Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, December 30, 2011

Spiritual Reading for the New Year

Some of my first childhood memories are of my mother reading books to me. I have other memories, a little later in childhood, of tagging along with my dad to a bookstore in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he got his Western novels. He always had three or four books ready for reading on the table beside his favorite chair.

I got my books from the Ponca City Public Library and from the book fairs that came every year to Washington Elementary. My mother would give me an allowance and I would carefully do the math to find out how to get the most books for my money. Perusing the books was fun . . . picking them up at the book fair and taking them home was even better!

Later, I was shaped by a mentor who said to me, "Be careful what you read . . . every choice to read one book is a choice not to read every other book."

I still love to read. At any given time I have a handful of books that I’m somewhere in the process of reading. The day, the mood and the setting determine which one I pick up at any given moment.

And because every choice to read one book is a choice not to read every other book, I generally give a book two or three chapters to win me over. If I’m not engaged after three chapters, I put it down (The "Three-Chapter-Rule"). Another title awaits. I don't have time to spend with a book that doesn't engage me.

So here at the end of the year, I thought I'd share some of the books I've read in recent months. These are books I commend for those interested in spiritual reading as we enter into a New Year.

The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer
, by Joan Chittister. Chittister offers short, two-page reflections on various aspects of prayer. Without being heavy-handed, she gently helps us shape a significant life of prayer. She's a good writer, and as a Benedictine, she's practiced at prayer.

Falling Upward and A Lever and a Place to Stand, both by Richard Rohr. There are a few writers on the spiritual life I trust implicitly. I don’t always agree with everything they write, but they speak from a place of integrity and authenticity. Rohr is one of those writers. I find him to be a reliable guide in matters of the spiritual life. Falling Upward is Rohr's take on a spirituality for the two halves of life. A Lever and a Place to Stand is a sort of introduction to a contemplative stance toward life. If you are interested in spirituality and the Twelve Steps, try Rohr's Breathing under Water. I'm in that one now.

To Bless the Space between Us, by John O’Donohue. O’Donohue was an Irish Catholic priest, poet and philosopher who died (at a young age) as this book was published. It is a book of original blessings for the thresholds of life, written with an earthy hope and a deep conviction about the power of blessing – God’s blessing and our own. I've grieved his death. He was about my age when he died. I wish I would have known him.

Manifesting God, by Thomas Keating. Keating offers an introduction to contemplative prayer. I’ve read him for almost two decades now and am always helped by the way he communicates difficult truth in very plain and simple ways. I trust him as a spiritual guide in the same way I trust Chittister and Rohr, for in their own way, each speaks out of the inner well of their personal encounter with God.

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith
, by Henri Nouwen. Compiled ten years after Nouwen’s death, the book collects some of Nouwen’s unpublished papers and talks about the spiritual journey. Nouwen has long been a trusted spiritual guide, but I didn't find this to be one of his better books (there is probably a reason some of these talks and articles largely went unpublished until now). Still, if you love Nouwen, you will find this book helpful.

Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality
, by J. Philip Newell. Newell deals with the critical foundations of Celtic spirituality by linking theological ideas historically with Celtic writers. I thought the book started out strong (the first two chapters had me very excited!) and then tailed off by the last couple of chapters. Nonetheless, those interested in Celtic spirituality will enjoy the book.

Sacred Space 2012
. This is a daily devotional book I’ve used for several years. I still use it for my morning prayer. A scripture passage is provided for each day of the year, as well as suggestions for prayer. Many folks find it to be a helpful resource for daily prayer. Produced by Irish Jesuits, it is also available online at

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. I love the other books I’ve put on this list. This is the one I hope you pick up, though. You can read it in less than 15 minutes. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cheer. It’s written for children, but I’ve never found an adult who didn’t love it. I first read it several years ago at the recommendation of a friend who knew I loved poetry. She thought of me because some familiar, classical poems make an impact on the boy in the story. In the years since first reading it, I go back regularly for a quick read of the book, just to remind myself of the power of poetry in evoking the soul.

