Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.