Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Always Beginning Again

A seeker went to the monastery, as the story goes, to deepen her prayer and to discover the peace missing in her fast-paced daily existence. After several days in which she joined in the daily prayer of the monks and observed the monks in-between times, she grew a bit bored by the slow pace, lack of stimulation, and monotony of it all. Full of curiosity, she found one of the monks and asked, "And just what is it you do all day, Brother?"

The old monk answered, "We fall down and get up . . . fall down and get up . . . fall down and get up."

Brother Monk had answered with a core notion from the Rule of Benedict. "Always we begin again," says the Rule, and this idea is crucial to the Benedictine vow of ongoing or continual conversation. God is continually creating us, Benedict said, and we can never say that we have arrived, or that God's work in us is complete. We do not know all we are given to know . . . we have not yet opened all the hidden doors in the closets of our lives . . . we have not yet come to the wholeness for which we were created. God's work of conversion within us is ongoing. "Always we begin again."

On a practical level, this means daily life is full of beginnings. Each day we find ourselves at new thresholds, new challenges, new potentialities.

Some of these beginnings are obvious to us. I find myself in a season of life where most of life feels new . . . a new homeplace in a part of the world that is fresh and with a new vocational setting. In some moments, we cannot miss the newness.

But even when the beginnings are not obvious, daily we are invited to "sing to the Lord a new song" (as the psalmist invited in yesterday's blogpost). This is the Benedictine way, the way of being present to each moment as the moment arises and as we seek to live the moment in faithful love and gracious attentiveness. Again, morning by morning new mercies I see.

I find a couple of companion disciplines helpful in welcoming these beginnings. They are not disciplines you'll find written about in classical books on spiritual disciplines, but they are core practices, especially for the person who would daily journey in a contemplative posture.


Openness is the spiritual practice keeping us alert and alive to whatever comes, to whatever is is at the given moment. I find in my life -- and I observe in others with whom I have conversation -- most of us spend a great deal of time trying to change the circumstances of our lives, trying to change "what is" in order to make "what is" more to our liking or more to our benefit.

To be open means that we open ourselves to all things, whether we have willed them or not, whether they seem beneficial or not. Further, this kind of openness lessens our capacity to judge whatever comes toward us as either good or bad, as either helpful or hurtful. After all, the human tendency is to try to hold at arms length the "bad" and the "hurtful", while embracing the "good" or the "helpful". Furthermore, our tendency to judge whatever comes to our door implies that we actually know what is good/helpful or bad/hurtful.

When we open ourselves to whatever shows up at our door, we also open ourselves to the all-things-are-possible that angels frequently testify to in the scriptures. In essence, to not be open to whatever comes, to whatever is is, is to shut down the all-things-are-possible. Do you see? We can easily shut down the possibilities, the potential in any situation, simply by pre-judging it and closing ourselves off from it.

The contemplative path is open to the all-things-are-possible of God, and thus, to whatever actually comes toward us.

I love this short poem by Galway Kinnell, who uses the repetition of 9 different words to describe a prayerful openness.


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

[Galway Kinnell, A New Selected Poems, 116.]


Metaphorically, if openness implies opening the door to what actually is, then receptivity means inviting what is to come inside. To receive what is means I do not fight it nor struggle to resist it, but allow whatever is to find its place in my life. If we are people who "always begin again," then this posture of receptivity is essential. When the "new" or the "unexpected" or the "strange beginning" shows up at our door, we must make a fresh decision to either welcome or turn it away.

Receptivity is not blind passivity, so there are times when I must find the fine line or the tension between fighting something that is unjust, while still acknowledging its reality. For example, when I was diagnosed with cancer 14 years ago, I did not deny that diagnosis. I could have resisted the diagnosis issued by the medical personnel . . . and likely would have died within a couple of weeks. I was invited to receive what was the actual state of my body at the time. But receptivity did not mean I was passive regarding the disease. I have been through rigorous chemotherapy and immunotherapy in the years since in order to combat the disease and live with some measure of health.

You might say the same thing about social justice. Being receptive is not a call to passivity, not an invitation to put our heads in the sand and say, "This bigotry and injustice is just the way life is!" Being receptive acknowledges the reality -- and even dares to ask, "how much of this reality, be it racism, sexism, entitlement, etc., lives within me?" -- but is not passive in accepting the reality as the status quo.

This is the tension those who walk a contemplative path are invited to hold. We are invited not only to keep the door to life and experience open, but also to receive into self what actually shows up.

Day after day after day, always we begin again.

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