Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Book of Prayer

I was reading a book on prayer by a noted author yesterday. I heard in her words hesitancy and the acknowledgment of some fear in beginning the book. The writer drew back just a bit as she realized that she was stepping into a huge topic about which so much has already been written.

I felt her trepidation. It was as if she were saying, "What do I have to say that hasn't already been said? Why should my words on prayer count for anything?"

As I read her hesitancy, in my mind I said to myself -- and to her, from a distance -- "You DO have something to say. You have YOUR book of prayer to write!" And I'm so glad she went ahead and wrote her book.

No sooner had that thought run through my mind, though, than the next thought came:

"And Jerry, what is YOUR book of prayer?"

It's another thing that keeps me hidden and private . . . the notion that whatever I have to say about the spiritual life has already been said. But just the raising of that question led me into an afternoon of considering . . . "What would be MY book of prayer?"

So I sketched out what prayer has looked like in the different seasons of my life. I thought of the ways I have failed at prayer and the ways that I've connected with God, some of them traditional and some very counter. I spent the afternoon mapping out Jerry's book of prayer.

And not only Jerry . . . but you have a book of prayer, too. We all have our own book of prayer, the book that records how we have done it well, how we have been frustrated, how we have been stretched and grown, how we have come into new depths in our prayer.

One day I may -- or may not -- get around to putting mine to paper.

Whether you write out your book or not, the important movement may simply to be acknowledging that you have your own book of prayer, and that you give some attention to what it might look like.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Protected from Nothing; Sustained in All Things

I offered a Benediction today for some folks who had gathered together around some common soul-yearnings. Some in this particular gathering had come by themselves from many miles away in hopes of finding a moment's-worth of companionship for the inner journey. A few of them live and work on spiritual frontiers that cause them to feel a deep aloneness. Some were walking through difficult and dark days.

I was asked spur-of-the-moment to offer the final words that would send the group back out onto the next life-road, so I had not rehearsed an eloquent or challenging Benediction. I was caught a bit off-guard when I was called upon to offer the parting words of blessing.

Really, I'm not sure what all I said in that Benediction. I wanted to keep it simple, yet give something that the folks could carry onto the road that lay ahead. So I said a couple of rambling things.

Then, as I closed, I had one of those moments -- I suppose we all have them at various times -- when in a split second I decide whether I'm going to say a particular thing or not. In that fraction of a moment, I consider about two dozen really good reasons not to say what I had thought of saying, but also one or two really good reasons to leave those particular words with the group.

In that moment, I decided, "Yes, I need to say this." So the words jumped out.

They are words that have become a kind of personal mantra for me in recent months. I heard James Finley make a statement a year and a half ago, then I paraphrased his words for myself, and now almost daily use the words to remind me of how God is present to me and in me. With these words I ended my Benediction:

God's love protects us from nothing; but God's love sustains us in all things.

For today, this statement speaks to what I believe about God, God's love, and my life. (I say "for today" because I find that as the questions shift for me, so do the things I can say with assurance.) I believe this. It lines up true to my experience and to the experience of others with whom I walk.

I've come to this out of a religious system that believed if I did the right things and said the right things and lived the right way, then God would protect me from all the bad and hurtful things in life. That fantasy got shattered for me a number of years ago. A huge part of my personal pain through those years came from having the illusion shattered . . . the illusion that God would protect me from hurt, pain and the "bad things" of life.

Slowly I began to trade in my "worthiness-system", especially when I noticed the intensity with which many of the saints and major spiritual figures throughout history suffered. I've yet to find a single canonized "saint" who did not undergo intense suffering, physical maladies or persecutions.

I am not shielded from anything that is common to the human condition. Nor are you. At the same time, I have never been more convinced that despite the fact that I am and you are subject to everything that is a part of the human condition, we are sustained, upheld and given hope in all things. Nothing -- not a single thing -- stands outside God's care. The iconic image of the cross says in imaged form what words fall short at saying . . . that God takes even the worst that can happen in our human experience and sustain us in love. God sustains always.

