Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, January 23, 2012

For the Sake of Your Soul

Robert Bly is one of my favorite contemporary poets. He writes from the deep place of soul and soul-consciousness. Several of his poems are among my favorites. Over the last couple of months I have regularly read his poem (which I may post later), "When William Stafford Died." It is about the power of affection and passion, and the willingness to live the life one has been given. It challenges me to live the only life that is authentically mine to live.

Then this evening I heard this Bly poem read, and in the few hours since have read it myself another 10 - 12 times. Try it on for yourself.

One Source of Bad Information
by Robert Bly

There’s a boy in you about three
Years old who hasn’t learned a thing for thirty
Thousand years. Sometimes it’s a girl.

This child had to make up its mind
How to save you from death. He said things like:
“Stay home. Avoid elevators. Eat only elk.”

You live with this child but you don’t know it.
You are in the office, yes, but live with this boy
At night. He’s uninformed, but he does want

To save your life. And he has. Because of this boy
You survived a lot. He’s got six big ideas.
Five don’t work. Right now he’s repeating them to you.

[Robert Bly, Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems.]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Good and Bad Pain . . . with a Little Rilke Thrown In

Last week several of us round-tabled about pain, gathered around the idea that perhaps there are such things as good pain and bad pain. My friend Peter Johns came up with some insightful analogies and included them last week in his blog. It's worth reading. You can read Peter's thoughts at this address:

As a result of the open and honest discussion among soul-friends and fellow pilgrims, I was pushed to come to my own sense of what pain is and how I either step into it or avoid it. I realize that I don't like pain any more than the next person. And it's not always easy for me to differentiate emotional pain from spiritual pain, physical pain from mental pain. Often, especially when I am in the midst of it, pain is pain, and all the philosophizing or psychologizing about it in the world does not make it better. When I'm in the midst of it, I just want to cry out and make it go away.

I suppose in some things I have a pretty high pain threshold. I've been surprised from time to time, for instance, when doctors have said to me in the midst of pain or bad health, "How are you still standing this?" Then, at other times, the mere sight of a needle while I'm sitting in the chemo chair is enough to put me on the floor. I don't get it, but that represents the wide spectrum of my experience and tolerance of pain.

And I do recognize that I am largely shaped by my Western cultural heritage that insinuates that all pain is bad, that it is to be relieved, medicated or dispersed by any means possible. Our cultural emblem is "onward and upward," as if anything that holds us back from success, achievement, and prosperity must be bad. As a people, we don't have much tolerance for pain, for difficulty or for struggle.

The stories we tell in the corporate world are stories of success, accomplishment, and getting ahead.

The stories we tell in the ecclesial (church) world are the stories of the pain turned to glory, struggle that turned to victory. We have little heart-space for stories of perpetual struggle . . . for stories that do not end up with gold medals in the end . . . for stories that do not end with a heart-warming, inspirational moral.

I believe that most of us will endure a little pain only if we feel promised that it will not last long, or that it will somehow be turned to glory, or that we will be rewarded for it with some kind of earthly or celestial reward.

The difficult, wrenching spiritual discipline is to step into pain, to live in it, and perhaps to embrace it, even if we are not promised an end to it or a pleasing outcome to it. Our spiritual teachers for centuries have reminded us that in order to live a life of soul, that is a life in which we are our most authentic, God-created selves, we must make a downward journey -- often imaged as a "descent." That downward journey is most always traumatic, deathly, and painful (either physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually).

So after last week's discussion, and Peter's helpful meditation, I remembered this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It has spoken to me for many years, especially in the difficult days of my life, the days when I have cried out, "Where are you, God? Where are you in all this hurt?!?!"

Read it a couple of times. Visualize the image Rilke paints with words . . . a massive rock . . . a vein of ore . . . the terrible darkness . . . the pressing in . . . the weight of the pain like stone. . . .

It feels as though I make my way
through massive rock
like a vein of ore
alone, encased.

I am so deep inside it
I can’t see the path or any distance:
everything is close
and everything closing in on me
has turned to stone.

Since I still don’t know enough about pain,
this terrible darkness makes me small.
If it’s you, though –

press down hard on me, break in
that I may know the weight of your hand,
and you, the fullness of my cry.

[Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 127.]

I am drawn especially to Rilke's line, "I still don't know enough about pain . . ." I confess, that even after 53 years . . . numerous heart-breaks, vocational struggles, disease, years of soul-work . . . I still don't know enough about pain.

And maybe in the end, what Rilke most wants is what I most want . . . to know that somehow God is present in the pain . . . and for God to hear me when I cry.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Simeon and the One Who Burns through the Haze

Around the nativity of Christ, there are three great prayers -- or "canticles" -- in the Gospel of Luke.

