Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, December 18, 2015

For Those Weary of Planning for and Talking about Christmas

"I'm tired of planning for and talking about Christmas. I just want some space to sit with it, apart from the many self-imposed distractions and tugs that scatter my attention."

I said these words last week to some friends as we talked about our experience of Advent and Christmas. I've been planning Advent and Christmas services since early November. I've been talking about Christmas, both in writing and in speech for almost that long. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of talking about the concept and planning for the experience. It feels blasphemous that I should want something to be ended before it has even arrived -- especially something so "holy" as Christmas. Yet, that is the honest truth about my interior state.

And I feel this way not only about the planning that is part of my daily work. My personal planning for Christmas is nearly shot, also. Day after day I'm haunted by inner voices that whisper, "But what are you going to buy so-and-so? . . . and what about a gift for what's-her-name? . . ." Shadowy voices rumble around within me, voices of compulsion and drivenness. Some years my gift-giving is divinely inspired -- the year I gave my golfing friends Titleist golf balls inscribed with, "MEDITATE THIS, THOMAS MERTON!" -- but not so this year. It's been a grinding chore. I'm about to give in, now one week before Christmas, go to, and hit the "BUY!" button: "Squatty Potties for everyone!!" I'd have them in hand for distribution by December 22.

One of my friends, to whom I vented about my weariness over Christmas talk and planning, asked a helpful clarifying question: "If you were able just to sit with the season, what would you find?"

I don't know what I'd find. I believe there would be much less compulsion and drivenness crowding the soul-space. Maybe there would be simple openness, even emptiness. As it is, I sit each morning in my mauve rocker with the worn armrests, reading Advent and Christmas texts, waiting for something to come at me . . . waiting to hear . . . waiting to catch a glimpse. Little seems to move toward me. It's mostly just sitting in a space in which precious little seems to be going on . . . except the compulsiveness, the self-guilt over my sad gift-giving, and the weariness that accompanies those voices.

In fact, I feels something like a kind of "virgin" through the season, as the Virgin Mary entered her own experience in emptiness and simple openness. (I have more thoughts on the "virginity" to which the season invites us . . . I may share them in this space in a few days.)

To be sure, I look at my calendar and see services, events, gatherings, where I am compelled to have something to say about Christmas . . . and I will gladly step into those places . . . after all, I'd hate to waste all this great planning and strategizing of the last two months.

But mostly, I'm longing for no thinking, no words, no strategizing, no talking about. Instead, simply a sitting-in. A being-with.

And IF you find a Squatty Potty under your Christmas tree . . .

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Rest?

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

I was particularly sensitive to Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28 when I read them a couple of days ago. They caught my attention on the long end of a stretch in which I've dealt with health issues that brought several weeks of lean sleep.

Ahhh, but to be able to sleep again. Rest, sweet rest.

In my naivete', I've supposed that this was the rest Jesus promises. Rest. Sleep. A pause from the demands of work. Respite from the constant houndings of daily life. A moment free from "forced" creativity. Eight hours of non-interrupted REM sleep.

But when I read the passage this time, I asked some other questions of this rest.

What is the rest Jesus gives? Is is rest from physical exhaustion? Is it emotional rest? Is it rest from carrying the burdens others place upon me? Is it rest from health concerns?

And I began to consider other kinds of rest . . . rest from trying to control everyone else around me . . . rest from being attached to outcomes . . . rest from worry about things I cannot control . . . and rest from the control I try to exert over the way things turn out, that they should look the way I want them to look. . . .

Is it rest from my compulsions?
Is it rest from my attachment to security?
Is it rest from my attachment to good health?
Is it rest from my attachment to comfort?

I realize that so much anxiety and worry comes when any of these things are thwarted, when my attachment to them is threatened. Truly, the anxiety and worry represent "no rest", no sense of well-being. They are wearisome, draining, exhausting, pulling out my interior resources, spending energy on that over which I usually have little control.

For this season of my life, I sense that rest is not getting plenty of sleep. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind about these things . . . but for today, rest looks more like letting go of compulsions and releasing attachments.

My experience has been that only in the context of a vertical, Divine-human, I-Thou relationship, do I recognize these compulsions and attachments. The contemplative journey gives me the space to see myself more and more clearly, to see what is more true about myself, and to name the compulsions and attachments which are illusory.

