Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Rilke Poem for Advent Darkness

This poem found me a few days ago. For me it matches the mood of Advent, the darkness and waiting to which we are each called. It calls me to a rootedness that doesn't fight the darkness, but rather allows the darkness to make me more fully and completely human.

There is a contradiction in darkness and waiting that makes us terribly uncomfortable, especially as persons who want our pain wrapped up in a tidy bow. But the task of becoming fully human is never clean. Seldom does it draw in straight lines and in perfectly square corners. Growing up is messy work. Maturity, including spiritual maturity, comes at a cost. Every experience of life has within it the capacity to be our teacher.

Rilke was familiar with darkness. As with most artists, his creativity emerged from this seedbed which was very much underground, cold, dank, still and in some ways seemed to be without life.

So this is an expression of Rilke's stance toward darkness.

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

[Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29, trans. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Season of Advent

Sunday, November 28 is the First Sunday of Advent. I love this season of the year. Advent moves through mystery and hope toward the birth of Christ. Through the season of Advent I'll write daily meditations on the Scripture for the day at my blog site, A Daily Advent. The address is

“Church-time” begins with the season of Advent. The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year. It comes after the long stretch that the Church calls “Ordinary Time.”

In the Church calendar, the season of Lent leads into Passion/Palm Sunday, then into Holy Week, culminating on Resurrection Sunday . . . or what we celebrate as Easter. Then we continue our Easter celebration until the Feast of Pentecost, which has both Old Testament and New Testament antecedents for Christians.

Ordinary Time begins after Pentecost, which usually occurs in late May or early June. Through the long summer and fall, we are invited to notice God in the ordinary, in the mundane. There are no special observances to heighten our attention, no Lents, Easters or Pentecosts. Life is ordinary. In the rhythm of the Church calendar, the year ends after this lengthy stretch of Ordinary Time.

But then Advent comes, and suddenly the waiting and ordinariness seems more purposeful. Advent signals that now we wait with an end in mind. It is not simply a season of “getting ready for Christmas.” Advent signals that it’s time to get in touch with our hopes and our longings, that we begin to open ourselves to what we most need. We notice our inner stirrings, that for which we most deeply hunger. We wait, often in darkness, in order to see great light.

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. It is colored in purples and pinks, and characterized by mystery, waiting, anticipation, and hope. The word "advent" literally signifies a coming or an entrance. Thus, this is not only the coming of a new Church year, but it is more so the coming or advent of God's most complete self-revealing, which will come as Christ is embodied in human life.

Through Advent God tends to invite us toward more reflective and mindful living. It is an appropriate invitation given the pace at which many of us will live over the next month. To journey toward Christmas with intention and awareness could be the most precious gift we give to ourselves and others through Advent.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Please, No "Attitude of Gratitude"

I really do get it . . . the "have an attitude of gratitude" thing that people say. I guess it's fine, but it got ruined for me several years ago when I came to know a pastor who used every trite expression he had ever heard at every opportunity possible. He loved them! He put them on his church sign along the busy street, so everyone we see them. He recited them in personal conversations. He repeated them in community ecumenical services.

So every year at Thanksgiving, all he could talk about was having an "attitude of gratitude." Then, as Advent and Christmas rolled around, over and over he repeated, "Jesus is the reason for the season," and "Let's put Christ back in Christmas!"


I had enough of that pretty fast. Call it a pet peeve, I guess. My over-reaction probably says much more about me than about him or about others who use the phrases, or even about the phrase itself. But I have an inward alarm that goes off whenever I hear it.

I've warned the folks who regularly speak at Chapelwood's Contemplative Worship that if one of them ever uses any of those phrases during a meditation at 8:45 on Sunday morning, I'll immediately leap from my front-pew perch and tackle them. Yes, I'm not beyond aggression!

Really, though, I've found plenty this week for which I am thankful. I've been able to find space to breathe deeply and ponder my life, to give my thanks to God for where I am and those around me. I've found myself thankful for full moons low on the horizon . . . for laughter with my wife and two adult children . . . for extended family . . . for health and the movement toward health . . . for the sights and sounds of the countryside.

In short, I've tried to have an attitude of gratitude . . . but I've also tried not to say it just that way.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Voices: A Rilke Poem

This piece of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke introduces a section in his Book of Images that includes the "songs" of several groups Rilke saw as marginalized . . . The Song the Beggar Sings, The Song the Drunkard Sings, The Song the Widow Sings, The Song the Orphan Sings, The Song the Idiot Sings, and so on. . . .

The Voices

The rich and the happy can choose to keep silent,
no need to bid for attention.
But the desperate must reveal themselves,
must say: I am blind
or: I am going blind
or: It's not good for me here on Earth
or: My child is sick
or: I am not holding it together . . .

But when is that really enough?
So, lest people pass them by like objects,
sometimes they sing.

And sometimes their songs are beautiful.

[trans. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Psalm for All Saints Day

I gave Psalm 145 my own voice several years ago. I wrote the psalm-prayer to tip my hat toward those persons who had blazed the trail, inviting you and me to follow. While I found their lives to be a source of courage and strength, I also sensed that we are each called to live uniquely for God in our own time. I cannot live the life of Benedict of Nursia or Ignatius of Loyola or Henri Nouwen. I can only live my life in my world. Thus, I did not write the psalm-prayer specifically for All Saints, but the psalm fits the spirit of the day. I offer it here.

PSALM 145:4 – 13 Prayer
A psalm celebrating God’s work through the ages

From age to age Your works live large in our world.
Your mercies are new every morning;
Yet, they stretch out as a consistent thread,
woven through the centuries.

Each generation finds its own way to manifest Your Love,
to embody Your Presence in the world.

I may not be called to the harsh asceticism of Abba Anthony,
to the visionary path of Francis of Assisi,
to the mystical prayer of Julian of Norwich,
to the swashbuckling surrender of Ignatius of Loyola,
to the radical discipleship of Menno Simons,
to the sacrificial compassion of Teresa of Calcutta,
to the anonymous service of Alphonsus Rodriguez,
to the just cause of Nelson Mandela,

But I – and my generation – are called to follow You
in our life-world
as these were called to follow You in theirs.

We find our own way,
by Your Spirit,
into asceticism and vision,
prayer and surrender,
discipleship and compassion,
service and justice,
in ways that are appropriate
and life-giving
and God-anointed
for our times.

The means may change;
the One at the end, however,
remains steady through the times:
kind to those in need
and compassionate toward the broken ones;
not motivated by twisted anger,
but by a generous love that never comes to an end;
sustaining the created world moment by moment
and re-creating us continually
from the inside-out.

All creation – oceans, winds,
hills, trees and humans –
offer their praise, God.
And those deepening life in You,
repeat the blessing passed down through the ages,
speaking Your Name,
stretching hands toward neighbors,
sacrificing for the greater good,
surrendering their lives for Love’s sake.

It has been that way in past generations.
God, that it would continue so today
and on into the boundless future.

Alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Saints: The Thin Feast

Today is the eve of the Feast of All Saints. November 2, the day after the Feast of All Saints, is the Feast of All Souls.

The two feast days were largely unknown to me until recent years. The faith tradition that was my home base for many years held both days in suspicion, but they have become very important pauses for me. When I first made an intentional turn of life over 18 years ago to learn about prayer and to cultivate a more conscious awareness of God's work in and through my life, I read the stories of persons from days past who had followed God. Some of them faced tremendous challenges to live faithfully with God. Many gave everything they had to follow the impulse of their soul. They changed their world, and they continue to change our world.

They were saints not because they had more of God than anyone else. They were saints not because they manufactured miracles. They were saints because they lived into the purpose for which God created them, even with weaknesses and faults.

I've also come to realize that through my life I've been surrounded by saints, too. When I call out their names, you won't recognize them. In fact, to most of the world they were unknown, unrecognized. But they lived faithfully in their world for God -- blemishes and all -- as saints in previous generations sought to live faithfully with God.

All Saints Day gives me an opportunity to remember those who have accompanied me on my journey, both known and unknown, and who continue to accompany me. The timing of the days, coming the first two days of November, is no accident. These feasts mark the movement from the long days of summer, through autumn's transition, to the dark and cold of winter. All Saints and All Souls say to us that we do not make this transition alone, we don't have to face the darkness by ourselves.

In a sense, these days are thin places. The notion of "thin places" comes from Celtic spirituality for those moments and places where the spiritual world comes in noticeably close contact with the physical world of flesh and blood. At thin places, the veil between the seen and the unseen is virtually non-existent. At All Saints and All Souls, the spiritual world and the physical world virtually touch.

So this morning as an act of worship I whispered a few names in gratitude, some of my "All Saints" . . . Benedict . . . Francis and Clare . . . Ignatius . . . Julian . . . Teresa and John.