The Canticle of Zechariah is called the Benedictus, and is the song Zechariah sings about his son, John, but also enfolding the coming Messiah (Lk. 1:68 - 79). In the Western Church's daily movement of prayer -- typically called the "Divine Office" or the "Liturgy of the Hours" -- it is prayed in the morning hours each day.

The Magnificat is the song of Mary (Lk. 1:46 - 55). Whereas Zechariah's song is about how God is bringing light to a darkened world through John and Jesus, the Canticle of Mary celebrates what God has done in her and in the world. Only briefly does she mention her own life. Mostly she "sings" about God's generous mercy extended to the world. In the daily prayers of the Church, the Magnificat is prayed each evening.

After the birth of Christ, when Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple, old Simeon is waiting (Lk. 2:25 - 32). He has waited for years, decades, for the coming of Messiah, and now he immediately recognizes in Jesus the long-awaited Savior. Thus, the Canticle of Simeon, called the "Nunc Dimittis," is about fulfillment, about Jesus, and about an old man who finally sees that God is doing what he has long envisioned. He sings a song of celebration, a song confessing that now he can depart in peace, for his eyes have seen the Salvation of God. The Nunc Dimittis is prayed by the Church at Night Prayer, the final prayers of the day, for it is a prayer of departing in peace, celebrating where we have seen the Christ, and going to our rest -- for the night, or for an eternity -- in the peace of God.

Simeon's prayer goes like this:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

When I read this prayer recently, I was drawn to the phrase, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles." What does that mean?

For one, this child would bring salvation for all people, not just some, not just for a special group. The fact that I can sit here today and claim that I have a birthright with this child, as do you, means that the light of this Savior is for all peoples.

But I've thought most about the phrase, "a light for revelation."

"Revelation" is a revealing, an uncovering. Something is coming out of hiding, brought out of obscurity. This Messiah will be a light that shines on what is hidden, what is not ordinarily seen.

I thought of these ways I might put Simeon's words into my own words:

This child will be the sunlight that burns through the fog or haze that shrouds our lives.

This child will be the luminaria that lights our pathway in the darkness.

He will be the illumination that finally reveals the mystery.

He will be a way to see the unveiling.

He will be a beacon on the path.

He will be the clarity that allows me to step into the fog.

He will be the one who pulls back the curtains so you can finally see what is on the stage.

He will be a light for revealing, for showing, for manifesting, for seeing -- seeing what has been there and been real all along.

The truth of the spiritual journey is that humans live in a fog. We see about six inches in front of our face, and then are convinced that's all there is, that we've seen it all.

In reality, there is so much more, and the so-much-more is there all the time, but because we live in this fog, we don't see it.

In essence, Simeon's prayer says that Jesus is the light that burns through the haze. Jesus is the clarity that allows us to see what is present all the time. Jesus is the Truth that allows us to see the truth of what is really present in every moment, but which we tend not to see.

"You, child, show me what is: The truth of God . . . the truth of me . . . the truth of others . . . the truth of the created world. You show me reality, life as it is, not as I want it to be or wish it to be or hope it could be."

He does not come to show us the truth so we can judge and condemn others, but so we can love them in their greatest gifts and their most profound brokenness.

He does not come to show us the truth of ourselves so we can grovel and lament and wallow in our badness, but so we can see ourselves in both our giftedness and our limitations as deeply loved and always-chosen.

It strikes me that if you don't want to see the truth (of God, your self, others, or the created world), or if you don't want to engage reality as it truly is, then this child is of no use to you. He is no help. Because he is not here to make you more successful or powerful or prosperous or insightful. He is not here to help you get ahead or to get a better job or a nicer house or to have all people speak well of you. He is not here to help make your life "better" under the terms of Western capitalism.

He is here to help you see the Truth, and then to live into it. This child comes to help you live as more completely "you," as more fully human, as more authentically the person God created you to be. This child comes to help you live out your God-planned destiny as someone created as an icon of God.

He comes to reveal me to myself, to disperse the haze and fog so I can see what is real . . . the light that allows me to see, the sunshine that reveals what has been hidden, the illumination that shows what Mystery looks like and reveals the character of the Holy One.

One final word: None of this happens simply by acknowledging it. You don't begin to see what has been hidden just because someone says, "You need to see what is hidden."

Simeon said that Jesus is the light that burns through the haze. So here's how it seems to work: You read the Gospels. You pray everyday -- or at least regularly -- with his words, with his life. You notice what he does, with whom he hangs out, how he carries his life, the inner well of the Spirit that animates him.

In short, you spend time with him. You hang out with him. And as you do that, slowly and over time, the haze begins to burn away. His light reveals you to yourself, and reveals God and others and the world. How you see things begins to change. You begin to see the truth about yourself . . . about others . . . about the world. It's like the fog being burned away by the midday sun.

These things have been there all the time. "Why didn't I see it?"

This child is the light for revelation.