Further, it gives me some language -- even if limited -- to speak to these compulsions and attachments. And it gives me some practices that are well-suited for breaking up the hardened soil of the attachments in order that I might live more freely for good and healing in the world.

Jesus, it would seem to me, is much more invested in this kind of liberating rest that heals me and heals the world than in my prospects for getting a good, eight hour sleep.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent's Slow Crawl

This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent.

The season of Advent is intended for preparation, waiting, and expectancy, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. Advent themes of hope, love, peace, and joy are intended to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus. In Advent truly conceived, that birth is not a faraway event represented by a calendar date, but rather a birth that takes place continually within human hearts as we make room for the coming of Christ within us.

For me, though, the season of Advent begins as more of a slow crawl. I don't get a running start, or even a rolling start into Advent. In the United States, the first days of Advent fall on the heels of Thanksgiving, travel, Black Friday, and gatherings with family and friends.

Advent crawls out of the blocks. I have to make myself speak the words and sing the songs. I'm grateful for the season, the colors, the candles, the readings, just not quite ready for it.

But Advent doesn't inquire about my readiness, nor does it particularly care whether or not I'm prepared for the season. It doesn't mind that I'm road-weary from travel or overloaded with tryptophan or that Black Friday and Cyber Monday have stuffed my inbox with two email ads for every one I can delete.

Advent comes, ready or not. It comes . . . to announce a coming.

Christ has come . . . Christ is coming . . . Christ will come.

Christ comes always, continuously, in every time. Christ comes everywhere, relentlessly, in every place, welcoming or not.

This is my slow crawl into Advent. I don't feel bad about it -- though years ago I did -- but rather just accept it for what it is. I'll come around. I'll get there eventually.

Give me a bit . . . I'll catch up to you.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Humility Is More Important Than Zeal

In a journal entry from December 1961, Thomas Merton wrote simply: “Humility is more important than zeal.” The Trappist monk had been speaking into social issues that were important to him, and had been investing a lot of time and energy in writing articles that might have some sway on the cultural landscape.

In short, there was a whole lot of Merton invested in these issues and causes. One magazine editor wrote him a letter, explaining that they would publish one of his opinion pieces in their magazine, but to be assured that the piece would cause a firestorm. And in some ways, Merton was ready to engage the fight from his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Kentucky hills.

But then, this line: “Humility is more important than zeal.” More on Merton in a moment.

My religious background taught me that zeal was very important, that what really mattered was a person’s “fervor for the Lord.” There was even an expression for those who seemed most zealous: they were “on fire for the Lord!”

But in that tradition we talked little – none, that I actually can remember – about humility. We never talked about out-of-check ego. We never talked about the dangers of power run amuck.

What ended up happening, at least from my observation, is that those who were most zealous, those who pressed and pressed and pressed “for God” ended up burning out – myself included, for a season – and dropping out . . . sometimes bitter than they had “done so much for God” but without seeing the results they wanted . . . or resentful that while they had “given their all for God,” God didn’t seem to reward them as they expected. Some gave up the Church. Some gave up God. Others plugged on through the burn-out, convinced that the lack of reward for their zeal was connected to some sin within them that God would not tolerate nor honor. It’s a difficult, recurring cycle that lives within many of us.

I’m not in Merton’s head, but from what he writes, I think he had the sense that zeal really came down to his own efforts, dependent upon his own energy to bring about the ends for which he labored. Humility, on the other hand, kept him grounded in both his strengths and his weaknesses . . . in both his light and his shadow . . . in both his gifts and his brokenness. Humility took him out of the driver’s seat, so he didn’t have to manage the issues and manipulate the outcomes. He could do whatever was his to do, and leave the end to God.

The issues for me are different from Merton’s issues, but I want to affirm along with him that humility is more important than zeal. Zeal is about our human energy, our own desire to move things. Humility is rooted in truth . . . the truth about ourselves and the truth about our world.

I carry with me his words this week: “Humility is more important than zeal.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lenten Thoughts about Comfort and Happiness

Through Lent – and even for weeks before – I’ve been immersed in scripture and story that speak to the spiritual journey through the wilderness. Most of us don’t choose spiritual wilderness as much as spiritual wilderness chooses us. In the run of life, we find ourselves in places that feel unexpected, untamed, and uncomfortable.