And I whispered more contemporary names, perhaps unknown to most others, but not unknown to me . . . those no longer physically present, but still alive with me and around me . . . Lucille Dawson . . . Doss Clark . . . Bernice Garrett . . . Sibyl Slocomb . . . my dad, Jerry Webber.

The next two days would be a fitting time to pause and remember those who are on your All Saints list.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Don't Do a Thing

The time has come to be quiet
to let the stillness wash over you
cover the noise
and unsettledness
in thunderous silence.

Don't do a thing;
Just sit there
out of the way
Spacious presence
to what cannot be seen
in the turmoil
the flap of lips
waving of arms
pace of feet.

Can you not go away,
wait and watch
for a span of time
to bring yourself
more fully real
to pure presence?

But you're talking
mad-talk now,
the kind of thing that happens
to the disengaged.

On Traveling Companions and Strangers

Shortly after I was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2004, I received a note from friend who referred to the cancer as "a traveling companion I had not chosen."

Those words had a lot of resonance for me. I have sensed myself to be an explorer, which means that the notion of travel or journey is important. Some of my exploration has taken place in physical realms, in exploring geographical places and learning to open myself in wonder to the created world.

And some of my exploration involves scouting the interior realms of soul and spirit. To be sure it is a different kind of journey, but it is travel, nonetheless.

So when Janet wrote about cancer as a "traveling companion" I knew what she meant. I certainly had not chosen this particular companion. My companions on the journey to that point had been mostly the agreeable persons and experiences that had aided me in getting to where I wanted to go. To travel with a companion not of my choosing meant that I might be taken somewhere I hadn't planned to go, or at least somewhere I had not planned to go quite yet.

I thought of Janet's words today as I sat outside and read John O'Donohue's book of blessings, To Bless the Space between Us . . . a 75 degree day with little wind and little humidity . . . a good book . . . lots of sunshine.

I read O'Donohue's blessing for "the arrival of an illness." O'Donohue had an innate sense of the holiness of things. He was steeped in a rich Celtic spiritual tradition that experienced God everywhere and in all things. His blessing is over two pages long. This one stanza stood out to me:

Now this dark companion has come between you.
Distances have opened in your eyes.
You feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.

Is that what this is like? That against my will a stranger has married my heart?

Married to a stranger? A couple of days ago a friend sat in my office to talk about where I was in the treatment regimen, to see how I was coping with the last few months, and to see what inner resources I had for what is still to come. When I said something about the difficulty of finding a rhythm for my life right now, he looked at me very seriously and said, "You know, your life will never be the same again." So my heart, against my will, has married a stranger and I cannot un-marry this stranger.

The blessing stirred again the words I heard six years ago . . . "traveling companion you have not chosen" . . . "against your will a stranger has married your heart." I know these words are important for me, but I haven't searched out their depths yet. I sense that I'm invited to listen to them with my heart over the next several days.

For tonight, I'm wondering how to live faithfully in this marriage.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hitting the Delete Key

For several months I've spent time compiling and editing another book of psalm-prayers. I've put the psalms in my own voice over several years, mostly in my daily period of morning prayer. The practice has been a helpful way of listening more deeply to the psalms, hearing their spirit and adapting them for my own life-situation.

I chose these particular psalm-prayers over a period of weeks, then spent time re-reading through them, shaping them, cleaning up vocabulary, grammar and form. Others read through them, making helpful suggestions. My anticipation over the end of the project grew as the design and layout of the text took shape, then as the title and cover design came together.

About six weeks ago I needed to work on the final elements of the book. Specifically, I needed to write an introduction to the volume, a way to introduce persons to prayer and to the practice of praying psalms. I wanted an introduction that provided some background AND introduced what I was trying to do in the psalm-prayers. I wanted it to provide a path that would enrich others in their praying of the psalms.

So I started writing introductory material . . . and writing . . . and writing. It wasn't that I came up with one lengthy document. Over a period of about five weeks, I probably made 15 starts and stops on the introduction. A few times I wrote an entire introduction, but each time I was unsatisfied with the end product. So I'd begin again. And again. And again.

I ended up with several saved drafts in my computer file. On one particular document, I'd write on a particular idea until I ran out of steam. Instead of trashing the document, I'd just type a line across the page and start all over again. In that single document alone I had six starts and stops.

I'd be out walking my dog in the evening -- a time that is good thinking/reflecting time for me -- and come up with a new direction for the introduction. So I'd quickly walk her home, sit down at the computer and start writing. Sometimes I'd stay at it until the late, late hours. But eventually I'd hit a roadblock, something I just couldn't work through.

Then, some nights I'd wake up in my bed at 3:00 a.m. to a flash of insight, a brilliant revelation concerning the introduction. I'd race out of the bed, find a pad of paper and start scribbling wildly, sometimes two or three pages of sloppy, hand-written notes. Surely, I thought, any brilliance that came to me in the wee morning hours would be illumination that was divinely ordained to make it into the introduction.

The next morning, with my head screwed on a little straighter after a couple of cups of coffee, I'd fire up the computer and start writing from my notes. The end product never seemed as brilliant and illuminating after two cups of coffee as it did at 3:00 a.m. Go figure!

Some of those drafts has some really good elements in them. I mean, REALLY good. Good stories. Helpful images. Creative examples. Sometimes, just the right turn-of-a-phrase. But I could not get totally satisfied with any of them.

About 10 days ago I was out of time. I was word-weary, frustrated and unable to see clearly what I was writing. But my deadline was upon me. I needed a workable introduction to the book in order to get it to the printer. It wasn't a matter of it being good or bad. That one had to be the one. I didn't have time for it to be anything other than the introduction that would go into the book. But that's not what I'm writing about in this essay.

What I realized, once I had come to the introduction that I would use, was how hard it was for me to jettison all the others . . . over a dozen drafts. No, they weren't good on the whole. But some of the stories in them were really helpful, I thought. And some of the images were powerful. And some of the writing was quite good, even if the whole was inadequate.

I realized how much time all those unused drafts represented . . . literally dozens of hours spent crafting sentences, finding an appropriate word, or searching for a way to communicate an idea that people could understand and find helpful. Those drafts, which would go into an electronic dumpster somewhere, represented a part of me. They represented my creativity, my wisdom and perhaps my failure. In those drafts were both my weaknesses and my strengths.

What I want to say, I suppose, is that it's very difficult for me to hit the "delete" key. The likelihood that I'll ever use those insufficient drafts is small to none. I don't foresee that happening. When something else comes along, I'll write something original. But I'm having difficulty hitting the delete key.

I can't let go, even of that which is inadequate.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembering Gene: One More Movement Inward and Outward

I woke up Tuesday morning stunned to learn that one of my very good friends did not wake up. Now two days later, I'm still in shock. And I'm not alone. I don't think any of Gene's family or many friends saw this coming. No one covered our blind-side on this one.

I have a lot to say about him, but I'll hold onto most of it. So many persons have their own angle, their own perception of Gene founded on unique relationships shared with him. What I might say represents only a one aspect of this person loved by so many of us. But I'll share a bit of my perspective, now added to all the others.

I experienced Gene as a gregarious and genuinely friendly person. I was with him in numerous settings through the years . . . times of prayer at local and far-away retreat facilities . . . mission endeavors and rebuilding/construction settings . . . monastery pilgrimages and out-of-town conferences. . . . We were in small groups together . . . he was regularly in classes I taught. . . .

Gene's two categories seemed to be "friends" and "those yet-to-be-friends." It was not uncommon to find him engaged in conversation with complete "strangers" (that is, "yet-to-be-friends") in out-of-the-way hotel lobbies or monastery lavender fields or on construction sites nailing 2x4's. I'm a high introvert, so I admired Gene's ability to flow naturally and with ease among people.

But there was another movement that Gene increasingly explored in recent years. He also had tapped into his soul's deep spiritual hunger. For all his love of people and conversation, he was growing a corresponding love for silence and the prayer of quiet. He had an expanding awareness of God and himself that may have surprised him. His attentiveness to God, self, others, and the created world provided him a reservoir from which to draw life. He found life in solitude and places of beauty. He was faithful to his centering prayer practice.

His love of silence and solitude, however, did not trump his love of people and companionship, but rather extended them and deepened them. In fact, he drew life and nourishment for prison ministry and mission trips and construction projects from his growing inner life, from the quiet times and spaces he sought regularly.

So what I want to say about Gene has to do with his life that moved intentionally inward, toward the Source of all that is . . . and then his life that moved intentionally outward, engaging the world in transforming ways in prisons and depressed city neighborhoods and on mission sites around the country.

Gene made a difference. And the difference he made arose from the way his heart continually was being shaped inwardly.

It's too easy to fall off on either side . . . to give ourselves either to an introspective inner life that dismisses the needs of the world . . . or to give ourselves in action and mission without any inner source to animate and propel our service in the world.

Gene was not perfect. We each live with our own peculiar tension, attempting to balance between attending to the inner life and then expressing ourselves in the outer world. But he was intentional with both movements. He knew the value of going in and out the gate. And more than giving lip service to either one, he invested his life in both his own soul-nurture and in the needs of the world.