Those are my recommendations. I hope some new reading is on your list for 2012. Try the "Three-Chapter-Rule." Remember, every choice to read one book . . . well, you know the rest.

Sometime early in 2012 I'll post a list of books that are on my waiting list, that is, those I've either just started or are "on deck," waiting for the "Three-Chapter-Rule."

Happy reading in 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Birth: A Poem

On Christmas Day I shared a guided meditation that I've called The Cave of the Heart. You can find that meditation in the post previous to this one.

After praying with the "Cave of the Heart" image a few weeks ago, the meditation continued to unfold for me over several days.

One fruit of the meditation came out in this poem, which became an expression of my desire to be open to whatever God wanted to birth within me, as well as my yearning for some hiddenness and solitude in the midst of a very full Advent season.


For some it is enough
to have a place to sleep
out of the cold
a modest cave
to deflect the swirling
wind unobstructed
across the cold plains;

Not that the necessary births
cannot emerge from the
street-corner tumult,

But I always say:
Do it in private

Let the cavern womb what
is trying to be born in you

What wants to save you.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Cave of the Heart: A Guided Meditation for Christmas Day

[Note: Two or three weeks ago I was praying with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In one particular meditation on the birth of Jesus, the writer described his birthplace as a cave dug into the side of a hill just below Bethlehem. Before reading those words, I had a set scene in my mind for the birthplace of Jesus, a stable scene behind an inn that I had carried in my imagination from childhood.

For the first time in my life, I saw the birthplace as something other than that old scene I had envisioned for decades. I saw the hillside cave in such vivid detail that not only did the birth of Christ come alive for me, but I also envisioned the cave as a place in my heart.

This guided meditation comes from that prayer experience. It considers the birth of Christ, and so it is appropriate for Christmas Day. As I prayed with this image, however, the cave became more than a place Christ as born 2,000 years ago. The cave became an image for that part of my heart where the conceiving and birthing work of God continues to happen within me.

I share the meditation with you here as my Christmas gift and offering for you. If you decide to use it for prayer or meditation, read it slowly. Pause as needed, shut your eyes for a few minutes, and let God's Spirit lead you. The goal is not to get through the exercise quickly, but to linger with the parts of the prayer that seem to have substance for you. And don't be afraid to use your imagination, what some have called, "holy imagination." In other words, don't censor where your soul wants to lead you. Take in the experience. Let it happen.

In a day or so I'll share with you a poem that came to me out of this meditation experience. jw

I sit still and settle into prayer. . . . I consciously take several deep breaths, each one slower and deeper than the one before.

As much as possible, I lay aside the things that preoccupy my mind and distract me. I want to become aware of God, who is present to me at this very moment.

In my imagination I see a small Middle Eastern town on a hilltop, crowded with people who are bustling about and tending to important business . . . Some people are eating or drinking . . . others are talking on the streets . . . while others are buying or selling in the marketplace. I notice the seriousness with which these people are tending to their affairs. The rush of activity is obvious.

I allow my gaze to move outside the confines of the little town . . . down a hillside, to a small grotto dug into the earth.

It is the kind of place created to shelter animals from the elements of weather . . . but in this shallow “cave” are a man and woman, along with several animals. I take a moment to let my mind shape this scene for me.

The young woman is in labor and the man is assisting her with childbirth. I let my imagination fill in the details of the scene . . . what happens . . . what is spoken . . . where I am in the cave.

Perhaps I talk to this holy family, or just stand aside and watch, or maybe I take the place of one of the animals. I ask God to help me understand the significance of this event of which I am a part. I stay with this scene in the hillside cave as long as I’m able.

At some point I realize that there is also a cave in my heart . . . It may seem as if I live most of my life on the streets of activity and in the marketplaces of busyness, but there is within my heart a cave.

This cave is an interior space where the really important things in my life are conceived and given birth. . . . Conception and birth do not happen on busy street-corners, but in the privacy and hiddenness of the cave. . . . I notice where that cave is within me.

