Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Rilke Poem: About the Poverty of the Body

Rainer Maria Rilke's body was weak throughout his life. As a child he was often sick. A difficult childhood and home life did not help his physical strength.

In adulthood Rilke moved throughout Europe often and lived something of a vagabond's life. Late in life he was often a patient at a sanitarium because of bad health. Already weak, his body seemed to have played out. He died at the age of 51.

This poem comes from the final months of his life during one of his sanitarium stays. It goes to the way we often neglect the body until we come to some physical situation in which our bodies no longer function as we would like them to.

Rilke's demeanor toward his failing health and fragile body in this poem reminds me of how Francis of Assisi nicknamed his own body, "Brother Ass."

I wonder . . . in what ways are we invited to befriend our bodies, to recognize their limitations and the poverty of our human condition? We are, after all, made of flesh and not stone. All the health initiatives, diets and miracle drugs in the world cannot stall forever the inevitable deterioration of our bodies. We fight aging, we fight disease, we fight loss of appearance. It is the Western way, the contemporary way to deal with any poverty or deterioration.

Personally, I think we're frightened of admitting our own poverty, confessing that we are anything less that on top or on the up-and-up. In fact, it's a sham and a huge falsehood, but it is part of the cultural illusion under which many of us live.

I hear Rilke, here at the end of his life, advocating for a gentler, more friendly stance toward ourselves, reconciling the divisions we've created between body and soul, bringing the various aspects of our being into a congruent whole.

This is his poem:

Brother body is poor . . . : then we'll have to be rich for him.
Often he was the rich one: so may he be pardoned
the meanness of his worst moments.
If he then acts as though he scarcely still knows us,
let us gently remind him of everything shared.

Granted, we are not one, but a solitary two:
our consciousness and he;
but how much we owe each other
past conceiving,
the way it is with friends! and one learns in illness:
friendship is hard!

(in Uncollected Poems: Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Edward Snow, p. 239)

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Several years ago I picked up a new volume of Thomas Merton's journals. I have to admit that Merton has not been easy for me. I tried to read him about 15 years ago because he was an important figure in spirituality. I read enough snippets from his books to know that he articulated the spiritual life in a way that was unique and profound.

I knew that I needed to be familiar with him; in those days, however, I didn't always understand Merton. What I was reading seemed like a blur to me.

Years later my experience began to catch up with my head. When I tried Merton again about 12 years ago, I began to understand. He made more sense. I was able to read him not just with my head, but with my heart and life.

So when I picked up this new copy of his journals six or seven years ago, I began to work my way through the daily entries. Still, his daily journal entries can be tedious. Sometimes I have to sift a lot of days in order to find something that connects with me. In this particular book, the going was pretty slow until I came to one particular entry.

I was going through a period of life in which I wondered about my future, what direction my life would go. And I had questions about how I would know which door to walk through into the future. I had some major decisions before me. I read these words in Merton's journal:

The will of God is not a "fate" to which we submit but a creative act in our life producing something absolutely new (or failing to do so), something hitherto unforeseen by the laws and established patterns. Our cooperation (seeking first the Kingdom of God) consists not solely in conforming to laws but in opening our wills out to this creative act, which must be retrieved in and by us -- by the will of God.

This is my big aim -- to put everything else aside. I do not want to create merely for and by myself a new life and a new world, but I want God to create them in and through me. This is central and fundamental. . . .

I must lead a new life, and a new world must come into being. But not by my plans and my agitation.
(The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, p. 125).

Merton's words struck me deeply. I sat with them, meditated on them, tried to open myself to how God might speak to me through them. I knew something important was there, though I didn't immediately know what it was.

So I returned to this journal entry over the next several days, reading it again and again. I wrote it out in my journal. I dissected it. I listened to the words, the phrases, the images that spoke into my life. I needed to hear Merton's wisdom, to live into it, to wrestle with it.

I was about three days into this process when I finally noticed the date on which Merton had written these words. He made this particular journal entry on the day I was born! I was blown away! In Vinita, Oklahoma I was born before dawn. A few hours later in a hermitage in the woods of Kentucky, Thomas Merton put his pencil to paper and wrote these words.

As I read his words time and again that week several years ago, I had the sensation that Merton had written them with me in mind. They felt like Merton's wisdom that I was ordained to carry through my life.

Why am I writing today about an experience I had with Merton several years ago? Last weekend I sat in a large room in Albuquerque, New Mexico listening to Richard Rohr speak. He was eloquent and compelling as always. At one point in his presentation he said he wanted to quote Thomas Merton, saying something about how endless was the wisdom of this contemporary spiritual guide. Then further explanation or reference, these are the words that came from Rohr's mouth:

The will of God is not a "fate" to which we submit but a creative act in our life producing something absolutely new . . .

I'm carrying the words . . . like a birthright.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Blank Journals and New Terrain

On the first day of a recent retreat I opened a new journal. It was a marvelous experience, breaking open the cover and leafing through the blank pages. Nothing there. Blank.

I held the blank journal open on my lap for a few moments before writing a word in it. I allowed my mind to wander before putting my pen to the page . . . this particular journal will carry me along for several months . . . over those months, what will I experience?

Where will I go?

What will be the shape of my soul by the time I get to the end of the book?

What experiences and understandings will shape me and fill those pages?

What will be my growing edges?

I admit that I didn't spend too much time trying to predict what would fill the pages. I don't have a clue. The whole idea, though, was that it felt like standing at a new threshold, standing at a doorway into the days yet to come, looking at the blankness, the possibilities.

For me it was like seeing something for the very first time, opening my eyes to the mystery of something I have not yet seen. It was a wonderful moment.

John O'Donohue, the Irish poet, philosopher and former-priest, talked about his first day in Tubingen at attend that German university. He described seeing the city for the first time and his awareness that after that initial day, he would never see the city the same way again. The streets and buildings would become familiar. And as the city became familiar to him, he would lose his capacity to notice its nuances. His awareness would be dulled.

That's something of what my moment with the empty journal felt like. It was a pause to be open to every possibility. I sensed the invitation to be more expansive. I consciously thought of being receptive to the days ahead.

My journal will not necessarily lead my journey into the days ahead, but it will give some shape to my life. It will mirror the path. It will reflect my capacity to see, to notice, to live with consciousness the life which has been gifted to me.

In and of itself, that moment with the blank journal and new terrain was significant for me.