I'm not eulogizing Gene in order to suggest that any of us need to be like him. Gene was finding his own way, as I have to find my own way . . . as each of us, ultimately, must find our own way.

But Gene's way was a delight to watch.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Holding the Tension of the Extremes

I tend to live much of my life in a huge chasm between what I know to be true and my actual practice. In relatively unimportant matters, as well as in life-situations that could make a huge difference, I know more than I do. I live with a huge disconnect between what I know and what I actually do.

Over the past week I've seen this pretty clearly within myself. A week ago I went for another round of tests related to the cancer that lives in my blood. In the tests that came back that day I learned that over the last two months the counts signalling the lymphoma's presence in me have remained level. No change in two months. And that information has thrown me for a loop.

I'm going on six months of treatments now. For the first month and a half of treatments I showed no improvement, so I changed to a new course of chemotherapy. About two months of that more aggressive treatment regimen brought some progress as the numbers slowly indicated a growing health in my blood. Now, however, I've learned that over the last two months my body has held steady, with neither improvement nor regression.

Frankly, that news was disappointing to me. It was more than a little discouraging. It certainly was not what I had expected. This course of treatment was to last for six months, so I've pinned some hopes on having it completed around Thanksgiving. I expect progress. I expect that if I'm going to put in the time feeling miserable with the chemotherapies and drugs that are my daily diet, there would be some progress.

I know better than to set my expectations like that -- I've written in this space over the last few months about the hazard in those internally-manufactured expectations -- but I'm not always able to practice what I know. I know that I'm invited to live day-by-day, to experience daily sustenance and not to project my expectations for the future on some artificially imposed date ahead of me. Yet, over these days I've found myself swimming in discouragement over the test results and even despair as I've started more treatments this week.

Over the last 24 hours, I've specifically named in myself the tendency to swing toward one extreme or the other without holding the tension of the middle ground. Rarely are life-situations all bad or all good, no matter how devastating they may seem at the time. Always there are pulses of Spirit coursing through events that we may or may not notice. But I tend to gravitate to the extremes, labeling a doctor's report or a chance encounter or a challenging situation as either totally "good" or totally "bad." I think of it as all darkness or all light. I leave no room in the middle to hold the tension of these extremes.

It seems like the mark of a mature person is the capacity to hold these extremes without judging them, to stand in the middle of them with some balance and openness. I'm not near that place.

I know better than to do my life in gravitating to those extremes, yet I'm seldom able to carry out what I know. And in that sense, I often create my own misery. I create my own mental framework that locks me into a certain vantage point which narrowly defines the situation I'm dealing with. I choose for one extreme or the other -- in this case, discouragement and despair -- when there are a number of other options available as well.

Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-17th century Spanish saint, has been a tremendous teacher for me, guiding me to see with more clarity. In lining out a spirituality that helps persons move through all the ups and downs of life, he says things like:

**Have no fixed determination for one thing above all other possibilities . . .

**All life-situations carry the hope and possibility of shaping me into the person God created me to be . . .

**There is not a single option -- of all the possibilities for my life -- that will guarantee my happiness . . .

**A stance of openness in life leads to balance, and thus to true inner freedom . . .

**Christ is present in all things . . .

There is no happy ending tonight to this saga. I'm still in the middle of it. I'm still discouraged, trying not to swirl into depression. My body is pumped full of chemicals, the drugs that are supposed to be my healing. I'm tired from little sleep. I feel irritable. Right now I have little fight in me.

There are things I know to be true tonight, but I struggle to live them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Choose for a Discerning Life

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)

In a book I use for daily Scripture readings, reflection, and prayer, Luke 6:12-16 is the text assigned for today. It describes Jesus spending the night in prayer on a mountain. The next morning he gathered his disciples (apprentices or learners who follow) to himself and chose twelve of them to be apostles (literally, "the ones who are sent").

The traditional reading of this passage says that prayer is crucial to the life-choices we make. It points out that before this most critical "choosing" -- which would shape the entire future of his ministry and of the Church -- Jesus spent a significant amount of time in prayer. Decisions need to grow out of our prayer, the interpretation goes. It implies that the bigger and more far-reaching our decision, the weightier should be our prayer.

The entire matter raises the issue of discernment. How do we choose? On what basis do we make decisions? These are questions with which we struggle, ingrained in our daily living as they are.

The track that most of us take was offered by the book I used for my prayer this morning. In essence it says that the larger the decision, the more earnest our prayer should be. It goes something like this: "Jesus had a huge decision to make regarding the persons he would send into the world as his emissaries. That decision was so weighty and significant that he spent all night praying about it; therefore, like Jesus we should devote ourselves to prayer in order to discern the directions we should go. And the more significant the decision before us, the more we should pray."

We see how that gets played out most everyday in our life-world. Persons faced with a significant decision about job or moving to another city or a medical condition or where to go to school will become very serious about prayer. They will enlist others to pray. They don't want to make a faulty decision. In fact, prayer may be one piece of a larger pattern that persons undertake in order to make a decision.

Some in the Church talk about engaging a "process of discernment." That language is popular currency these days, and speaks to the belief that when faced with a major life-decision, I can roll out a process that will lead me to the right answer. In following the steps of the process, I'll know what to do and when to do it. A "process of discernment" provides a formula to follow, some prescribed steps to take.

It implies that I can arbitrarily lay a process or pattern on top of my life and then come out at the other end of the process with some kind of result or product: A good decision. In the context of Luke 6:12-13, that process may involve extended, night-long prayer.

Here's what I see: Jesus did not go to the mountain to spend a night in prayer because he had a major life-decision to make the next day. It was the pattern of Jesus' life to spend significant periods of time in prayer. Jesus lived in constant awareness of his communion with God. His connection with God was constant. His formal times of prayer were frequent. So spending the night in prayer was a regular practice for Jesus, not an emergency measure that suddenly seemed important because a critical life-choice needed to be made the next day.

Further, because prayer was the habitual pattern of his life, it gave him the resources to discern, to make the right decisions at the right time. He didn't have to shift into "emergency-prayer-mode" because a critical decision loomed. He didn't have to initiate a special "process for discernment" when it was time for a major step. The resources he needed for those times were already there because they came in the normal, everyday, everynight flow of his life.

I'm not discounting special prayer here, or prayer that is particularly earnest in certain seasons of our lives. But I am suggesting that our best discernment grows out of a daily attentiveness in which I attend to God day-by-day and attend to the flow of my own life.

When I live in daily awareness of my life with God, noticing the rhythms of my life, attending to the places of light and love, as well as attending to the shadows, I grow as a discerning person.

When I notice daily the patterns of consolation and desolation within me and around me, I grow as a person able to make wise choices.

When I live in awareness of what brings life to me and to the world, as well as what drains life from me and the world, I grow as a person able to choose out of inner spiritual resources. My choices increasingly reflect the light and life of the One to whom I am connected. All of life, then, becomes the field for my discernment, not just the big steps or the major decisions.

By this approach, discernment is not a "process" in which I engage when something big is on the horizon. It is not an artificial "plan" layered on top of the choice-of-the-day. It is a lifestyle, a way of doing all of life in which I grow as a discerning human being, a person intimately connected with the God of Life.

Obviously, coming at discernment this way is not a quick and simple fix. To become a discerning person takes intentionality and time. It invites me to be still, to listen, to become aware of those things (for me, others, and the world) that bring life and those things that take away life.

This way of discerning does not yield quick results. It can be slow and messy. When we set our hearts to this course of wisdom, we make a decision for the long haul, believing that over time, God will shape our hearts until we become the kind of people Jesus was . . . persons who do the right thing at the right time because we have chosen to live our lives intimately connected to the One who is our Source.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Halfway Home?: Measuring Steps I Cannot See

The weekend before a new cycle of chemotherapy I tend to have some anxiety about the new round of treatments. I've been through the routine enough to know how the treatments and accompanying medications change my body and thus how I feel through those days of therapy. My body does weird things and I feel out-of-sorts emotionally. My sleep patterns and eating patterns are disjointed. I gain at least 10 pounds over the span of a few days. I have to stay isolated as much as possible for the first 17 days or so of the cycle while my immune system is low.

I get what I've come to call "wounded-cat-syndrome" . . . I want to crawl behind a sofa and hide, keeping other people away from my discomfort and out of my line-of-fire. If I'm going to feel out-of-whack, there's no use in others feeling that way, too, so I tend to curl up in a corner, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. (I know, I know, I hear all the arguments to the contrary . . . but right or wrong, that's how I feel!)

Last Sunday I knew that the next morning I would start the chemo cycle again. I began to brace myself for what the next few days would bring, including the changes and altered routines I've mentioned above. The Monday treatment would begin the fourth cycle of this particular chemotherapy regimen. My oncologist says that the protocol calls for six cycles.