I may find that much of my life is spent on busy streets and in crowded marketplaces. How might I ask God to help me spend more time in the cave? If I can ask God for more "cave-time," what might God say back to me?

Then I ask God to help me see what is being conceived in my heart . . . what is being brought to birth within that cave of my heart. I ask God for the grace to find a life-giving rhythm that includes time in this quiet, interior cave . . . and time on the streets engaging daily life, people, and events. . . . I talk to God about both the busy streets of my life, and the hidden caves of my heart. I make this my prayer.

When I feel like my prayer has completed, I say the Lord’s Prayer as a way of bringing the prayer time to an end.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Eve Benedictus: For Prayer and Meditation

The Song of Zechariah, also known as the Benedictus, is prayed daily each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is taken from Luke 1:67 - 79, the prayer of Zechariah after the birth of a son (John) to him and Elizabeth. It is one of three "canticles" early in Luke's Gospel (Mary's Magnificat and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis) that are used in the daily prayers of the Church. It also is the Scripture passage given for reading and prayer on Christmas Eve.

I am especially drawn to the Benedictus. I have prayed it from prayer books and in monastic settings for years. Its words are ingrained in my consciousness. They have been life to me. (I've included the text of the Benedictus below, as well as a way to prayer or meditate on the passage.)

The Benedictus is also a wonderfully appropriate Advent prayer. The images fit perfectly with this season of watching for light and waiting in hope.

So for the last three years I've used this prayer as a centerpiece for the weekly Contemplative Worship experience of which I am a part. I personally find it to be a beautiful expression of Advent hope for myself and the world. Others have responded well to it, as well, and found life in its words.

Last weekend, a worshiper in that service noticed that we were still using the Benedictus in worship, especially the last two verses, once or twice in each service. This person noted that had used the same prayer last year in worship, also. She was simply making the observation about the Canticle's prominence in worship.

I responded to her comment by saying, "Yes, we've used it for three years now . . . and we're going to keep saying it until we get it right!"

We all laughed. Of course, I didn't mean, "Until we all say it the right way," or "Until we get the cadence right," or "Until the intonation suits me."

I meant, "We're going to say it until we really open ourselves to its truth."

That is, until we live in the truth that one has come to us to save us from enemies, both enemies in the outer world, but mostly enemies in our internal world . . .

. . . until we open ourselves to worship God without fear and intimation, but in mercy and loving-kindness . . .

. . . until we really get the mercy and compassion of God as it is extended toward us without condition, and then live in it more than talk about it . . .

. . . until we live in the light of God, no matter how dark our situations or our "shadows of death" seem.

. . . until our feet our guided onto the path of peace, so that we not only speak of peace, but actively live into the peace of God for all people.

The Church has been praying the Benedictus daily for centuries. We're still trying to "get it right." And we'll be praying it for a long time yet to come.

Luke 1:67 - 79

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

A Meditation

On this eve of the birth of Christ, try this for a meditation:

Read through the Canticle of Zechariah once more.

Pick out the line or phrase that seems to have your name written on it.

Pull that line out of the prayer, and then stay with it for a few moments.

Take several tries at putting it into your own words. Paraphrase it.

How is that line being lived out in your life?

Whisper the line quietly several times, until you sense the phrase sinking from your head down into your heart.

Then carry that line with you as a breath prayer through this Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More Mary . . . A Model and a Prayer for the Contemplative Life

Two days ago I posted a blog here that I had written for my meditation at A Daily Advent ( The reflection was based on Luke 1:26 - 38, the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. That meditation briefly explored grace and "favor," trying to locate grace as the character of God that is not based on the worthiness of the recipient.

That same text is repeated today, so at A Daily Advent I took a different look at Mary, this time focusing on Luke 1:38 and writing about Mary as a model for the contemplative life. I also suggest Luke 1:38 as a kind of breath prayer to carry through the next few days.

I've included the gist of the post from A Daily Advent below.

