Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Incomprehensible Certainty

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a brilliant and artistic 19th century Jesuit priest who lived most of his life in adversity. His family turned their backs on him. His friends ridiculed him, sometimes publicly. He converted to Catholicism in an Anglican country. He was given appointments as a priest that did not match his gifts. He often found himself on the outside, even of religious life, looking in.

He was also a reluctant poet, expressing his inner life in verse that was not valued until well after his death.

Foremost, Hopkins loved God and was willing to face rejection and adversity for the love of God. His sense of being outside the mainstream did not deter him from a steadfast allegiance to God.

Ron Hansen in Exiles writes this about Hopkins and his devotion to God:

Hopkins was a child of a century in which many writers, artists, and intellectuals abandoned not only Christianity but belief in God altogether. Their antipathies were generating a cultural shift away from organized religion and toward a view of God as only an interesting uncertainty. Whereas Hopkins considered God, as he wrote a friend, "an incomprehensible certainty." His was a faith that found hope and sturdiness even in the face of mystery, paradox, and philosophical difficulties. Because he'd felt God's love and tenderness so often in the past, he knew there was no meanness in him. (Ron Hansen, Exiles, 101 - 102)

I love Hopkins. I love his poetry. I love his life, what Hansen calls his "sturdiness" in the face of life's difficulties. I love the way he holds the tension of the incomprehensibility of God on the one hand and the certainty of God on the other. He is not afraid to step whole-heartedly into God's mystery, into the cloud and darkness of God, while at the same time trusting wholeheartedly in whatever God brought into his life.

As a follower of Christ in the Ignatian tradition, he didn't prefer wealth or poverty, health or sickness, success or failure, esteem or ridicule. He received whatever came, trusting with a sturdy faith the God who was incomprehensible, but who had never shown him other than love.

I finished Hansen's book today. I find myself once again deeply connected to Hopkins, glad for his life, thankful that he is my brother.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Questioning the Core

It takes a high level of spiritual maturity to question the assumptions that lie at your core.

Each of us carry bucket-loads of ideals, attitudes, and allegiances that we never think to question. They are a part of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual DNA, programmed in us from our youngest days.

We assume that the way we see life and do life and approach life is the way -- the best way . . . or the only way -- to do life. We can manifest those approaches in our lifestyle, in our approach to religious belief, and in our allegiances to groups and nations. We assume that our politics are right and the politics of others are misguided. We believe that our approach to religious faith is right -- we might call it "righteous" or "holy" -- and that those who have a different way are "evil," "enemies of God," or "heretics."

A few months ago I met one of my cultural assumptions head-on. The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History offered an exhibit on the Isleta Pueblo of New Mexico. The exhibit was unique in that the Pueblo themselves told their story. Their lives were not being interpreted by Anglo-Saxons.

One display told of the practices around wheat planting season in March and April. To celebrate the planting season, the tribe held races and contests of skill. What caught my attention was that prizes were not awarded to the winners of the contests, but to the losers as the weaker ones who "might not live as long as the stronger winners." Not only did the losers receive the prizes, but the winners of the races were required to serve the losers, to feed them, and even to go into the mountains to collect firewood for them.

At first, this felt very strange to me. I live with the assumption that winning is better than losing, that being successful is preferable to failure, that strength is better than weakness, that health is better than illness. I've gained those assumptions from the cultural setting in which I've been shaped.

The Isleta Pueblo, though, did not have such assumptions. In that world, winners served losers, the weak are served by the strong, and those of ill-health are not despised by the rest of the tribe.

I notice what persons in society value. I see the assumptions made on television shows and in the news. I find that even in the church we carry norms never questioned.

It is a mark of spiritual maturity that we question what lies at our core, what forms the foundation of our thinking, feeling, and believing. Not an easy task for us, but so necessary for our personal growth.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Richard Rohr on Joy and Sadness

This is Richard Rohr's (Center for Action and Contemplation) short meditation today on how joy and sadness are mingled together, often found in the same circumstance or life. I find myself this morning saying, "YES!!" to his words.

Zephaniah, addressing a slum of Northern Kingdom refugees in Jerusalem (Zephaniah 3:14-18), and Paul, writing to the Philippians from his chains (Philippians 4:4-7), both counsel an unprecedented and unwarranted joy to their listeners. Were they na├»ve or pie in the sky believers? Probably not, because the whole of anything always contains parts and reasons for joy and contentment. To accept and live in the whole of things is to be “holy.” The unified field of God does not blot out all sadness and tragedy entirely, but it somehow and surely co-exists with it. Joy and sadness can live together within us at the same time, and afterwards we learn to never despair because of the dark sides of things. The dark side is never the whole, although in the short term it often appears to be.

(Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 9)

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thomas Merton on Living His Life

I've written a couple of posts lately about the invitation to live life in the now and the challenge of knowing my own interior.

These words from Thomas Merton's journals speak into the challenge we each have in knowing ourselves and living the one life we've been given.

September 22, 1959
The one thing necessary is a true interior and spiritual life, true growth, and my own, in depth, in a new direction. Whatever new direction God opens up for me. My job is to press forward, to grow interiorly, to pray, to break away from attachments and to defy fears, to grow in faith, which has its own solitude, to seek an entirely new perspective and new dimension in my life. To open up new horizons at any cost, to desire this and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. But really to desire this and work for it.

December 28, 1958
More and more I am quietly going to have to do the difficult thing that no one else is free to do either for me or with me -- really live my own interior life and seek God according to my own vocation -- without fighting or condemning other people and without worrying at the differences between us in outlook, ideals, etc.