So it occurred to me Sunday that I was halfway through the process. Three down, three to go. And honestly, that was little encouragement. It feels like I've been doing this forever. Some days it is difficult for me to remember life before these treatments. In some respects this therapy schedule has become my life. I live in the rhythms of each 4-week cycle, knowing which days are likely to be days when I feel like the pits and which days I'll probably have energy. In many ways, my life right now is shaped by these rhythms.

The kicker? I wanted to believe that I was farther along than halfway. I was tired of this routine, weary of the seemingly endless cycles. I wanted to be at the end, not at the midway point. It was sobering to appraise where I actually was.

As I sat with that realization, I noticed my interior system of measuring the days. I had measured where I was by the length of time from the beginning of the treatments . . . and by the time yet projected in front of me. I had accepted that particular system of measurement as the template for my life without questioning whether there were other ways of thinking about my life.

Are there other ways of thinking about life? Is my essence more than the steps I've taken and the steps that are still in front of me?

What else defines me? What else speaks into my personhood? I had to ask myself those questions.

In reality, measuring the days past and projecting the days to come is an easy way for me to manage the days, to control my expectations. It fits life into a schematic that is trite and predictable and becomes a template that I can easily manage. It occurred to me that "trite," "predictable," and "manageable" were not words I wanted to use in describing my life.

So I moved toward other questions that had to do with the meaning of the days . . . questions that asked about forming and shaping and growing . . . questions that asked not about control and manipulation, but about exploration and wildness. How might those things measure the days?

I realized immediately my need for God's grace if I were to move toward the untamed parts of life. I need the grace to let life be what it is. I need grace to live with the tension inherent in this time of my life.

This is the poem I wrote out of my reflection.

Till now you've measured the journey
by the number of steps taken
and the distance ahead stretching long
into cloud and darkness;
days morph into a long, weary trudge.
The wind does not blow
nor do the wild geese fly.

But the person who lives inside you
knows there is no map for this way;
your measured steps mean
nothing to this one
who wrestles for your freedom
and will not give in to
the siege that would make
this journey a mere
passing of time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rooting Action in Prayer . . . with Thanks to Merton

In some contemporary expressions of spirituality the life of the Spirit is pitted against life lived in the world. The inward journey is set against the outward journey. It is common for folks to choose between perceived opposites:

prayer and action . . .
the inner life and the outer life . . .
meditation and mission . . .
contemplation and service . . .
the journey into the heart and the journey into the world. . . .

I run into people with hearts bent toward serving and mission who find prayer and meditation to be a waste of time. And I have conversations with persons who have "discovered" a substantial connection to God through prayer and contemplation who find ministry and mission to be "too worldly."

It's possible to fall over the edge in either direction.

In reality, spirituality moves us in both directions. An inward journey that does not lead to a corresponding outward movement demonstrates an impotent, lifeless spirituality.

Activity in the world without an interior source and rooting is hollow. It tends to transmit the personality and flaws of the person serving more than incarnating the living Christ in the world.

In the 1960's Thomas Merton wrote these words, holding the two ends of the spectrum in balance. He gives a good sense, I believe, of the relationship between prayer and action.

Real Christian living is stunted and frustrated if it remains content with the bare externals of worship, with "saying prayers" and "going to church," with fulfilling one's external duties and merely being respectable. The real purpose of prayer (in the fully personal sense as well as in the Christian assembly) is the deepening of personal realization in love, the awareness of God (even if sometimes this awareness may amount to a negative factor, a seeming "absence"). The real purpose of meditation -- or at least that which recommends itself as most relevant for modern persons -- is the exploration and discovery of new dimensions in freedom, illuminations and love, in deepening our awareness of our life in Christ.

What is the relation of this to action? Simply this. The one who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which humans are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been. The result of this is evident. We are living through the greatest crisis in the history of humanity; and this crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action and has lost (or perhaps never had) a sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today.

[Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1973), 178-79.]

Monday, August 16, 2010

Waiting in Hope: An Alternative Perspective

All eyes wait upon you hopefully
And when it is time you give them what they need
Opening your hand to satisfy them

(Psalm 145:16-17)

[Norman Fischer, Opening to You]

I'm pretty big on "waiting." That doesn't mean I do it well, but the act of waiting is an important spiritual discipline, a crucial part of prayer and contemplative openness. Waiting forces us to lose our sense of control and management over situations.

Waiting is not popular. "Don't just stand there . . . DO something!" is the motto governing popular culture. In that sense, waiting is counter-cultural, flowing against the grain of conventional wisdom. It is a contemplative act, trusting that God continues to be intimately and functionally involved in the affairs of the created world.

I frequently bring into my prayer my own resistance to waiting. I confess honestly my impatience and how narrow my vision is. I don't see big pictures. My scope is limited. So many life events are connected to so many other life-events that for me to presume a speedy resolution to some predicament is highly presumptuous.

When I prayed with Psalm 145:16-17 yesterday, though, I heard something else about waiting. I heard an alternative perspective to waiting.

It begins with a basic understanding of God's nature. One primary attribute of God is God's endless giving of Self. God is infinitely self-giving, never coming to the end of that giving away. God continually spends on the world what it means to be God . . . love, wholeness, well-being.

In the language of Psalm 145, God's hand is open all the time. Something like a waterfall that never comes to its end, God is spending God's Self always, without ever being diminished. God gives generously from a limitless reservoir.

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the story of a sower who scatters seed in all kinds of fields, without regard for the suitableness of the field or for the end-results of the seed-scattering. The seeds are sown indiscriminately, continually, across the expanse of the landscape. In interpretting the parable, we can understand God as the Sower, who generously scatters seed all the time. God's generosity knows no end.

On the other hand, my human experience is that I wait for God to act. I am hopeful that God will do something about my situation, about the situations of others, and about the situations of the wider world. This is the "waiting experience" from which the Psalms are written.

It struck me yesterday that if I truly believe that God is endlessly self-giving, then God is already generously giving away God's Self, already involved in life-situations, already scattering seed in my life-world.

Thus, my experience of "waiting on God" is actually more like waiting on myself . . . to awaken to what God is already doing, and then opening myself to receive it. From where I sit it looks and feels like waiting on God -- thus the many psalms which extol waiting -- but it actually is more like coming fully to the right time in my own life, the time when I will recognize what has been present all along.

The language I use is that of waiting on God. The reality is that I'm waiting on myself.

It is a long journey toward receiving what is there already. Perhaps you, like me, have learned the wisdom in the old adage, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." Not uncommonly, the teacher has been there all along, but the student has not been ready to receive the teacher. Somehow, though, in the fullness of time we open up and we see as if for the first time what we may have missed forever.

For example, in my own experience I look back and notice that several important authors showed up in my life, all at just about the same time. I found Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Thomas Keating as if they appeared all at once. So many opportunities for growth were given to me in a short span of time. In truth, those writers had been around for years, but I had ignored them.

Other life events had been screaming at me as well, but I didn't paid attention to them, either. Things that may have been God's "scattering of seeds" into my life, I considered inconsequential. I didn't pay attention, perhaps because the time was not right.

Bottom line: God was waiting on me to see, to open up, to receive . . . more than I was waiting on God.

I wonder if that's how it is with all of us. We think we're waiting on God to act. Then we look at life events and see things converging all at once. We experience some spiritual breakthrough. We notice suddenly something that energizes our spirit. We find that all of a sudden our soul feels alive. "Finally," we think. "Finally!" as if God had only at that moment started to work in our lives.

Yet, with the gift of perspective we notice that Someone had been knocking on our door for a long, long time. And we, thankfully, woke up at just the right time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Overheard: Merton and Bly on Moving toward Our Purpose

Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one's own -- be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid. . . .

The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is therefore more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level.

[Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, ed. by Jonathan Montaldo (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008), 37.]

Every man and every woman on this planet is on the road from the Law to the Legends. Surely every person reading this book is. The Legends stand for the moist, the swampish, the wild, the untamed. The Legends are watery, when compared to the dryness of the Law. It takes twenty years to understand the Laws, and then a whole lifetime to get from there to the Legends.

The Law stands for the commandments we need in order to stay alive, the rule that says which side of the road we drive on, the law of gravity. We need to learn the axiom that we cannot take water into our lungs and keep breathing; the dictate that keeps us from murdering each other over a slight rebuke; the canon against self-slaughter; the postulates that encourage prudence, politeness, and appropriateness; the precepts that help us control our madness. . . .

We are each on the way from the Law to the Legends, from dogma to the Midrash, from the overly obedient man to wildness. . . . The closer a person comes to the Legends, then the closer he or she comes to depth, moistness, spontaneity, and shagginess.

[Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990), 140-41.]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Own Brand of Original Sin

Some folks think the Church makes too much of original sin. I hear from people quite a lot who have walked away from the Church at some point because they felt the Church pointed a condemning finger at them -- and everyone else -- through teaching about "original sin." The Church communicated -- or they heard -- that "original sin" is "original badness" and the teaching itself became a heaper of guilt and shame. Who needs more of that?

