse.”

Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci Code”

(RNS) — Call it my Da Vinci Code moment.

Three Aprils ago I found myself in a small gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I had been invited to report on a large sacred book from a medieval German monastery for which its owner was asking millions of dollars. I was having trouble finding a compelling angle, when the owner casually asked whether I had seen “the prayer wheel.” She drew my attention to a diagram on what had once been the book’s blank front page, added by an unknown party some 200 years post-publication.

The original  Liesborn Gospel Prayer Wheel in Latin. Photo courtesy of Les Enluminures Ltd.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Like the symbologist Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, I examined the thick vellum, or cured calfskin sheet, annotated in an ornate script. The diagram was like nothing I’d seen before. It was a wheel composed of four concentric bands. Running inside each band was a text in Latin. But each of the texts was divided into seven parts, aligned with one another so the wheel also had seven spokes, or paths. One path was made up of all the Part Ones, another of all the Part Twos, etc. The paths ran from the wheel’s perimeter to its center, and where they met was inscribed the word “DEUS,” or “God.” Finally, there was a legend, one that seemed to come out of a fairy tale: “THE ORDER OF THE DIAGRAM WRITTEN HERE TEACHES THE WAY HOME.”

I was captivated. What wisdom did the diagram have to impart? How was it used? Did it have anything to offer us in the 21st century? These questions drew me and two friends tumbling into a world of faith and geometry, meditation and ancient infographics, where we spent, on and off, three years.

In my decades as a journalist I’ve read a lot of unusual documents, but never anything like this one, looking like a holy version of the Marauder's Map from the "Harry Potter" series. The owner told me that the texts (all of which were familiar to medieval readers) were the Lord’s Prayer; the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; a set of Christian attributes called the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and a seven-part spiritual life of Christ. The point of the prayer wheel was to create monastic meditations and prayer along the paths, which recombined the texts into fresh new sequences — new roads “home” to God.

I felt an obscure thrill. The figure had an energy to it. It was very old, and yet it also felt very new; the sort of thing for which there might be an app. A lightly practicing Jew, I enlisted as partners my two friends — both believers who have written about their faith — to research it with me and consider the possibility that it might be of use to a modern Christian readership.

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We discovered that between the 11th and 16th centuries there were probably hundreds, if not thousands, of such wheels distributed around Europe. But only 60 or so have survived, known only to a handful of academics and curators. We ran across copies of some of the later versions: They were much more involved, with up to 12 seven-part texts. Ours, from the 11th century, was early, a fairly pristine expression of the concept.

No smoking codex

But what, exactly, was the concept?

Since there was no smoking codex — nobody ever wrote “I created the prayer wheel” or even “My abbot drew me a prayer wheel because I needed to …” — we could not research it as a finished product: We had to reverse-engineer it, figuring out the histories of its essential characteristics.

Medieval people were fascinated by geometric and pictorial forms of presenting information that we would now call infographics. The figures featured squares, triangles and images of trees. We still talk about family trees. Other designs were specific to the era. A verse from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, “Wisdom has set up her house; she has hewn it out of seven pillars,” inspired charts with seven supporting ideas holding up a desired conclusion.

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The most popular shape, however, was the wheel. Symbolically, wheels have long fascinated humans as symbols of completion and perfection. Graphically, they were particularly useful for comparisons.

And this is where geometric display intersected with the wheel’s theological concerns. “Using Scripture to interpret Scripture,” as people still say today, is a practice as old as pre-Christian Judaism. Normally it involved reading one biblical passage in light of another, and later, dividing the two passages into seven parts apiece and comparing the parts for additional insight. The great thinker Augustine of Hippo extended that to three passages: The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes and the Seven Gifts. A Benedictine monk named Radbertus added a fourth in the ninth century.

Let your fingers do the walking

And then, sometime in the 11th century, an unknown monk took the resulting horizontal grid of comparisons and pulled the ends of it around until they met to form a circle, placing “GOD” at the newly-formed center.

A continuous columnar table. Image courtesy of David Van Biema

Technically, this is called a “continuous columnar table.” Devotionally, it changed everything. What had been a static comparison for scholars was turned into a dynamic, interactive landscape, with paths to follow, and a clear goal for them to reach. One could project oneself into it. It was almost a board game: But the density of Christian concepts in the four base texts guaranteed that it was some of the most serious “fun” ever had. While the monks’ fingers walked, their souls followed, wondering at, and filling in the spaces between, the “stepping stones” with other Scriptures and with prayer.

Most likely monks and nuns used the wheel and its paths as a form of meditation, in a practice related to one called “lectio divina,” which involves the mental “chewing over” of very small scriptural passages. The diagram could have also been used as a memory trellis for other verses: medievals regarded memorization, too, as a form of devotion.

