Reflections by Jerry Webber

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]