Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Learn to Bear the Beams of Love

Fat Tuesday – February 25, 2020

The season of Lent suggests starkness, struggle, and difficulty. Typical Lenten images include desert and dust, pilgrimage and preparation. Words like repentance and redemption show up often. Some folks image Lent as a time for a spiritual house-cleaning.
Those images are appropriate and good, with a long history in the Church. They help us realize that we don’t appear on Easter morning to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ without some context, without making a journey toward that celebration. I affirm those understandings of Lent and their corresponding images, but I want to suggest another image for Lent.

Lent is also the time to dig deeper into the heart of God, to find ourselves immersed more completely in the mercy, compassion, and generosity that are at the center of life. This may not be a typical Lenten theme, but I believe it carries significance for us. The journey with Jesus toward Holy Week, the cross and Resurrection is a pilgrimage of love. His deep love for his Abba and for each of us animated each step toward the Passion. He embodied the love of God. His movements toward his final week were permeated in a generous and compassionate love. Mercy is who he was.

So I think about my life, our lives, as they are shaped by love. I’m drawn to one of William Blake’s poems in his “Songs of Innocence,” where he writes:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.

Beams of love illumine our world in every place and at every moment. Creation is full of love-beams. We are surrounded by them. In a sense, the beams of love are God’s work, God’s initiative, God’s gift to the world. The human responsibility, though, is to “bear” those beams.

The dual meaning of “bearing” is important. We are here to bear the beams of love, that is, to stand up underneath them. To bear the beams of love is to receive their weight and significance into ourselves, to welcome them into our being.

But the word “bear” also has another meaning. To bear is to carry or to deliver to another. We can bear good news. We bear something when we take it to someone else.

This is our Lenten journey, both to bear the beams of love by receiving them into ourselves, and to bear the beams of love by carrying them to others in the world. It is the twofold movement of the Christian spiritual life: First, the soul’s movement inward where we are connected ever-more deeply to God and to transforming love. Then the second, outward movement to carry love into society in a way that transforms the world.

Persons throughout history have borne the beams of love. Across the generations, they have given themselves to a more intentional spiritual path, affirming both inward and outward dimensions of life with God. We are invited to join them in this holy journey.

I'll post daily reflections throughout Lent on my sister site:

Welcome to Lent!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Day with Thomas Merton

Today on Christmas, I’ll share with you Thomas Merton’s words. In Seasons of Celebration, he writes about the birth of Christ. Merton is particularly moved by Christ as light, and our human need not only to receive the light within us, but more, to allow the light to shine through us. This is what Merton says:

Christ is born. He is born to us. And, he is born today. For Christmas is not merely a day like every other day. It is a day made holy and special by a sacred mystery. It is not merely another day in the weary round of time. Today, eternity enters into time and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity. Today, Christ, the Eternal Word of the Father, who was in the beginning with the Father, in whom all things were made, by whom all things consist, enters into the world which he created in order to reclaim souls who have lost their identity. Therefore, the Church exults as the angels come down to announce not merely an old thing that happened long ago, but a new thing that happens today. For, today, God the Father makes all things new, in his Divine Son, our Redeemer, according to his words: Ecce nova facio omnia. . . .

At Christmas, more than ever, it is fitting to remember that we have no other light but Christ, who is born to us today. Let us reflect that he came down from heaven to be our light, and our life. He came, as he himself assures us, to be our way, by which we may return to the Father. Christ gives us light today to know him, in the Father and ourselves in him, so that thus knowing and possessing Christ, we may have life everlasting with him in the Father. . . .

Having realized, once again, who it is that comes to us, and having remembered that he alone is our light, let us open our eyes to the rising Sun, let us hasten to receive him and let us come together to celebrate the great mystery of charity which is the sacrament of our salvation and of our union in Christ. Let us receive Christ that we may in all truth be “light in the Lord” and that Christ may shine not only to us, but through us, and that we may all burn together in the sweet light of his presence in the world: I mean his presence in us, for we are his Body and his Holy Church. . . .

Christ, light of light, is born today, and since he is born to us, he is born in us as light and therefore we who believe are born today to new light. That is to say, our souls are born to new life and new grace by receiving him who is the Truth. For Christ, invisible in his own nature, has become visible in our nature. What else can this mean, except that first he has become visible as a man and second he has become visible in his Church? He wills to be visible in us, to live in us, and save us through his secret action in our own hearts and the hearts of our neighbors. So, we must receive the light of the newborn Savior by faith, in order to manifest it by our witness in common praise and by the works of our charity towards one another.

[Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, pp. 102-105.]

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Ballets, Spotlights, and God

Every day this month I'm listening to Advent texts, mostly drawn from Isaiah's vision of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Isaiah tends to be lyrical, using vivid images to illumine honestly the situation of the world and God's place at the center of history -- not only in ancient times, but today as well.

Isaiah' prophecy covers a wide swath of time, from a season when Israel was threatened by foreign powers, to the time when those foreign powers devastated the people and the land, to the days when God began to restore what had been demolished. There are a lot of moving pieces in Isaiah, and it's not easy to follow the action. Only God and God's desire for healing and justice holds together the far-reaching prophecy.

I recently attended The Nutcracker again, performed by a troupe whose artistic director had a different vision of the story than that to which I was accustomed. His approach was quite nontraditional. At times the action on stage seemed disjointed. I tried to follow the story line as part of the troupe danced on one part of the stage, while children huddled in mock-conversation in another part of the stage, while other characters were coming and going, stage right and stage left. My eyesight -- and attention -- wandered from corner to corner in the busy scene as I tried to figure out how this scene was carrying the plot forward.

Then I noticed help. A spotlight from above and behind me was following around the stage one pair of dancers. These were the leads, the principal dancers. The spotlight was telling me, "Follow this action. At this moment, these dancers are the most important thing happening on stage." I realized that the production crew was helping novices like me to understand the story, to catch the important movements that were key to the unfolding narrative, by use of a highlighter. For the rest of the ballet, I followed the spotlight.

In a sense, Isaiah provides us a spotlight by continually calling us back to God. In his day, there was plenty going on in the world that asked for the attention of Isaiah's community. Pieces were moving everywhere.

And in our day, there are all sorts of noisy voices calling out, "Look at me! Look at me!" Our attention is prone to wander . . . to chase an act of brutality here . . . a new political reality there . . . spending our days chasing Facebook posts, angry tweets, and news-feeds. The relentless pace can drive you nuts.

But like that ballet spotlight, Isaiah shines a light upon God. In our day, we would do well to take our cue from the prophet.

In effect, Isaiah says, "All the commotion in the world is trying to call your attention to it. Be alert. Don't divert your gaze. Don't do that. Pay attention to what God is doing in the world. Keep the eyes of your heart focused on God's work, God's promise, God's nature. Don't be distracted. Don't let your vision wander."

This isn't easy to do. I'm as distracted -- and distractable -- as the next person. But I want to ask different questions about life, the world, and the commotion around us.

What are God's hopes for the world? What is God's design for the world?

What is God doing in the world?

How is God at work today, even in the midst of much hatred, division, and alienation? How do I notice God's presence today in concrete ways?

How am I invited to join God in what God is doing in the world? When I follow the spotlight, how might God invite me to respond?

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Learning a Different Wisdom

There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all. There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have any meaning? There must be a time when a man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill. [Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, p. 260.]

Black Friday . . . Small-Business Saturday . . . Cyber Monday . . . Giving Tuesday . . .

Who comes up with this stuff, anyway? Well, I think I know the answer,especially when I hear the many reports of how "successful" or "unsuccessful" these days are . . . when the impact of the days is measured in $$$ and %.

Advent arrives as a blanket warming the cold, market-driven days, urging me to "forget my plans" . . . "fall very silent" . . . "pray as if for the first time" . . . "learn a different wisdom."

Advent does not speak the language of market growth or GNP or China trade deals or even "what will I get the grandchildren for Christmas?"

The season offers a quieter, gentler invitation . . . to reevaluate and recalibrate . . . to stay rooted in that which is life- and light-giving, rather than getting carried away by the distractive pulls of the moment . . . to join a more universal design that transcends my little social gatherings and travel plans and musical specials.

Merton was not writing about Advent per se, but he might as well have been describing the season.

I am tempted, this early morning in Advent, to state my goals for the season: “forget my plans” . . . “fall very silent” . . . “pray as if for the first time” . . . “learn a different wisdom.” But I think I would regret placing my own agenda on the days, forcing this grand, unfathomable season into my own little gift box, so that by the end I could measure it - maybe in % - to see how successful or unsuccessful I was.

No, I think instead I'll just be alert what shows up . . . I'll stay open to the grace and mercy hiding in whatever is . . . I'll allow the warm blanket of Advent to cover all the coldness within me and in the world.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A More Expansive Dance

Fr Thomas Keating told an apocryphal story about an elder monk on his hands and knees, combing through the grass in front of the hut that was his living quarters. A younger monk walking by asked, "Father, what are you doing?"