Maybe the Church does make too much of original sin in some sense, in a dualistic or moralistic way that tries to enforce behavior or mandate a particular code of conduct. The Church speaks the language of grace, but too often acts in ways that seem intended to legislate and manage the behavior of its adherents.

There is another level, though, at which I know the truth of this teaching. And I suspect you do, too.

[I prefer the language of "original wounding" or "primal wounding" to "original sin" anyway. Those terms speak more accurately to me of my skewed disposition toward that which does not make me or the world whole.]

This is my current context: In recent days I've engaged some interior work that invites me to consider personal issues that feel very weighty. It's not work that feels good. It is slow going, tedious and sometimes maddening. I see things in me that I don't like . . . and a few that I do like.

As I get to the harder work, or the more tedious work, or the work that reveals my darker shadows, I'm tempted to write off the work and jettison the growth. Or I'm tempted to excuse the shadows away because it holds me to a standard I can never attain. I can talk it away as overly psychological or without merit for me.

I can find any number of really good reasons to excuse myself from the demands of growth, from the work of becoming fully human. "I'm not all that bad just as I am," I think. "So maybe I'll just sit this one out."

Original sin then, or primal wounding, refers to my capacity for self-deception. It speaks to how polluted my motives can be. I can talk myself out of transformation if it seems too demanding or asks for discipline I do not have yet.

It doesn't stop there. I know how self-serving are my actions. I know how manipulative can be my conversations.

I know that I live underneath huge illusions . . . illusions that for my own comfort and ease I'd just as soon perpetuate uncritically, unthinkingly. For me, this is my own brand of original sin. This is my participation in the original wound. This self-deception is my soul wound . . . or at least part of it. It doesn't mean that I am bad or immoral or a failure. It means that I have a bent toward myself, toward my comfort and ease, toward my own self-preservation, especially if given the choice between you and me. It means that I'm willing to lie to myself -- and to the world -- if it makes me more comfortable and makes my life more pleasant.

A poem by D. H. Lawrence found me many years ago. It speaks to the great long time I've lived with illusions for life-patterns, and how they get hardwired into my being. Further, it speaks to the long, tedious, and difficult road to healing, something like swimming upstream in a society that blesses the illusions.

I still find the poem spot-on for my own brand of self-deception and for the long road to healing I am invited to walk.


I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of the wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

[D. H. Lawrence, Poems, selected and introduced by Keith Sagar, p. 216-17.]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Want the Change: A Rilke Poem

Sonnets to Orpheus
Part Two

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.
Is it safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.

Pour yourself like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.

[in In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. and ed. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 117]

Monday, August 9, 2010

Leaving Home as a Prodigal

The younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country. (Lk. 15:13)

Our growth as human beings, as spiritual beings, is difficult and sometimes harsh work. It takes discipline and diligence. We don't happen upon growth and healthy life-change by accident. Our life-journey as spiritual beings is about engaging this work of becoming fully human, fully the person God created us to be.

Let's connect an image to our situation. Our starting place is something like home. This home consists of all the norms and values that are familiar to us and with which we have become very friendly. While it entails the literal family and the place in which we were raised, home is much more than that. In computer-ese, home is our operating system, the default system from which we operate. It is the life framework to which we return to make sense out of our existence.

Our home may be built upon faulty assumptions, inaccurate perceptions, and coping strategies we have developed to deal with life in all its difficulties. We live underneath the illusion that our home works for us. While it may help us make sense out of life, very rarely is the home we live in expansive enough to cover all of life's uncertainties. We think home is the way life really is. It almost never is.

Because we think our home works for us, we don't have cause to question it or to think that we might need to leave it. So generally, we only begin to question our home or to leave it when confronted with some life-crisis. At some point life begins to fall apart, the old assumptions don't work anymore, and our usual coping strategies don't make sense of life any longer. Generally some kind of crisis pushes us away from home to the far country.

Thus, growing up as a human almost always means leaving home at some point. We generally don't know where we're going, only that where we are is not working. So we leave the constriction of home for the mystery of the far country. (That may or may not mean a literal leaving of mother and/or father. And just because a person physically leaves mother and/or father does not mean that they have truly left home.)

This is the leaving, the going away that is fundamental to the spiritual journey. Many biblical stories reflect this pattern. Most obvious is the story of the young man -- the prodigal son -- who took his inheritance and left home for a far country, leaving behind his family and all that home represents.

All the sermons and lessons about the prodigal son I've heard in the Church for almost 40 years have painted his actions as rash and irresponsible. He was impulsive and reckless, we've said, as we castigate him for leaving a place of safety and comfort.

I find him, though, to be the truly courageous character in the story, the one willing to risk, the one not satisfied to buy blindly into the answers of home, who insisted on asking his own questions and coming to a sense of life for himself. If you want some idea of what home was like in that story, take a look at the elder brother.

So I love the younger son. I haven't always felt that way, but in recent years he has become the biblical character with whom I most identify. With that in mind, a couple of weeks ago I found a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called "The Departure of the Prodigal Son." The poem begins this way:

Now to go away from all this tangleness
that is part of us and yet not ours,
that like the water in old wells
reflects us trembling and ruins the image;
from all this, which as if with thorns
still clings to us -- to go away . . .

The entire poem is full of images and language about "going away" and what happens to our seeing when we "go away." There are images for the mystery we step into when we finally "go away." The poem speaks to the new life that awaits us when we step away from what is comfortable, known, and "sure." This is how the poem ends:

To take all this upon yourself and in vain
perhaps let fall things firmly held,
in order to die alone, not knowing why --

Is this how new life begins?

Yes, it is.

["The Departure of the Prodigal Son," trans. by Edward Snow in Rainer Maria Rilke: New Poems, p. 39]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Going Away to Receive the Kingdom

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Makes purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32 - 34)

The "kingdom" is not an outer, physical realm, but an inner stance of soul. It does not deny or denigrate the physical or the social or the mental; rather, it informs all of life.

The kingdom, as offered by God and as demonstrated through Jesus, permeates all of life. It is the core from which life is lived in all its physical, mental, and social dimensions.

Jesus told his followers that it was God's "good pleasure" to give them this stance of being in the world. It's what God wants, what God desires for all beings created.

So what are Jesus' next words? God wants to give us this kingdom, this way of seeing life, this way of being in the world . . . then his next words are "sell your possessions" and "give alms." It sounds like we have to clear out some space for what God wants us to have. God wants to give us good things, full life, meaningful existence, but our hands are too full of our own stuff to receive what God gives. There is a requisite "selling" and "giving," in short, an emptying that is part and parcel of kingdom-life.

This is where God can start to rub most of us the wrong way. We had thought that God was about helping us get ahead, helping us have more, helping us have a better life, helping us get things situated to our liking. Many of us came to faith -- or some kind of religious expression -- for just this reason: It promised to make a better life for us.

So when someone says to us that first of all we must empty, "sell," or "give away," we can get defensive. This is not the kind of religion we had bargained for.

There is a reason that the Gospels tell stories about persons who "leave" their nets (work) behind to follow Jesus . . . about sons who leave the safety and predictability of home in order to wander into "far countries" before returning home in a different way. There is a reason Jesus says that you have to lose your life in order to find it . . . that he shocks listeners with words about leaving or going away from family and work and all things well-controlled in order to find your life.

Those who receive the kingdom -- the kingdom God wants to give -- are those who are willing to open up, let go, leave, and go away from what is known, consolidated, and hoarded. In some stories, like the Prodigal Son, it is a literal leaving home, going away from what is known into that which is unknown. It means letting go of what is secure and comfortable, giving away of what one has in openness to what is ahead.

This is the difficulty of the kingdom. It is why many hear the words, but few enter fully into it. I am invited to leave what I think I know for what I do not yet know . . . leaving where I am for where I am not yet . . . leaving who I think I am for who I might be or who might yet arise from within me.

This going away or "selling" in order to receive the kingdom is hard. It takes courage to leave, to walk into something that puts me off balance, something I cannot manage or control.

From time to time it is helpful for me to rehearse my own leavings. In what ways have I left home?

For me, leaving one religious framework for an unknown framework was a leaving home . . .

Taking up a deliberately soulful life-path was a leaving home . . .

Taking on new life-questions -- without having them answered! -- has been a leaving home . . .

Walking away from a job, with its salary, position, and identity was a leaving home . . .

Challenging my underlying assumptions about life's fairness and the place of soul has been a leaving home . . .

Daring to ask tough questions about light/darkness in faith and Holy Scripture has been a leaving home . . .

Living more soulfully, guided more organically by my sense of Spirit than by external codes has been a leaving home . . .

Have these times of "going away" from consolidation and that-which-I-know helped me to receive the kingdom that God wants to give? I cannot say. That's yet another unanswered question I'll have to live with.