I have to confess that while I believe this statement is true to the nature of God, and while I believe it is true for myself, it is sometimes very difficult to believe for someone I love. When I sit with a dear friend who feels devastated by news that has come and who faces an unknown future, everything within me wants to scream out, "God, protect him from this!!!"

When I talk with a friend who is sliding into a pit of depression, and it's clear that the hole is going to be deep and long-lasting, I want to yell my prayer, "God, don't let this happen!!"

In short, I want to suspend the laws of God's love for a moment all for the benefit of a friend. I don't want to see her suffer, I don't want him to experience this pain. But I really do know better. God's love protects us from nothing; but God's love sustains us in everything.

So today after that Benediction, a Quaker friend I had not seen in many years sought me out immediately. She's one of the wisest, most grounded women I've ever known, and in recent years has faced some challenges that have been extraordinary. She looked me squarely in the eyes and said slyly, "I heard what you prayed." I was a bit embarrassed. She continued, "And it's true. God didn't keep any of these challenges away from me, but I've been sustained through all of them."

So it is for all of us.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Merton and the Nerve to Look Honestly

Forty years ago yesterday, Thomas Merton wrote from his Kentucky hermitage about an encounter with another well-known monk. The other monk called him a pessimist, said he was too anxious and too negative. Merton wrote in his journal about the underlying disharmony and mistrust that seemed to lie beneath the surface cordiality and agreement between the two.

As Merton reflected further that day, he started to ponder who he was and what he had written to that point. He began to pull out his books and to analyze how they had been received by peers . . . "so and so is not happy with this one . . . this one would disturb most European monks . . . he thinks this one was a foolish experiment."

In the next paragraph of his journal, he started to offer his own critique of the books he had written. There were books he stood by, things he wrote that he continued to feel were important. He continued to believe in "a few things I said here . . . a good bit of this book . . . maybe a little of this one." He called other books he had written "foolish" and "a mistake."

By the end of that day's journal entry, you can almost feel Merton wallowing in the pit he has dug for himself. Not only this day, but the journal entries for the next few days suggest his ongoing struggle with who he was, his reason for writing, and the response he expected from his audience. He looked honestly within himself and noticed that which lived in his shadows, what he called his "sick drives."

It's pretty honest stuff, uncommonly raw for someone widely considered the most important spiritual figure of the last century.

I find that his honesty runs counter to our usual notions of piety, in which we image ourselves continually striving "upward and onward," getting better and better, cleaner and purer the farther we go on the path. In these journal entries Merton revealed his shadow, the dark part of his personality that doubted who he was, mistrusted the authenticity of others around him, and questioned the validity of his life's work to that point.

For Merton, at least in these journal accounts, spirituality was not about going "onward and upward" to some state of moral perfection beyond doubt and darkness, but rather plumbing the depths of shadow and despair to notice our inner landscape . . . and then to find God there.

I suppose there are ways of conceptualizing spirituality in which these doubts and questions turn to certainties and assurances. It hasn't tended to worked that way for me, though. I share Merton's darkness, his questioning of self, his inner darkness, the way he doubts his motives for what he has done and written.

Frankly, it's what keeps me from writing more . . . my mistrust of my own motives for writing . . . and the fear that one day, like him, I would say, "What I wrote there was a load of hooey!" or "I don't think I believe that any more."

I don't know that I can clean up my motives or get my belief system straight. I can, however, be more and more aware of those inner structures that tug at me, that direct me, that determine my movements moment by moment.

So Merton sat in this darkness on June 6, 1961. He wrote about it on the porch of his little hermitage in the woods near the Abbey of Gethsemani, perhaps not knowing that one day we would be able to read his words of self-doubt.

Then, the last line in his journal entry for the day:

For my comfort a squirrel just ran across the porch.

[The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999)]