Last week, I spent several days with fellow pilgrims in a wilderness setting at the Benedictine monastery in Pecos, New Mexico. The setting is not primitive, but it is rustic in a sense. The place is not dangerous – the bears, mountain lions, and feral dogs that dwell in the surrounding mountains notwithstanding – but wilderness tends to put us in a place where we are out of control . . . where we are not entirely comfortable.

The stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd – 5th centuries are set in the wilderness of Egypt and the Middle East. The lives of these faithful Christians testify to how life can be harsh and demanding; yet, in that harshness their lives were transformed. In many respects, the very harshness of the surroundings brought to the surface their own darkness. They dealt with their inner darkness in order to be more fully the persons God created them to be.

Some of the Christian mystics have called the harsh and difficult settings of our lives our “furnace of transformation.” In other words, the discomforts of life become the fire that purifies us. The aspects of life that are beyond our control become the things that bring to light the illusions we carry. Wilderness itself, while not necessarily comfortable, is a place in which we learn to lean more fully into God and into the interior resources that God has placed within each one of us.

Frankly, this flies in the face of what contemporary religion, especially Christianity, has come to embrace. Christianity is offered as a path to happiness, a road to personal fulfillment, the way to make a good life even better.

Jesus, we are told, does not want us to be unsuccessful, but rather wants us to have health, wealth, and only good and pleasant experiences. Those who experience lack, disease, or discomfort must be lacking proper belief, or be poor in prayer, or be unfaithful to this Jesus.

[Apparently, there is another “Jesus” on the loose who did not experience being run out of town by local authorities, who was not cursed by the religious crowd, who was not betrayed by his closest friends, and who did not end up crucified on a cross between criminals.]

Preachers posit all light and no darkness, all comfort and no discomfort, all abundance and no emptiness, all happiness and no sorrow.

For a few days now, I’ve had in mind these words of C. S. Lewis, sent to me by a long-time friend. I ponder them in light of Lent and in light of my own expectations of the spiritual life. Try them on for yourself.

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.
I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.
If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,
I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
(C. S. Lewis)

These seem to me to be important words as we journey through Lenten wilderness with Jesus, toward death and the cross, and onward to the empty tomb.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Snow and Ash: An Ash Wednesday Poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes

I've recently found the work of Steve Garnaas-Holmes through some friends who regularly forwarded his poetry and psalm-work to me. His website is Steve will also add you to his daily mailing list if you you'd like.

His work has touched me, and this morning's poem is beautiful.


This snow, deep but fine like ash
drifting over your sidewalk
will be gone in weeks.
But you shovel it today anyway
because today you need to walk out of your house.
You shovel it while it is snow
before it is regret.

Before it melts
this short life is yours
to choose well with,
what to shovel, what not to shovel.
Hard to do, to put your shoulder
to the work of compassion
when you could stay in.

So many conflicting winds
would drift your life
into ruinous places.
Only the warm energy of life
guides you, carving out
this path and not another.

pause amidst your labors,
and receive the grace you need.

Remember you are snow,
and to snow you shall return.

--Steve Garnaas-Holmes (

Monday, February 16, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015 – A Pre-Lenten Reading
Introduction to “The Wisdom of the Wilderness”
by Jerry Webber

During Lent, I’ll provide daily meditations based on the stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (3rd – 5th centuries) on my Lenten blog ( I've posted this introductory material on that site . . . it is intended to give some basic background and context to the Desert Christians: Who were these men and women? How did they get to the desert? What did they do there?

In the years after Christ, followers of Jesus faced a number of challenges. For many decades, Christians were persecuted by a hostile Roman Empire, which viewed Christian faith as atheistic (Christians did not worship the gods of the Roman Empire, nor the Emperor as deity). Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or put to death, often for sport in the Roman Empire.

Another challenge arose about three centuries after Christ, when Constantine became Emperor of the once-hostile Roman Empire. The new Emperor declared that Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire. Suddenly, the hostile Romans became the Christian Romans. Everyone in the Empire was called a Christian.

From these two very diverse scenarios, a movement within Christianity arose in the wilderness areas of Egypt and the Middle East. Christians who were serious about deepening their life in God fled from the cities into the desert in order to seek a life of spiritual discipline, hoping to grow in their love for God (heart, mind, soul, strength) and others. These Christians, living mostly in wilderness communities, were the first monks (from, “monos”, meaning “one”).