Prompting prayer

And we were off. While I continued to work on the wheel’s history and mechanics, my partners prayed it, and eventually developed a 49-day sample devotional path around it. You can see it in action at our Facebook pageThe book that resulted also includes applications of the wheel for occasions (mourning, thanks, etc); a primer on praying for others with it, and illustrations of the way it dovetails with stories from the Bible.

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Nowadays not so many believers meditate: But prompts for prayer are always welcome. Medieval tools like prayer at fixed hours of the day, labyrinths and lectio have all seen modern revivals. It’s too early to assume that the prayer wheel will join them, resuming a role something like the one it last performed centuries ago.

But what I can say is that walking into that showroom three years ago has already been an experience of discovery far richer than I could have imagined. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to an experience of the kind fictionalized in "The Da Vinci Code." And unlike Brown’s novelistic puzzles, the wheel not only has a fascinating past, but the possibility of a spiritually meaningful future.

(David Van Biema, Time magazine’s former religion writer, is co-author with Patton Dodd and Jana Riess of "The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Comments

  1. All vitiated by the fact that there was no Easter.

  2. Who knows…maybe whatever monk designed this was the Alex Jones of his day….a nutter.

  3. Many religions have used the symbolism of the wheel. Mandalas in Hinduism. Buddhusm has the wheel of Dharma. Spoked wheels appear
    in American Indian rock art. Probably also in Aborigine art in Australia.

    This example is interesting. I am glad you shared it with us.

  4. Tell us why there was no Easter. Be specific.

  5. The events fail rigorous historic and theological testing:

    To wit:

    The physical resurrection of Jesus as per current graduate theology teachings at many large Catholic universities- (e.g. Catholic University)

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly —
    earth bound distractions.

    Christ ‘s and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven. For one thing, Paul in 1 Cor 15 speaks of the body of the dead as transformed into a “spiritual body.” No one
    knows exactly what he meant by this term.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    The physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus’ crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary’s corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke’s Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus’ mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus’ followers The Assumption has multiple layers of
    symbolism, some are related to Mary’s special role as “Christ bearer”
    (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus’
    Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would
    be derived by worms upon her death. Mary’s
    assumption also shows God’s positive regard, not only for Christ’s male body,
    but also for femalebodies.”
    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly — earth bound distractions.

    See
    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/017_Resurrection_of_Jesus for added
    details.

    “In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or
    human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to
    describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas
    Aquinas said long before him.”

    http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

    Jesus was definitely crucified (multiple attestations from the first stratum.) “That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate as
    the Creed states is as certain as anything historical can be.” from JD Crossan in his book, Who is Jesus?.

    From the First Stratum,(30-60 AD) with multiple attestations (from Crossan’s
    The Historical Jesus)

    Crucifixion of Jesus 1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b)
    Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3)
    Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16
    (=Psalm 22:6-; (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.

    However, the Passion-Resurrection Prophecy is not from the historic Jesus, (1a)
    Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:2l-23 = Luke 9:22, (1b) Mark 9:9b = Matt 17:9b, (1c)
    Mark 9:12b = Matt 17:12b, (1d) Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45,
    (1e) Luke 17:25, (1f) Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34, (1g) Matt
    26:1-2, (1h) Mark 14:21 = Matt 26:24 = Luke 22:22, (1i) Mark 14:41= Matt
    26:45b,(1j) Luke 24:7 i.e. (many references but only a single attestation and
    from the Second stratum (60-80 AD).

    Addressing the historic inauthenticity of the
    post-resurrection sightings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    -The empty tomb myth

    Mark 16:1-8
    = Matt 28:1-10 = Luke 24:1-11

    (1b) John
    20:1,(2-10),11-18

    Originated by Mark and copied by M, L and J and historically nil after rigorous analyses for number of attestations, time of
    publication and content. For added details:

    see Professor Gerd Ludemann’s analysis in his book Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 111-114 and http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb275.html.

    –The disciples on the Emmaus road

    Luke 23: 13-35 Historically nil. See Ludemann’s book, pp 409-412. Note: Emmaus can no longer be located.

    — Revealed to Disciples

    1Cor 15:5b,7b
    (2) Matt
    28:16-20
    (3) Easter
    Night 2.3.1 (3a) Luke 24:36-40
    (3b) John
    20:19-21

    2.4 (4) IgnSmyr 3.2b-3

    See http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb018.html
    and the following from Professor Luedamann:

    “Matt 28:16-20 The description of Jesus’s
    appearance is minimal, as attention is focused on the content of Jesus’ message
    to the Eleven. Luedemann notes: that
    “the historical yield is extremely meager.” He accepts the early tradition that various disciples had visionary experiences, most probably located in Galilee, and that these experiences led to the founding of “a
    community which preached the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as the
    Messiah and/or the Son of Man among their Jewish contemporaries.” [Jesus,
    255f.]