Luke 1:38

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

I wrote two days ago about Mary and the elaborate back-story the Church constructed centuries ago about her life, as if to justify her "favor" with God on the basis of her merits. In short, the Church formulated a "history" for Mary that was pristine enough that she stood out as the one who deserved to be the Holy Mother of God. As I said then, that historical reconfiguring of her life doesn't witness to God's grace, but rather to her goodness. I don't think that's how God works in human life. Grace and favor are always about God's choosing, not Mary's deserving or our deserving.

Further, I don't need that back-story to know that Mary is perhaps the best New Testament model for the contemplative life available to us. She modeled a life of radical trust and union with God. Let me explain.

She was simple. She realized she had not earned this "favor." She took things that happened to her and around her, and she "pondered them in her heart." She "treasured them in her heart." That is, she didn't make a huge, public show of her connection to God. She didn't parade her interior life in the public eye. She didn't make a fuss about what she notices of God's work in the world. She didn't flaunt her holiness. She didn't showcase her experience of the Divine in front of others. Rather, she drew her God-experience into her heart and let it incubate there.

Mary did what her Son would later suggest we all do when we go to prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount he taught us not to pray in a way that draws attention to ourselves (on the street corners and busy intersections of life), but to withdraw to our secret room, that is, to our inner room where we meet the Father in private.

Mary got it.

She is a esteemed as the Mother of God not because of the intricate story the Church imaginatively told about her, but because of what we know from the report of Scripture.

In fact, her words at the conclusion of this text are probably the best mantra for the contemplative life I know. They state simply and succinctly the essence of life with God, the very fundamentals of union with God.

"Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word." Or, "Let it be to me as you have said."

Here I am. I am where I am. My soul is not in the past, locked into old narratives. Neither am I living in the future. I am not in some other geographical location. I am where I am, physically and spiritually. I am who I am.

It is a real gift for any of us to say, "Here I am," to be present without distractions, to allow all the aspects of our personhood (body, mind, soul and spirit) to show up in the same place at the same time.

This is so hard for me to do, but Mary not only said it. She did it.

Let it be with me according to your word. A surrender. But more, an openness to the design of God in her life, to the action of God which was mysterious and beyond her comprehension. Yet, she did not shut out God's hand. She did not close the door to God's invitation.

This is the stance of the contemplative, who steps into the cloud or walks into the darkness not knowing what is ahead, not knowing what she will find, but trusting the One who calls and invites, believing that even if the Divine work is not fully understood, it is still good and life-giving. Even when the God-path is unrecognizable, it is still a path that leads to life, wholeness, and the essence of what it means to be fully human.

You might want to make these two simple sentences your prayer for the next week. Carry the prayer on your heart. Whisper it with your lips. Let the depth of the prayer anchor you for the week.

"Here I am. Let it be to me as you have said."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary and the Grace That Really Is Radical

I've posted the thoughts below on my Advent blog, A Daily Advent The Scripture text is the Gospel reading for today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The Church, both historic and contemporary, has talked a great deal about "grace," but usually in ways that have not been "graceful."

We ("we" because I'm a part of the Church) have talked about grace with our lips, but been more concerned to punish "sinners" and those who do not measure up to some artificial standards.

We have spoken of "mercy" and asked liturgically for "mercy," but have not witnessed to mercy in our life together.

On the whole, those who follow Christ have little experience of "grace" as a practiced way of living. For most, it is an empty concept, just one of those church-y words devoid of impact, something the pie-in-the-sky crowd talks about on Sundays.

Maybe the words below can speak a bit more about the radical nature of grace as an alternative way of ordering life. It is intended simply as a piece for daily devotional use.

Luke 1:26 - 38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." . . . "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

Mary was perplexed and pondered the words. I imagine myself receiving this greeting, this statement of being favored by God.

What did I do to deserve this?

Why am I favored?

I immediately want to make the "favor" about something I've earned, a reward for some kind of good I have done or something I have accomplished.

"I've been faithful in my little bit . . . so now I'm receiving some favor." There is a deep well of that kind of deserving that lives within me.