The movement into the wilderness actually began around A.D. 269, when an eighteen-year-old Egyptian named Antony heard scripture read in the church. He listened to the Gospel story of the rich, young ruler with his heart, and when he heard Jesus tell the rich ruler, “Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me” (Mt. 19:21), Antony felt those words were spoken directly to him. He sold his property and gave away the proceeds, holding back only enough to care for his sister (the parents of Antony and his sister had died in an accident previously). He moved outside the city gates, befriending the religious men who sought lives of holiness by living outside the city walls. As he listened still more in the coming days, he was led further into the wilderness to take up the life of a Christian hermit.

Antony intended that he would live alone, allowing a life prayer, fasting, silence, and solitude in the wilderness to be the setting for his own purification. Over many years, he lived in complete solitude and endured terrible trials. When Antony emerged from his solitude, people recognized him as an authentically “healthy” person who had dealt with his own inner darkness in a whole and life-giving way.
Others began coming to him, urging him to help them come to a deeper sense of their own most authentic self. They sought healing from him, and wise counsel. Groups of disciples gathered around him, for whom Antony was a spiritual guide. Antony also made frequent forays back into the cities of Egypt, into the churches of the area, and before the bishops in Alexandria.

After Antony, a slow trickle of men and women entered the Egyptian desert in order to follow Christ more closely. These desert Christians found freedom to express their love for God through spiritual practice, both in solitude and in communities of seekers that sprung up in the wilderness. The first rule for these Desert Fathers and Mothers was charity toward all. Love and charity, for these Christians, seasoned every ascetic practice of the desert.

The wisdom of the wilderness actually grew up around these men and women who were seeking God and who, through their own spiritual practice, were attentive to their own interior shadows. They literally lived in the Egyptian desert. But metaphorically, they also lived in a spiritual desert, sensing that within their cultural milieu, they existed in an arid wilderness in which they needed to be spiritually lean and fit in order to survive. The desert was their place of their fitness, learning, and becoming . . . learning about God, self, others, and the created world (the four contexts of any wholistic spirituality) as they became the persons God created them to be.

It is important to know that the Desert Abbas and Ammas (Fathers and Mothers) were not ascetics for the sake of being ascetics. They did not strictly adhere to a code of spiritual discipline simply for the sake of being disciplined. They sought to be aware of their own internal darkness, to bring that darkness under the love of God, and then share their wisdom with others who would endeavor a similar spiritual journey.

For some today, their harsh asceticism seems outdated and irrelevant. They engaged in practices that seem extreme. Whether fasting food, sleep, sexual gratification, conversation, or the company of others, they could go to extremes. But always, asceticism was the means, not the goal. Their spiritual disciplines always pointed to a purpose beyond the practice. The spiritual practices were shaping them to be the kind of person who knew their own self and who knew what tripped up the self, in order that such a person could love God, self, and others more completely.

These Desert Fathers and Mothers – as they have come to be known – were shaped by love, but also by a desire for purity of heart, the purification of actions and motivations, in order not to drown in the world’s excesses. They chose to do this as best they could by living apart from the constant tugs and pulls of society. And paradoxically, by withdrawing from society, they were able to engage society and culture in an entirely different way, both through their prayer and with their wisdom.

Finally, a short word about how this wisdom was generally passed on. Usually, groups of disciples would gather around a certain Abba or Amma, living in close community with him or her in the Egyptian desert (generally in huts or caves, called “cells”). The mentoring would take the form of apprenticeship, in which the novice disciple would learn from the life, words, and actions of the Abba or Amma. Thus, there are a number of stories told about things the spiritual Fathers and Mothers did in interacting with others.

There are stories, too, that simply communicate the pithy sayings of these wisdom figures, told often as koans or paradoxical word riddles. Usually these wisdom sayings would be initiated by the disciple, who would approach the spiritual Father for instance, and say, “Father, give me a word.” The Father would offer a sentence that, then, the apprentice was invited to chew on for its meaning in his/her life.

The wisdom of the wilderness, then, is contained both in stories from the lives of these Desert Christians and in their sayings. We’ll explore their wisdom through the coming days of Lent. The daily posts will be available at

– Jerry Webber