December 11, 1958
"What am I here for?" . . . The only satisfying answer is "for nothing," I am here gratis, without a special purpose, without a special plan. I am here because I am here and not somewhere else. I am not here because of some elaborate monastic ideal or because this is "the best" (which it probably is not) -- but simply this is where "God has put me." I live here. I work around here. . . . I am here gratis, for no special purpose, with no strings attached, freely. I have no serious reason for wanting to be elsewhere, though I might like to be elsewhere at times.

The fact remains that elsewhere is not where I am or where I am likely to be. The point is not that this is a sublimely wonderful and special place. Not at all. To try to convince myself of this after 17 years would be madness and insincerity. The point is that it does not much matter where you are as long as you can be at peace about it and live your life. The place certainly will not live my life for me, I have found that out. I have to live it for myself.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Attending to the Interior

Only that which is interior is near; everything else is far away.
And this interior is dense and every day
overfilled with everything, and entirely unspeakable.

(From Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Island")

The Christian spiritual path invites us to a deeper attentiveness and love in four specific realms. We are invited to attend more deeply to God, to self, to others, and to the created world.

I find the most challenging realm for myself and others is that of attending to and loving myself. We tend not to do this well. We don't see ourselves honestly. We wear self-blinders. It's not that we intentionally deceive ourselves, but to see ourselves as we truly are requires an unflinching honesty that can be painful. Such seeing, though, is a crucial part of the spiritual journey.

Noverim te, noverim me, St. Augustine prayed. "May I know you, may I know myself."

The interior of our lives, however, is the context we cannot afford to overlook. Too many times we seek to find ourselves in the outer world, named by what we produce or how others estimate us. We identify with a particular tribe, group, or symbol of status. We accumulate symbols of well-being that we think will label us . . . titles and possessions and accomplishments.

All of those things, though, are exterior to what is most real, to who we truly are. Rilke says that what is within us, the interior of our lives, is dense and so full of "every day's everything" that we cannot even speak of it accurately. This inner density is dark and light, cloudy and clear, obvious and mysterious. No wonder we are hesitant to explore it!

This is not an invitation to intense introspection that shuts the world out. This is not a "navel-gazing" that displaces God with my own self or ego at the center of life -- I am never the center! This is not a narcissism that looks out only for itself while the rest of the world struggles and laments.

It does, however, seek to become familiar with its own landscape as a way of becoming whole, as a way of seeing clearly, and as a path to healing the pain of the world.

Becoming familiar with my own density means that I begin to recognize the ways that I offer my own unique toxicity to the world. Knowing my own toxicity, I'm more able to open myself for healing and wholeness.

It also means that I come to know the unique gifts and charisms that are mine to offer the world. If I don't offer myself for the healing and well-being of the world, no one else can offer me. Only I can offer myself, my own density, in that way.

"May I know You, may I know myself."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Looking for My Life in the Now

In 2004 I was diagnosed with a lymphoma related to my bone marrow and blood. It is a sort of hybrid disease, so I have a hard time knowing just what to call it. On the diagnosis/payment sheet my oncologist/hematologist fills out each time I visit him, he can't decide which box to check to describe my condition to the insurance folks. "What do I call you?" is his usual wrap-up question as he looks at the form that gives him 70-80 options.

In late April I started chemotherapy again. This happens every few months when the disease "eats" enough of my healthy blood cells that low blood counts diminish my energy. This is the fourth time since fall 2004 I've gone through this process. Each time in the past one particular chemotherapy has knocked down the cancerous cells and enabled the healthy cells to be replenished.

This time, however, the lymphoma resisted this chemotherapy. After six weeks of treatments, tests, and biopsies, I'm at a "start over" place. I must start a new course of treatment immediately, a more aggressive process. And this process, say my medical professionals, will likely take 4 - 5 months.

So over the past two days, since learning about this new plan for dealing with the disease, I've considered what my life is like in the midst of this time. My temptation, while in the midst of treatments, is to count the days to their end. This April and May, I scrubbed my calendar in order to give my attention fully to my body's healing. Others stepped in for me to cover my responsibilities. Early in the treatments, I picked up a virus, which necessitated staying home, away from crowds and the possibility of further infection. All the while, I was counting down the days to the end of the chemo treatments, working from home as I had energy and focus to do so. It was something like biding my time, paddling to the end of the treatments. I was treading water, waiting for June and the end of treatments.

But now I feel like I'm in a different place. Now I'm looking at 4 - 5 months. I really didn't have 6 weeks to waste, to "bide the time." Now I'm even more aware that I don't have 4 - 5 months to waste. To simply float along until I'm at the end of this process means that I lose 4 - 5 months of life that I'll never get back.

So into my prayer over the last two days I've brought this question: "How am I invited to live as I go through this process?"

"What does it mean to live my one wild and precious life, even as I have three different kinds of chemotherapy in my body, mixing with steroids and antibiotics?"

"With those drugs inside me, is it even possible to live my life? Or will I be living the life of the drugs?"

"What does 'living life' look like for me while I'm living this very real-life situation?"

I don't have answers. But I do know that I don't have 4 - 5 months to waste. I tend to think of living, really LIVING, as exploring, moving, going, doing, traveling, discovering, teaching, producing. None of those things will be possible, I'm guessing, over the next several months. So in what other ways am I invited to life, to the full life of the soul, the authentic life I've been given to live?

That is my challenge, my invitation, over these months. I'm reminded that none of us have a moment to waste.