The Church didn't help us with this one through the centuries, making up an elaborate back-story about Mary and her lineage with the intent of showing how perfect Mary was, how spotless and sinless she was. The point was to suggest that Mary was chosen for this role because she deserved to be chosen by God . . . that this was a reward for her meticulous and morally perfect life.

The implicit message was that you could only be chosen by God if you were morally perfect. You could only be "favored" if you were sinless. You could only bear God's Son in the world if you measured up. You could only receive God's grace if you were completely blameless.

Many of us have lived underneath these overt and subtle messages from the Church for a lifetime. We have heard the messages and internalized them, so that now the message of deserving and perfection comes not only from the Church, it also comes from within us.

Followers of Christ everywhere have lived under these false, "anti-grace" messages for centuries.

If indeed the choosing of Mary by God was a graced choosing, then the Church's imaginary back-story has to be thrown out.

You get a hint of the radical grace (the language of "favor") in the story by noticing Mary's reaction to the "grace-greeting." She was perplexed. She had to ponder it. Apparently, she couldn't find any rational reason for the choosing. She couldn't understand what she had done to deserve this "favor" or grace.

If the Church through the centuries had really allowed this to be a story of grace, the back-story about Mary might have remembered that she was a rebellious teenager, often in trouble with parents and authority figures, and living counter to the social (and religious!) norms of her day.

In fact -- though I have no evidence for my imaginative re-interpretation -- the scenario I have suggested may be closer to Mary's truth . . . which would explain, perhaps, her perplexity at Gabriel's greeting, and what she had to ponder in her heart.

Because in the end, for whatever her actual history, the "favoring" did not rest on Mary's merits, but on the God who extended the "favoring."

Likewise, when I enter the passage and hear that I, too, am favored, this favoring does not exist because of what I have done or who I am; but rather it comes to me (and you!) because of who God is. That's how it always is.

I don't need to understand it or analyze it or pick it apart. I am invited simply to rest in it. Like Mary . . . "Here I am . . . let it be to me as you have said."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holy Spontaneity

For 34 years I've been engaged in ministry as a vocation. That means I've walked through 34 Advents and Christmases.

[Well, I guess technically I only have about 30 Advents under my belt. In the evangelical tradition of which I was a part for the early years of my spiritual journey, Advent was not observed and I wouldn't have known a thing about the word. I "discovered" Advent as a high-church Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas . . . and remember that first Advent being blown away by the colors, the symbolism, the richness of the days preceding Christmas. It was one of the most life-giving "discoveries" of my life at that time!]

Each year is very different, but also very much the same. While Christmas brings its own nuance, in 34 years the pace of the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas has not changed a bit. It is fast and constant. Long ago I stopped lamenting how busy life becomes at Christmas time. It does no good to gripe and complain about being exhausted or tending to special services and projects or about spending time shopping for friends and loved ones. I go into the season knowing that I'm going to be busy and that my time will be pressed. I acknowledge that my calendar will fill quickly and that my interior introvert will ache to run off into a quiet room, shut the door and hide for a few days.

But neither do I completely give in to the parts of the season that seek to divert my attention from God's work in me and in the world. One practice that helps keep me sane through Advent is what I call "holy spontaneity." It is the sort of spiritual discipline that is appropriate for any time of year, but seems especially beneficial around the busyness of Christmas.

In my vision, "holy spontaneity" simply means that I take time occasionally during December to do things that are unscripted. By "unscripted," I mean things that are not on my calendar. "Holy spontaneity" -- for me, anyway -- is made up of things that are not on the map of my life and that have no motivation behind them. In other words, they are not things that I do in order to accomplish something specific.

For me, they fit well within Eugene Peterson's definition of "sabbath time," that is, wasting time for (and with) God.

For example, during Advent I may take a drive without a specific destination. I'll just drive and see where the road takes me. I'll give attention to what I see as I drive. If I feel like stopping at a park I'll stop. If I need to get out and walk, I'll walk.