I can say, however, that there is an inner tug toward this path, toward the mystery, toward the longing of my soul for this kind of life. In short, something about it feels right and seems authentic. My hope is that it is not simply a stroll into mystery, but that it is a path toward receiving the kingdom that God is pleased to give.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Real in Reality

I'm usually not too interested in "reality" television. Most days my life has enough reality without having to live someone else's reality vicariously. Most folks probably feel that way, too. For most of us, daily life itself is a hand-full.

We have all the reality we can handle, so a part of the human impulse is to find ways to escape that reality, or at least to soften the bluntness of it. We do that through addictions and attachments, hobbies and leisure, overwork and medication.

And very often we find some sort of religious expression to be our escape from the reality of the world. Religious expression very often promises persons an escape from reality, an open door to a better life, or at least to a different life. And if we can't have the better or different life now, at least we know it is promised in some eternal By-and-By. It is part of the appeal that many of us find in spiritual endeavors, a form of escapism which says that it's possible to get around real life now. If not now, it will surely happen when I die.

I am interested in and given to Christian spirituality. I say to folks all the time that a part of this spirituality -- which I believe is reflected in the Christian Gospel -- is awakening to an alternative framework or structure for life by which we live differently in the world, out of a Gospel-paradigm for being and seeing and doing in the world. This alternative paradigm unmasks the illusions of the prevailing "reality" of culture/tribe and liberates us to live soulfully from an inner core where we are intimately connected to God.

Having said that, though, the goal of Christian spirituality is not escape from the world. Rather, the world itself is the context for our spirituality, for our being and seeing and doing.

In other words, the life-giving, soul-connection with God which is at our center is lived out in the real stuff of our everyday lives. Spirituality does not separate us from the real stuff, but immerses us into it in a different, life-giving, healing way. We are not escaping challenges, weaknesses, and shadows, but rather living into them differently.

Frankly, I witness that a lot of people are attracted to spirituality because they see it as the missing link, perhaps the one piece of gnosis that has eluded them for years. To many people, it seems at first blush that a more inward spiritual journey has as its main benefit the escape from responsibility and challenge and shadow. It sounds like a fresh message, an appealing way around the things that life throws at us.

Through the years, for instance, I've run across folks who felt they could serve God very well -- or that life would be really wonderful -- if they could just stay on retreat 24/7. Some of them wanted to run off and join a monastery -- heck, I wanted to do that in one extreme season of my life! -- as if that were the solution to the difficulties of their lives. Others just wanted to go on perpetual retreat, or attend every conference, workshop, or class possible to find answers for the realities of their lives. In all, the goal for many people is to escape life as it is, not be more immersed in it.

The Church and most religious systems of belief tend to perpetuate this idea of escape from reality. Our preaching and teaching envisions the world as evil and problematic. We sing, "The world is not my home." We're convinced that if we could get to a state of "holiness" and "pure spirit" we could get around reality.

Our desire for prayer can too often be rooted in our desire for a better life, our desire to get around the reality of our life-circumstances.

Our concern for heaven can be an antidote for our fears about the reality of death.

Our longing for healing as the eradication of sickness causes us to sidestep the teacher and companion that often is experienced as disease.

When we escape reality, though, we may also be escaping God. A few years ago I heard Paula d'Arcy say, "Most often, God shows up as life."

Thomas Merton wrote, "Reality itself is God's epiphany."

And these words, first heard thirty years ago from one of my mentors, have rooted me since: "Whatever you believe, if it won't play in a cancer ward or in a shoddy nursing home, it's not the Gospel."

Spirituality is not an escape hatch. It roots us in the Real, Who is revealed in reality. It is a connection to and attentiveness to what is, not to what might be or what we hope one day to be.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Unexpected Graces

This week I watched another birthday come and go. At a certain point years ago I stopped getting charged up about my birthday. I find them good excuses to treat myself to some small indulgence, perhaps, but the day sweeps in and out without feeling much different than most other days.

The "celebration" this week was even more underplayed. I realized a couple of weeks ago that on my birthday I'd be sitting in a chemotherapy chair at Methodist Hospital. That's a sober realization, especially when folks ask, "What are you doing special for your birthday?" Well, I guess chemotherapy is special in its own way.

So this week I determined to enter the day alert to experience the gifts in the birth day. I wanted to notice the unexpected graces in the day. I didn't have any idea what I'd find. Frankly, chemotherapy from the previous day left me feeling drained and out-of-sorts, so the morning of my birthday I wasn't too sure that I'd notice anything to redeem the day.

The first grace came in the chemo chair itself. I slept through the first part of the infusion. Then for the last two hours of the treatment I watched The Natural with my daughter on the small television set up in the chemotherapy cubicle. It's a favorite of our family, one that we return to again and again -- a movie more about failure and flawed character and redemption than about baseball -- and she had wanted to watch it again for a few weeks. We watched it together, recited the lines from memory, laughed some, and cried some. We talked about the life-themes in the movie, and the ways the movie touched us. They were golden moments.

The second grace came later in the day, when a package of used books I had ordered last week arrived at my door. For me, ripping into a package of books is something akin to Christmas morning for a 10 year-old, so that in itself would have been a real grace.

But the unexpected grace came when I laid the books out in front of me and slowly went through them one by one. Online I had purchased a couple of poetry books by William Stafford, one of my favorite poets. I paid $.01 for each of them -- that's right, a penny -- plus shipping. So I was thoroughly surprised when I opened one of them and found Stafford's signature on the title page! I immediately knew it was Stafford's hand, as I have seen some of his hand-written poems. It was a thrill, a real serendipity.

And then this Stafford poem from the book:

Waiting for God

This morning I breathed in. It had rained
early and the sycamore leaves tapped
a few drops that remained, while waving
the air's memory back and forth
over the lawn and into our open
window. Then I breathed out.

This deliberate day eased
past the calendar and waited. Patiently
the sun instructed shadows how to move;
it held them, guided their gradual defining.
In the great quiet I carried my life on,
in again, out again.

[Passwords, p. 36]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Carrying Wind and Open Spaces

I give you these lines from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Don't be afraid to suffer, give
the heaviness back to the weight of the earth;
mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.

Even those trees you planted as children
became too heavy long ago -- you couldn't carry them now.
But you can carry the winds . . . and the open spaces . . .

[Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sitting Still before "What Is"

I'm aware of a desire within me for my life-circumstances to be different, to live in a world that is not my reality. It's not hard for me to spend some fantasy time in that particular world, day-dreaming about what life would be like without the disease that is my constant companion . . . what it would be like to have a different job . . . how life would look if I lived in a place of scenic beauty . . . what it would be like to travel across Europe on an endless budget.

My challenge after nearly three months of chemotherapy -- with at least three yet to go -- is to stay connected to what is real and actual right now, without mindlessly ripping the current days off the calendar as the prelude to "when-things-get-back-to-normal."

Truth is, this is my new normal, at least for now. Early in this process of therapy I was challenged by the phrase in Jesus' model prayer that petitions, "Give us this day our daily bread." The invitation I heard in those words was to find bread each day, sustenance for that day, without racing ahead to what life would be like at the end of the treatments.

How am I being given bread today?

In what ways am I being sustained right now?

So in a sense I'm invited to stand still before what is. I'm called to trust what is, the actual stuff of my life. That's hard to do. It's difficult not to live in the fantasy of "what-if."

The what is of my life contains disease, messy relationships, unfulfilled longings, sometimes-frustrating work. What is stands counter to what ought to be or what should be or even what I would like to be. What is is the stuff of my life as it is, not as it might be. This is the reality of my life from which I cannot flee.

I'm not locked into what is in a deterministic way, but the what is reality of my life represents those companions with which I must make life's journey.

For instance, it is tempting to wish away the disease I live with, to think that life can only be good if it is totally eradicated. I can pin all my hopes for life on the "healing" of the disease, thinking that life will finally be good again when the disease is finally behind me. But that is not what is in my life.

So do I have the strength of spirit to sit patiently before what is, to wait for it, to be still before it, and to trust what it is shaping in my life?

Some days I live into what is, and other days I push against it. The path, as I've experienced it, is not straight and level.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

No Frontal Assaults: Spiritual Formation through the Back Door

In my readings for several weeks I've been drawn to the word "mercy." It happened again a couple of days ago, Jesus saying to those who accused his followers of breaking the law, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." Over and over again I hear the Scriptures calling for mercy, calling us as humans to mercy.

Perhaps we are invited to mercy because it is at such a premium in our world.

Or perhaps we are called to mercy because acting mercifully, especially toward those who harm or offend us, runs counter to the way most of us are programmed.

So in my prayer I wondered aloud about how to get "mercy" into me. How do I go about acquiring mercy? If Jesus says I should desire it and have it, how does that happen for me in a very practical sense? How does mercy get into me and become a part of what I do? More importantly, how does mercy get into me and become a part of who I am?