"Looking for my keys," replied the elder.

The young monk immediately got down on his hands and knees and began to comb through the grass.

Other monks passed by. Each stopped to ask what was going on and each received the same answer: "We're looking for Father's keys." Before long the expansive yard was full of monks crawling through the grass, looking for lost keys.

Finally, one of the monks who had joined the search gathered the courage to ask the obvious question which no one to that point had the nerve to ask: "Father, are you sure you lost your keys out here in the grass?"

"Oh no, my son," the older monk answered. "I lost my keys in the house. But since there is no light in the house, I thought I'd look out here in the sunshine."

When Fr Keating told the story, he would summarize the imaginary scene this way: "And that is the human condition. We are all looking for the keys to happiness where happiness cannot be found."

This is the perennial challenge of the spiritual life . . . to shift our center of orbit from all the ways, places, and things to which we look for fulfillment . . . to shift our orbit to the One who is the Center of all life. The shift is so difficult because we receive almost no cultural validation for making this shift. In fact, culturally we are encouraged to chase after all sorts of other things that promise happiness, but in the end cannot hold the weight of our being.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the center of life is not measured by your bank account . . . by the number of friends you have . . . by what others think of your work . . . by how mannerly -- or petulant -- you are . . . by the success you achieve.

For many of us, at issue is the way life itself, by its very nature, tends to sweep us up and carry us along, so that we feel carried along by a train whose destination was determined by someone else, and from which we cannot seem to get off.

In the daily run of life, it is so easy to believe that the thing right here before us is the only thing.

I remember in 1998 when my dad died . . . his death was the big thing squarely in front of me, demanding all the attention I could muster. Trying to be present for my mom, for my own children, for the funeral preparations which needed to be made, and still attend to my own grief, my orbit became very small, very focused on that which was right in front of me.

But I also had a couple of experiences that week around his funeral which said to me, "While my world has stopped at this place . . . while all I can see is this loss and the shape of life now in the aftermath . . . there are many others in the world who are completely unaffected by his death. For them, life is moving on."

It was a moment of revelation for me. My world had stopped. But the world did not stop for others. Life continued. At first, I railed inwardly about it: "My FATHER has died!! Can't you have some respect?!?! Can't you stop for a moment as I have stopped?!" When I realized what I was thinking, the lesson for me became clear: My life and existence so easily becomes the center of the entire universe, and actually I'm not the center at all.

Usually it takes the created world to remind me that life is happening always and everywhere, sustained by God, whether I am present to it or not . . . regardless of what concerns fill my life . . . no matter the deadlines I'm facing that feel as if they are pinching or the "pressing work" that calls for all my attention.

The waves of the surf will continue to roll in and out, no matter what my life is like today.

The river which slices through these mountains will continue to sing whether I am sitting there to listen or not.

These deer grazing by the roadside will go on finding their own "daily bread" whether I meet my deadline or not.

The lush green woods will lose their leaves, but then produce them again, far apart from whatever I think is important in my life.

Thomas Merton described what he called the General Dance or the Cosmic Dance . . . the dance of the world which humans often miss, as we are consumed with the far smaller dances of our own creation . . . shuffling papers . . . tinkering with websites . . . posting for "likes" on social media . . . building the life we imagine we are supposed to have . . . crippled by anxiety over political and denominational realities.

The things that mostly consume us are too small . . . they are not substantial enough to hold the weight of your being. They are dances we have learned from culture, from those who tell us what we should dance around. Most of them are completely disconnected from the Cosmic Dance.

Read Merton's words as he describes this larger dance, then spend some time meditating on them over several days.

What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

[Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 296-297]

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Resurrection Sunday: Let Him Easter in Us

For a week or so I’ve been drawn to the Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us.” I’m reconsidering its meaning this year.

I first saw the line in a Catholic bookstore at an Iowa retreat center 20 years ago. Hopkins’ words were incorporated into the mission statement of a female religious order in the Midwest, and one of the Sisters of the order had painted the line in watercolor, beautifully depicting the phrase in a way that caught my eye. I’ve kept the framed work in a place where I can see it almost daily since that time.

All these years, I’ve been moved by the novelty of Hopkins’ use of “easter” as a verb, an action word. Again this Holy Week, I’ve played around with what “let him easter in us” might mean. At the moment, I only have hints and guesses. For now, I’m exploring.