Or I'll go to a store or a mall, not to shop, but just to walk around. I'll notice people. I'll notice the colors in the store, the decorations. I'll be deliberate in compassion for those who work in those stores. I don't need to buy anything and I have no agenda. I just go.

Or I'll take a walk, just to walk. In order for it to be "holy spontaneity" for me, I'll take a different route than I usually take for my evening dog-walk. I won't plan the route, I'll just walk.

Granted, none of the things I've just mentioned sound particularly "spiritual." But in the midst of a season that can feel rushed, wearying and over-calendared, a bit of holy spontaneity can be life-giving.

Maybe this works well for me because my life is so scheduled, so tightly regimented. My calendar fills up and I have little room for flexibility. I know what needs to be accomplished each day -- whether I actually accomplish it is another matter!.

So holy spontaneity is simply doing something for which there is no plan, no agenda, no script. It means taking a piece of time here or there to be open to something unscripted that arises, to attend to what may come up without trying to force or manipulate something to be significant.

To the extent that holy spontaneity is a spiritual practice that highlights surprise, it lends itself to being more present to each moment, more aware of what is happening in the "right now."

You might want to give it a try in these last ten days before Christmas. You may find that a few moments of holy spontaneity give renewed depth and meaning to all your other moments of busyness and obligation.

And if, as you read this, you find yourself thinking, "There's NO WAY I have time for that!", then maybe this is the spiritual practice that would serve you best this Advent.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Amazed at What You Find Within

Thomas Merton followed Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) in writing about the three Advents of Christ. The first Advent, Bernard said, was the coming of Christ in human form, born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

The third Advent will be the coming of Christ again at the end of the age.

During the season of Advent, we give most of our time to the first Advent, and a little less to the third Advent.

We seem to be slowly recovering the second Advent, which according to Bernard and Merton, is the continual coming of Christ into our lives in our times. This is an ongoing Advent that happens every day within us and in our world. Christ is born into our life-world momently, whether we notice his coming or not.

Thus, Meister Eckhart and others have urged us to prepare a space within our hearts for his birth every day -- not just for one day or one season a year!

Merton put it this way in Seven Storey Mountain: "The soul of a monk is a Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born." And not only monks, but all who give themselves to Jesus in openness and with intention, are invited to open up the stable of the heart, the Bethlehem of the heart to allow Christ's birth within.

I am drawn to meditations and art that help me open up to this birth. It can be hard to trust that God could birth something of value within me . . . yet deep within I believe that is what God does in and with each one of us. Like Mary, we open ourselves to God's work within us and we, too, bear Christ constantly in our lives.

These words, written by Kathleen Norris, helped me believe today that Jesus is being birthed in me.

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story. I once heard a Benedictine friend who is an Assiniboine Indian preach on the Annunciation to an Indian congregation. “The first thing Gabriel does when he encounters Mary,” he said, “is to give her a new name: ‘Most favored one.’ It’s a naming ceremony,” he emphasized, making a connection that excited and delighted his listeners. When I brood on the story of the Annunciation, I like to think about what it means to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit; I wonder if a kind of overshadowing isn’t what every young woman pregnant for the first time might feel, caught up in something so much larger than herself. I think of James Wright’s little poem “Trouble,” and the wonder of his pregnant mill-town girl. The butt of jokes, the taunt of gossips, she is amazed to carry such power within herself. “Sixteen years, and / all that time, she thought she was nothing / but skin and bones.” . . . Told all her life that she is “nothing,” the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery: something holy, with a potential for salvation. The poem has challenged me for years to wonder what such a radically new sense of oneself would entail. Could it be a form of virgin birth?

[Meditations on Mary: With Essays by Kathleen Norris (New York: Viking Studio, 1999), 30 – 31.]

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Advent Prose -- An Ancient Prayer for the Season

On December 9, 1962, Thomas Merton referred in his journal to a text that was shaping his prayer for peace. The text is called, in Latin, the Rorate Coeli, and is taken from Isaiah. The Latin text is attributed to Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a 4th century author, and has been said or sung for centuries during Advent, mostly in Anglican and Roman Catholic settings.