The Church doesn't do a very good job helping us with things like mercy . . . love . . . forgiveness . . . compassion . . . hope. I'm afraid that the extent of our help is to tell people that they should have these virtues. We even set up committees and ministry teams to allow people to do things that are merciful or compassionate or loving. We may have helped people have outlets for periodic bursts of these virtues, but we haven't done a very good job of helping folks get mercy, love, forgiveness, and compassion into the DNA of their souls.

Our agenda has been to preach sermons and teach Sunday School lessons about mercy, to define it, to give examples of it -- sometimes strikingly from some historical luminaries -- and to encourage persons to be merciful.

For the most part, it has come down to motivation and persuasion. Christian leaders find their job in motivating and persuading as many people as possible to take some action by an act of the will. We come at it with a head-on attack.

As with other virtues, we use a frontal assault. We act as if persons could be changed by an act of the will, by merely deciding to be merciful or loving or forgiving, so we attempt to persuade them to do so. Short-term change may happen that way. Long-term change almost never does.

So how do I get mercy into me? How do I come to have mercy at my core, directing my energies from a merciful, loving, and compassionate center?

It does not happen directly by frontal assault, but through the back door, by indirection. Like the formation of our inner life, these virtues come as the byproduct of other disciplines and spiritual practices. In other words, you open yourself to a merciful and loving life by aiming at the kind of life that will shape your interior, which then will organically produce mercy, love, and compassion.

If mercy is inside me, then mercy is what will come out of me.

That seems to be the way with all growth and maturity. To get to the destination -- in my case, a merciful life -- you must seek the road that will take you there, and then you must walk it diligently.

It's not enough to make a rational case for mercy, to set out a logical formula for mercy, or to use massive amounts of persuasion and motivation to get people to act mercifully. The question ultimately is, "How do I get this inside me so that mercy is a part of who I am?"

So I move toward mercy through the back door, or at the very most, side-ways. I endeavor toward third things, that then really open up my interior to live a merciful life. In effect, then, I'm not working on mercy, but on the state of soul from which mercy comes. I'm doing a third thing -- some spiritual discipline or practice of prayer -- that shapes my interior in a way that allows my soul to produce mercy in the world.

A frontal assault on mercy will not work. While it may reap short-term results, in the long haul a direct, full-bore approach does not last and does not transform us inwardly. You can grit your teeth and be merciful on the outer fringes of life, but if you want mercy to be who you are, to arise organically from within you, there has to be another way.

I'm asking questions about what that back door is for me, about what those third things are for me that will produce mercy in my life. Perhaps silence and solitude are on the list, and prayer, but I'm thinking that regular interaction with persons who are very different from me might be a part of my back door as well. Or might I be led to more -- not less -- involvement with those who have harmed me or offended me? I'm still open to answers.

Whatever the road for me, ultimately I want mercy to be who I am, not just what I do.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Needle Eyes on the Way to the Kingdom

Mark 10:23 - 27

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God."
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

This passage causes concern and a certain nervousness among readers. I've heard persons come to all sorts of interpretations for "eye of a needle" in order to escape its difficulty, things like making the "eye of a needle" a gated opening in an ancient walled city. Even without making the "eye of a needle" some large portal in a city wall, the passage raises concerns. Other folks write off the passage as applying only to the "rich," and most of us -- no matter how much or how little we have -- don't count ourselves as "rich."

The traditional reading of this passage equates the "kingdom of God" with "heaven"; thus, most people think the passage says something like, "It is hard for the rich to enter heaven."

But the "kingdom of God" is not a catch-phrase for "heaven." It refers to an orientation, a framework for seeing and doing life, a way of orienting oneself around God and the structures of God. While humans are made to live fully into this God-oriented life, it is hard for us to do so because so many other frameworks and orientations live within us and tug at us. Jesus mentions one such difficulty. "Riches" and possessions too easily become the center around which life is oriented. And that is not only an indictment on those who have a surplus of possessions. Often, those who have little live out of such an all-consuming desire for more that every part of life is oriented around accumulating an abundance. A life-framework that is oriented around possessions and "riches" is not oriented around God.

It is hard for persons to enter a new way of orienting ourselves toward God and life, something like stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle. It is a life-long challenge.

It is hard for the rich to make this paradigm shift. More than the rich, though, it is hard for anyone to make this shift, because we all have a complex and tangled root-system that serves as our basic life-framework. We carry values and allegiances and motivations that determine our orientation. We justify some of them with labels like "religious" or "Christian" or "God-given." Others simply live within us apart from our recognition of them.

In reality, then, it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is also hard for the prideful to enter the kingdom of God. It is hard for the self-sufficient to enter. It is hard for those who have titles and status to enter. It is hard for those who blindly love their tribe to enter. It is hard for those caught in the traps of competition and comparison to enter. It is hard for those who feel they have all answers to enter. It is hard for all of us to enter the kingdom of God.

I think it's very possible Jesus mentioned the "rich" as merely one example of the difficulty of entering the kingdom of God. He very well could have mentioned any number of other things that you and I hold onto for life.

And this is what we find very hard. We find it hard to orient life not around any number of other things, but around the radically different values of the kingdom of God. It takes a huge paradigm shift to let go of one orientation in order to adopt another. The old framework almost has to be pried from our fingers. We grasp it, clutch it, hold onto it for dear life because it is all we know. Or if not all we know, it is at least what we know best, what we can control, the rules to the game that we know how to play by.

The kingdom of God presents us with a radically alternative orientation, one that takes a great long time to grow into. It is one which we may not truly want to invest ourselves in, yet this framework is the true and authentic structure of the cosmos. This kingdom's orientation represents how the world was made to function and what the world was made for. The rest of life is an illusion, a huge falsity, until we begin to align ourselves with this orientation. We live false, we live a lie until we come to it.

Living a transformed life, a life being formed by the Spirit of God, means that this passing through the needle's eye becomes a part of our life-long journey. This needle's eye kind of life is the only way toward a life of love, mercy, and compassion.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dreaming of an Expansive Life

The language and symbols of spiritual stories are nuanced. If we interpret all spiritual teaching with a rigid, "one-size-fits-all" schematic, we will miss the deeper truths that might be intended for us. Teachings that open us to the Spirit are pliable, shaping themselves around specific persons and events so that we experience truth at ever-deeper levels of our being. To apply a single interpretive mindset across the board to all spiritual language misses the point.

For instance, in biblical narrative we tend to think of darkness as "bad," representing evil. And we tend to think of light as "good," representing healing or God. Many times that interpretive framework is accurate. There are plenty of times in the Bible when we are encouraged to leave the darkness -- and the "deeds of darkness" -- in order to walk in the light.

Or another interpretive framework says that nighttime and darkness are the times for sleep. And since slumber, dullness, and inattentiveness are major impediments in the spiritual journey, darkness and nighttime become symbols of the time we sleep or are inattentive to the presence and activity of God. We may not be actively engaged in evil-doing, but we are dull and sluggish of spirit. We are sleep-walking through life. So encouragement to step into the daylight in spiritual language is often a call to "wake up!" Light, then, represents spiritual alertness, seeing, awakening, and enlightenment.

Still, there is another interpretive framework for darkness and light that we frequently miss, especially in spiritual stories. Night and darkness also can represent dreaming, the deepest longings of the soul, the time when our controlling mind can no longer govern what lives in our souls. Dreams are very often wild, free, vivid, imaginative, untamed, and portray a world where "all things are possible." When we sleep and dream, we are in a state of consciousness in which our minds can no longer put the brakes on what lives deep inside us. Dreams are the soul's vocabulary, telling us in symbolic language of possibilities that in our waking hours we wouldn't let ourselves imagine.

In the same way, daytime in spiritual story can represent a flat-earth view of life that is constricted and confined, bounded by rules and limitations, hemmed in by "oughts," "shoulds," and "musts." We may prefer to live in the daytime world because we fear being out of control, so we shut out the language of the soul. Especially in our culture, we tend to think that the daytime world of work, home, leisure, and responsibility is the only world there is. We stop dreaming and stop listening to the soul.

So as the nighttime represents expansiveness, creativity, and the vitality of the Spirit, the daytime can represent constriction, control, and a firmly-held, ego-driven life.

The Bible is full of dreamers. Joseph and Jacob in the Old Testament, and Peter in the New Testament were each given dreams and visions that opened them to God and to new realities that they could not have envisioned in their own thinking.

In our cultural setting, if we're not careful, living only in the daylight hours, we grow small and constricted, living only as far as our minds can imagine. We tend to call this the "real world." Actually, we only live in this "real world" --which we can personally control and manipulate -- out of fear of the other world of Spirit where we are not in control. This is flat-earth living!

If, on the other hand, we can live in a more imaginative balance, our lives grow larger, fuller, and more expansive. We begin to fill out the purpose for which we were created. We dare to reach out, to touch stars. We envision new possibilities. We begin to listen to the wisdom of our own souls, where we are most deeply and intimately connected to God.