    Luke 24:36-53 The emphatic realism in the
    recognition scene that begins this appearance story mans “one can hardly
    avoid seeing this as a thrust against docetism. Evidently in this verse Luke is
    combating the same challenges to the bodily reality of Jesus as Ignatius, To
    the Smyrneans 3.2, does at the beginning of the second century.” Luedemann
    concludes, “The historical yield is nil, both in respect of the real historical
    event and in connection with
    the visions which were the catalyst for the rise of Christianity.” [Jesus, 413-415]”

    –Rev 1: 12-20 (a reboot of Daniel 7:13)

    And then there is this:
    “Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G.
    Ingersoll branded Revelation “the insanest of all books”.[30] Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he “considered it as merely the ravings
    of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of
    our own nightly dreams.” [31]

    Martin Luther once “found it an offensive
    piece of work” and John Calvin “had grave doubts about its value.”[32]

    –Appearance to James et al

    1 Cor 15: 7a

    /4/ and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, /5/ and that he appeared to
    Cephas, then to the twelve. /6/ Then he appeared to more than five hundred
    brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some
    have died. /7/ Then he appeared to

    James, then to all the apostles. /8/ Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    See http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb030.html-
    i.e. historically nil.

    For more on the infamous Resurrection con, see Professor Gerd Ludemann’s review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, (Mark 16)
    and also http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb275.html.

    For
    more on the infamous Ascension con, see the same book, Luke 24:50-53 and
    http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb480.html

    So
    where are the bones???

    According to Professor JD Crossan’s many exhaustive studies, they still are a-mouldering in the ground outside of Jerusalem or were eaten by wild dogs and are now cycling through nature’s recycling system.

  6. Okay, sincere thanks for your response. I admit I’m a Christian apologetic junkie. I just can’t go very long without a good Skeptic-Fix. So I’m in your debt.

    Good laundry list you have there. I see you included Crossan on the list, so I’ll probably just focus on him — he’s always good for red meat.

    (Crossan needs a good chomping-on anyway; he’s been constantly trying to send all these college kids straight to Hell with his skeptizoid tomfoolery.)

    Okay then, back to the Saturday household chores for a while. Then I’ll see if I can keep up with you. Thanks again!

  7. I assume you have read Professor Crossan’s studies published in his many books on the historical Jesus?

  8. Spent an entire semester class, just going through his main 1993 book:

    https://www.amazon.com/Historical-Jesus-Mediterranean-Jewish-Peasant/dp/0060616296

    … and he even said yes to my atheist professor’s invitation to address our class in person. Interesting lecture!

    A good scholar, well studied and well traveled. But he allowed the zombie Jesus-Seminar skepticism (he was a co-chair of the JS at one time), to eat him up. Now he’s among the (theological) walking dead!

  9. Once you get past the hocus pocus put out there to bring in the rubes, you find the real Jesus like Crossan.

  10. First, the Jesus Seminar:

    The Jesus Seminarians: Contemporary NT exegetes specializing in historic Jesus studies. Requirements to join, typically a PhD in Religious History or Religion with a proven record of scholarship through reviews of first to third century CE scripture and related documents. JD was not eaten up by said group and continues to publish books based on his studies.

    Second: More on Professor JD Crossan,

    One of the best at doing rigorous historic testing using the modern techniques of number of
    attestations, time and text strata and archeology to determine passage authenticity. A summary of Professor Crossan’s studies and conclusions (only 30% of the NT is
    authentic) can be found in his book, The Historic Jesus and at
    http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Crossan_Inventory. A list of other studies of Professor Crossan plus those of other NT exegetes can also be found at
    http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html.

    Third: Professor Gerd Ludemann, another important contemporary NT exegete:

    Professor Gerd Ludemann’s studies and conclusions can found in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years. He summarizes the
    authentic NT passages on pp. 694-695 (significantly less than 30% authentic).

    Professor Crossan still clings to a belief in god but does not believe Jesus was his son. Tough to get over all those years in the seminary and as a priest .

    Professor Ludemann does not believe in god which he came to conclude after completing his many studies on the NT.

  11. And yet another added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,

    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

  12. One correction: The appearance to James reference should be http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb030.html . There was a dash added at the end of the original reference which prevented it from being accessed. Note also in the reference, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are also included.

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