After seeing the reference in Merton's journal from 49 years ago, I was curious about this ancient text. I found that it is commonly known as The Advent Prose, and in some circles used quite frequently for liturgical prayer in corporate worship during this season.

But it also is helpful as a personal, devotional prayer-tool. As I've stayed with this prayer over the last few days, I've found it compelling, and its imagery has led me to some unexpected places in my own meditation. I'll share The Advent Prose (Rorate Coeli) with you below. You can find more information about it at

The core piece of this section of the prayer is taken from the Latin translation (Vulgate) of Isaiah 45:8, and is a prayer for God to bring forth a Saviour.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Be not very angry, O Lord, neither remember our iniquity for ever:
thy holy cities are a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we all do fade as a leaf:
our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away;
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord, and beside me there is no Saviour:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness:
let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, my salvation shall not tarry:
I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions:
fear not for I will save thee:
for I am the Lord thy God, the holy one of Israel, thy Redeemer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Illusion

Years ago I heard someone talk longingly about their past experiences of Christmas, lamenting how commercial and complicated Christmas had become. This person spoke of childhood memories of Christmas. "Christmas was much simpler then," is how the matter was stated.

He spoke of going to Christmas Eve services as a child . . . his fascination with candles lit and held by persons across the worship space . . . the beauty of the Christmas carols sung by hundreds of worshipers on that holy night . . . the colors and smells in the worship place . . . seeing everyone dressed up for that very special service. In retelling the childhood memories, there was the longing for "simplicity" and "simpler times."

It caused me to consider my own experiences of Christmas as a child. I thought of several things that had seemed very basic to my experiences of Christmas in Oklahoma; upon further consideration, however, I realized that they were actually not simple at all. What I experienced as "simple" was, in fact, hard work for someone else.

Christmas Eve services required ministers to preside, choirs to sing, ushers to ush, persons to prepare the space beforehand and to clean the space afterwards. My part? I got to attend and then go home.

Large family gatherings required that someone clean house, gather groceries, prepare the meal, and then clean up the mess afterwards. My part? I ate the meal and then took a nap.

You see how it goes. . . .

When I became a parent, I realized that my work was only beginning when the children went to bed on Christmas Eve. Of course, they wanted to stay up late to get a peek at Santa Claus. So even after going to bed, they lay there unable to sleep. Or sometimes they faked sleep in order to get an early glimpse of their Christmas presents.

Thus, it was usually very late when someone (you've guessed who!) had to assemble the bicycles, set up the toys, wrap last-minute gifts, or -- the most stupid idea I ever had -- set up the trampoline in the backyard, beginning around midnight. When the kids went to bed, well, that was the beginning of my night! There was nothing simple about it . . . except the perception.

That the season is or should be simple is an illusion . . . usually carried from childhood. It is the Christmas illusion. Advent and Christmas are no simpler than any other season of daily life.

So you might hear things like, "We (folks tend to speak in "we" language about these kinds of illusions rather than "I" statements) need to get back to the real meaning of Christmas."

The real meaning of Christmas is that Christ comes into our world, that Jesus is embodied in our lives, that God took on flesh to live among us and within us.

I don't need to run off and hide in a hole to live out that real meaning of Christmas. I am invited, rather, to engage life as it is, not as I wish it to be.

In truth, spirituality is not an escape from the real, not a way to hide from responsibilities and relationships. It is, rather, a different way to engage what is real. It is a way of entering into life as it is, not life as we wish it would be. Spirituality means engagement and encounter, not escape.

So it is of no use for me to try creating a "perfect Christmas" or to get back to some idealized notion of what we should see and feel through Advent and Christmas.

The perfect Christmas is not the one where we hide our heads in the sand, but rather the one in which we engage life-as-it-is with and for God.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A John O'Donohue Blessing for Advent

I don't think O'Donohue wrote this for Advent, but it fits -- at least for me.

For a New Beginning
John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

[John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 14.]