A couple of days ago, I randomly connected Hopkins’ line with a familiar verse from Mary Oliver. Surely to “let him easter in us” has something to do with life and vibrancy.

The Mary Oliver question which came to mind in my pondering simply asks: “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

The line comes squarely in the center of her lengthy, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches,” a poem which invites us to a more vibrant, alive existence by getting out of our self-focus and into the lives of things around us: The long branches of young locust trees in early summer, or the sea, or the grass.

She writes:

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

And then:

For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

It has occurred to me this week that “breathing just a little and calling it a life” is not the same as letting him easter in us.

Further, this week I am holding the tension of reconciliation as I ponder “let him easter in us.” Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5 that this was Christ’s work in the world, reconciling the world. I assume this work continues in an even greater way post-Resurrection. Christ eastering in us and in the world surely has something to do with reconciliation, making right the divisions and factions that exist within us, among us, and in the world.

Reconciliation is making right, making peace. The dictionary definition says “to restore to friendship or harmony,” so it includes a work of restoration.

Many times I am like the political leaders who urge oneness and harmony among partisans, but who really mean, “There will only be oneness and harmony if you come to my position on this issue, if you see things my way, if you adopt my value system.” This is a sham of harmony and has nothing to do with reconciliation.

Authentic reconciliation stands in the center and holds all the sides, all the partisans, all the variances together. Again, Paul said that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no rich or poor, no slave or free, but all are one in Christ. So it sounds like, when I take one position or another – and believe me, I definitely have my firmly-held positions!! – I’m in no place to reconcile. If I am in one position or another, dug in, I’m no longer able to reconcile, to bring together. I may be entrenched, but not in a place of restoring friendship and harmony.

From that place, people in the “opposing camp” become “elites” or “snowflakes,” or they become “a basket of deplorables.” Reconciliation cannot happen there.

It seems to me that reconciliation somehow holds both (or all) the extremes together, in order to work toward healing and oneness. This is strenuous work, and requires that we get outside of ourselves, that we take on a new mind, that our lives are oriented as “the mind of Christ.”

It is a bogus oneness to say that we all need to come together as one nation or one denomination or one whatever, while advocating that everyone needs to agree with me . . . that only if others come to my position can there be oneness. This is a pseudo-oneness, a sham of reconciliation.

To reconcile is to make peace, to live into a wholeness which transcends one position or another position. To make peace – shalom – brings completeness . . . making peace and restoring friendship with God . . . making peace among the scattered parts of ourselves, befriending our own lives again . . . making peace with others, especially those with whom we disagree.

Are some causes unjust? Certainly!

Are other causes worth fighting for? Definitely!

But in every case, we are invited to follow Christ, whose work was reconciling the world to God . . . to be reconcilers, to make peace, to listen to the other, to treat the other with respect and friendship, to work toward shalom . . . the invitation stands for those who are post-Resurrection disciples.

Let him easter in us. At some level, at least in my thinking today, Christ eastering in us means we join him in his work of reconciling the world.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Holy Saturday: On Tombs, Prisoners, and Antelopes in the Grass

On Christmas Day 2018, I opened a gift from my son, the junior high principal, the poet. It was a hardback edition of a William Stafford book of poetry (the softcover edition having been on my bookshelf for many years).

But this one different, and not just that its cover was hard. On the title page was Stafford’s signature, a luminous find in the mammoth Powell’s Bookstore of Downtown Portland – likely landing there after Stafford’s teaching career at local Lewis and Clark College.

Tears filled my eyes, because I have a son who thinks about these things, who loves poetry and literature.

And tears filled my eyes as I randomly opened the pages and read whatever my eyes fell upon, moved again by Stafford’s utter simplicity and by his way of jumping into the stream and letting the current take him wherever it would. He had no sense of building to a great crescendo in his poems, just tracking along to see where the poem led, as if each line were some golden thread which the reader could hold onto and trace to something else that might arise in his or her imagination.

I sat among grandchildren -- busily devouring gifts amidst loud laughter and chatter -- quietly reading along in Stafford, choking back the Christmas tears.

This is one of the poems that had my address on it, and still does . . . maybe because it explores themes I’ve often pondered for myself . . . and maybe because it is sufficiently unresolved to remind me of my life.

On this Holy Saturday, I give William Stafford’s poem about tight spaces, prisoners, and antelopes in the grass to you.

A Message from the Wanderer
William Stafford

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occurred to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations –
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as – often, in light, on the open hills –
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then – even before you see –
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now – these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way –
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

[William Stafford, Stories That Could Be True (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 9.]