David Whyte's poem "What to Remember when Waking" speaks to this tension between nighttime and daylight.

In that first
hardly noticed
in which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
and frighteningly
where everything
there is a small
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
will make plans
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

[in David Whyte, The House of Belonging, 26 - 28]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Larger Citizenship

Two world sporting events have caught my attention lately.

For over a month I've followed the World Cup. Played in South Africa this year, it is the World Championship of Football ("soccer" to those in the U.S.A.).

The World Cup is a big deal on the world stage. It is played every four years in a different location. And since soccer is the world's sport, the World Cup is embraced most everywhere as the pinnacle of sport . . . most everywhere but the United States. If you can imagine the anticipation of the Super Bowl in the United States and multiply that many times over, that's how the rest of the planet esteems the World Cup.

I first woke up to the World Cup in 2006 when on a mission endeavor to Estonia. Hotel lobbies and restuarants had televisions tuned into the games, with interested futball fans gathered to watch. It was obviously a big deal. I remember eating in one Estonian restuarant as a large group of people sat around a television watching a match that involved the German team. I wondered what interest a group of Estonians had in a German match. After awhile I realized that they were interested simply because the larger event was important.

The other event that I follow every July is the Tour de France, a three-week cycling extravaganza that circuits France. The race winds through the plains and mountains, from border to border. I watch the daily telecasts to see the beautiful French countryside and to be blown away by the majestic mountains. But I'm also drawn by the international flavor of the event. Many of the riders are from Europe and some from North America. There are a few Asian riders, some from South America, and some prominent Australians.

Frankly, Americans don't pay much attention to the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong from Austin won the Tour seven times in the last decade, but still the race hasn't entered the consciousness of most Americans -- beyond asking, "How did Lance do today?"

I don't watch these events because I know much about either of them. I don't know all the rules of soccer, and I'm still learning the strategies of team cycling. And I'm not interested in them because I want to root for the United States to "win another one!" I'm interested in them because they are important to other people in the world. Sure, they are sporting events, and they are not significant in terms of major world events. But they are embraced by a wider audience than "my tribe" or "my nation." To me, that makes them important.

Frankly, you can read online comments posted by Americans about these two events that are absolutely embarrassing. Many of them diminish these sporting events simply because they are not important in the United States. It's pretty common to find a large group of people who agree, for instance, that if the World Cup really were a big deal, the United States would be the big favorite to win it. But since the United States has never come close to a World Cup title, the event -- and the sport -- must not be that important.

Such thinking smacks of arrogance and ignorance. "If we can't win, it must not be important!" "If we're not good at it, the whole thing must be irrelevant!"

I don't have interest in these two events because I want to see the United States win the World Cup. I don't lose interest in the Tour de France if Lance Armstrong has no chance of winning. I watch and have interest because I'm not only a citizen of the United States of America, but because I have a larger citizenship. I'm a citizen of the human race.

My own small world -- even my own country -- is not the only context for my life. Like you, I am a part of a larger family, with a larger, more expansive citizenship.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

To Look Good or To Feel Good?

The old Saturday Night Live sketch had Billy Crystal playing "Fernando," a celebrity interviewer in "Fernando's Hideaway." Fernando wore a pretentious ascot as he interviewed various luminaries and repeated in a thick Latin accent, "You look mah-velous!"

This is going to sound strange at first, but I thought of Fernando in recent days as I've started another cycle of chemotherapy. Stay with me for a minute.

One of Fernando's tag lines, after proclaiming to his guests, "You look mah-velous," was to tell them, "You know, it is better to look good than to feel good."

That line popped into my head several times over the last couple of weeks. Over those days I saw many people who know that I'm currently in treatment for lymphoma. So as I moved toward the treatments this week, several times people said to me things like, "You really look good!" Or, "You seem to be feeling good!" I felt like a guest on Fernando's Hideaway.

The truth was that I probably did look pretty good, or at least better than the last time they saw me!

And further, I probably did feel pretty good, or at least better than a few days before!

So I received the kind words of my friends, grateful for the encouragement they offered.

But I also wondered if those were the only two options. While how I look and how I feel may be some indicator of what is going on within me -- in my blood and in my bone marrow and with all the counts that determine my body's physical health -- my "looks" and my body's "feel" are not the final measure of my physical health.

The reality that is most crucial to me is not how I look or even how I feel -- though obviously I'd rather feel good than not. I'm most concerned about the actual state of my body. I wouldn't mind looking terrible if the cancer within me were eradicated. I've even gotten used to feeling rotten periodically -- thanks to the chemotherapy, steroids, and other meds that I take for my "health" -- for the benefit of knocking down the cancer.

So in my experience, Fernando didn't have it exactly right. Looking good and feeling good are not the only options.

Sorry Fernando. There is another reality beneath what I look like and feel like. That's the one I'm interested in tending these days.

Transformation: Becoming the Exact Original of Who You Are

Laurence Freeman says this about transformation and becoming the persons God created us to be:

"By being rooted in this place of transformation which is not geographical but spiritual, our own inmost centre, we are changed from being an approximation, an imitation of ourselves, into the exact original of who we are." (Laurence Freeman, Web of Silence, 28-29)

I'm drawn to Freeman's turn-of-the-phrase, that we are kept from living the life for which we were made by living as "approximations" of ourselves . . . that we are hindered from being the "exact original of who we are" by living as "imitations" of ourselves. Stiff words. And true.

We slip into the cultural programming of daily life without consideration of consequence and are lured with siren calls to success, validation, and well-being. We assume that we are what we think. Or else, we are what others estimate us to be. We are fragile people. We need affirmation. The legitimate soul-hunger within us is cheapened into a grab for superficial ego-strokes and momentary validation.

Without a significant spiritual practice to sustain us, we live very much on the periphery. By "significant spiritual practice" I refer to some practice that accesses the inner recesses of our souls, that dips into the region of our lives which knows we are more than external validations and cheap ego-strokes. A regular practice of contemplative prayer, meditation, and silence/solitude enables us to touch the inner depths of our selves. By regularly accessing this interior reservoir we become more and more familiar with the "exact original of who we are."

Freeman writes about the "re-programming" that happens through prayer and an "ordered life." Prayer, meditation, and praxis re-orient our inner life so that we live more and more from our inner soul-reservoir and less and less from the periphery of "approximation" as "imitations of ourselves." At this interior point God does the work of transformation within us.

Freeman's words encourage me. Contemplation and prayer are not auxiliary to "real life." They are, in fact, the source of life, the well from which we draw our lives and ultimately from which the life of the world will be transformed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Standing Still, Walking with Humanity

Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a Russian immigrant who fled Communist Russia in 1920. She arrived penniless in Canada, but within ten years through hard and industrious work had grown to have great wealth. A Russian Orthodox Christian, in 1930 she heard the words of Christ: "Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me."

In 1930 she sold her possessions and went to live with the poor in the slums of Toronto. With a deep and intense faith in God, and a sincere love and concern for the poor, she made a difference in that very difficult setting. Soon many others, drawn to her faith and her mission, were led to join her. She was invited to New York where she did interracial work in Harlem. She spoke around North America on issues of faith and prayer, racial discrimination and social injustice. Often she was speaking to hostile audiences of Christians who did not want to hear her radical message. She founded Madonna House as a training center for those who would integrate a deep spirituality with significant social work in the world.

In reading some of her memoirs over the last couple of weeks, I was particularly struck by one phrase she consistently used with others who worked alongside her in the ministry to the "little and least." Often she reminded her co-laborers that "we must stand still in order to walk alongside humanity."

"Stand still in order to walk with humanity"? That doesn't make sense at first glance. How does one stand still in order to walk?

For Catherine Doherty it meant that the most crucial preparation for the work of tending the soul of humanity was the work of prayer and listening to God. And for her, prayer and listening could not happen in its most life-shaping form without stillness. "Stand still" is a call to prayer, to silence, to listening.

To many, Catherine Doherty is most well known for bringing to the Christian West the Russian Orthodox notion of the poustinia. In Russian Orthodox Christianity, a poustinia is a room or space that is set aside entirely for prayer. In Russia it would typically include icons, prayer ropes, and candles. But in its simplicity, it would by its very presence be a call to prayer. In a sense, the poustinia would be the womb from which any action or social justice in the world emerges. The poustinia would be the "standing still" place, so that when one emerged from prayer she/he would "walk with humanity," that is, to engage the world in a way that is transforming and right-making.

So Catherine Doherty, a deeply prayerful and spiritually connected woman, made a difference in her world. Today we might speak of how she held together prayer and social justice as "contemplation and action." Her contemplation, her "standing still" became the source or the reservoir from which she "walked with humanity," she acted for God in the world.

She held the tension when many of us want to choose one or the other . . . the people of prayer who want nothing to do with the brokenness of humanity . . . the people of mission who see prayer and listening as a mindless waste of time.