Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Daily Lent

Just a note . . . through the season of Lent, which began March 9 with Ash Wednesday, I'll write a brief daily reflection on the Scripture for the day at A Daily Lent ( The meditations are intended to help you begin to consider the daily readings in a way that might draw you more deeply into prayer and reflection.

I may not show up at Only a Sojourner much over the next few weeks. The daily writing is a good discipline for me, but it stretches me creatively. So I'll camp out at through Lent, Holy Week and Easter. I may pop back to Only a Sojourner periodically, but no promises . . .

See you soon.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lazarus Walking

I want to tie a couple of cords together. Stick with me for a moment. It's going to take me a minute or two to get there.

First, over the past 15 years or so I have discovered within me a deep love for poetry and art. If you've read much of this blog over the last couple of years, you know that. Names like Rilke, Stafford and Oliver show up quite a bit.

I remember about 20 years ago reading some poems written by a noted poet and thinking to myself – with more than a little embarrassment, I’ll add – “I just don’t get it!” But slowly over a long period of time I kept reading poetry and began to be intentional about noticing works of art. Looking back, the interest in poetry and art was not coincidental. It coincided with an expanding immersion into prayer and a more soulful exploration of my own life with God, with others and with the created world.

The interest has not been a fleeting fancy. I still read poetry as a part of my daily discipline. I’ve found reading poetry to be a contemplative act. To read a poem I must slow down. Read, repeat, read, repeat. I digest a line, a phrase. I ponder an image. Like artists, poets don’t tell you everything. They leave great spaces unfilled. In those spaces, the reader is invited to insert his or her life. The same, I believe, is true of great art. The spaces – or absences – are intentional invitations, extended by the artist to the one viewing the work of art.

Some poetry and art has been especially meaningful to me because there are poets and artists with whom I feel a unique kinship. For instance, I first came into poetry through the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit priest. His stunning poetry became all the more meaningful to me as I studied his life and felt as if I shared in his personal struggles.

I’ve also sensed a kinship with Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke was a German-speaking poet who wrote as the 19th century turned into the 20th, as Hopkins had. Like Hopkins, his personal life was often scattered. A difficult childhood and meandering adulthood notwithstanding, Rilke wrote with a ferocity that immediately appealed to me. His intensity has drawn me magnetically over the years. I feel as if I’ve known him as a brother for a long, long time. (Perhaps you've noticed my fondness for him!)

The artist with whom I’ve felt most connected has been Vincent van Gogh. Even before I knew much about his mental and psychological state, I picked up the tension of his life from his paintings. I’ve read many of his letters. I’m drawn to his faith and to his struggle for faith. I’ve traveled long distances to see his paintings.

Hopkins . . . Rilke . . . van Gogh . . . I feel like I know them, and they know me. In fact, I’ve often found myself – or lost myself – within their poems and paintings.

That’s some background into my love of poetry and art, and into some folks who stir my soul. File that for a moment.

Second, I pulled out a poem recently that I had filed away a few years ago, written by contemporary poet David Whyte, and entitled, “The Lightest Touch.” The short poem is about how good poetry gets inside you, stirs you, awakens you to something you didn’t know could possibly be alive in your interior. This is the last stanza of the poem:

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.

A great line of poetry . . . a beautiful chord in a piece of music . . . the shape or color of an object in a painting . . . there are so many ways that our breath can be taken away, that something lifeless and limp within us can be stirred to spirit again, as the voice of Jesus awakened his dead friend Lazarus to life out of his stony tomb (John 11:43 – 44). We may not know just what the stirring is, but we do know that for just a brief moment, we are fully alive, fully engaged, fully opened up to what is most real in the world. I have those moments and you have those moments. We all have experienced what David Whyte lined out poetically.

The spiritual path is not about capturing and holding onto those moments, but about recognizing them more and more, being open to them and receiving them, then releasing them so we can receive the next “great line”.

So those are the cords. Here is the tying together:

Two weekends ago I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to see the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist exhibition on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. . . . My visit was a Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law. The exhibition features 50 paintings by the artists who represent the shift toward impressionism in the late 19th century: Monet . . . Renoir . . . Cassatt . . . Manet . . . Degas . . . Cezanne . . . and of course, van Gogh.

I could have stayed for a long, long time, but the rooms were pack with folks who wanted time with these artists and works as I did. So I slowly worked my way through each room of the exhibition, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, in awe of what I found on each wall. The name of each artist was painted in their unique signature-style on the walls above that artist’s work. Thus, as I entered each room I was able to see whose work was displayed there.

I used those signatures as markers to locate the works by van Gogh. First room, no van Gogh. Second room, third room, fourth room, still no van Gogh. By the fifth and final room I anticipated that I would finally find the paintings I had most looked forward to seeing.

As I went through that last door, my eyes scanned the walls around the room, beginning to my left. I noticed a couple of Vincent’s paintings on that left wall as I panned the room, but it was what I saw when I turned to the right that I remember most. On the floor-to-ceiling pedestal on the right side of the room, standing apart from the wall displays, I saw the cursive “Vincent” about 9 to 10 feet off the ground. Directly beneath it was the unmistakeable self-portrait of van Gogh, painted in his characteristic bold, broad strokes at the end of a period of illness which left him pale and weak.

I simply stood at the door for a moment – at a distance – and noticed my eyes moistening.

I froze, motionless for about ten seconds or so, and everything inside me shut down to silence.

And I felt Lazarus deep inside the laziest, most deathly afraid part of me lift up his hands and walk toward the light. For just a moment, I was alive again.