by Jerry Webber
The Center for Christian Spirituality
Houston, Texas, USA

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Simple Stances for the "Herod within Me"

Noticing that Herod lives within us is not a pleasant experience. It reminds us that we are capable of doing great harm in the world, and it disturbs our illusion that we are better, more enlightened, or more “advanced” than we truly are. In short, to see the Herod within ourselves is a reminder of our humanity, our feet of clay.

Most people want to banish the Herod within, or at least to fix the interior Herod. I don’t believe we can ever completely banish Herod from within us. We can, however, become more and more aware of Herod’s presence, and of the damage Herod inflicts on us and on the world. I offer these simple movements for dealing with the Herod within me.

What can I do about the Herod within me?

1. First, I simply acknowledge that Herod exists within me. I recognize there is a self-interested part of me that highly invested in my own good, rather than the good of others, the good of the world, or the good of God. This is not a condemnation, but an honest assessment of who I am.

2. Second, I bring the recognition that Herod exists with me into my daily living with more and more intention. For example, this afternoon when I notice that I am trying to control the behavior of my friend or family member, I simply notice what I’m doing. I name my behavior. I bring my own behavior and my inner motive to my awareness. Sometimes I’ll even whisper to myself, “This is what Jerry looks like when he is trying to control someone else,” or “This is what Jerry looks like when he feels threatened,” or “This is what Jerry looks like when he is fearful.”

3. Third, when I become aware of my Herod-behavior, I notice without judging it. I don’t tell myself how bad I am, what a failure I am, or what a poor Christian I am. I simply notice this part of me without judging. Judging doesn’t do anything constructive. Rather, judging myself brings along the baggage of guilt (I did something wrong) and shame (I am a bad person or a failure). Notice Herod without judging Herod.

4. Fourth, as best you can in the moment, let go of your desire to control the situation, to manipulate the other person, or to do violence to the situation. Let go. The feelings of power or control or threat may come back 3 seconds later. That’s fine. Let go again. Never stop letting go. Every time you feel threatened, every time you feel yourself resisting – even God – let go . . . let go . . . let go.

5. Finally, find a prayer or gesture that symbolizes “letting go” or helps you move through the moment without lashing out at yourself or others. For example, I’ll sometimes clench my fists tightly, then let them drop open as a sign of letting go. And I’ll repeat that movement several times. Or I’ll pray what is called the Freedom Prayer. “God, free me from the need to control this person.” Or, “God, free me from the insecurity I feel from this threat.” Or, “God, free me from the grip of this fear.” Repeat the Freedom Prayer as often as necessary.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Herod: Facing the Dragons Within

Ancient maps, I’ve heard, sometimes had inscriptions around the edges, just beyond the boundaries of the known world. “There be dragons”, written in the margins, were the words used to describe what was beyond the known world, in the realm of shadow or darkness, the places yet to be explored.

When I’ve heard that legend told as a preacher-story (a genre all its own, don’t you know?!?), it generally deals with having the courage to explore something in the outer world, or about taking risks in life, or about facing the dragons that are “out there.”

But I’m convinced that the legend can also speak to our interior life, our inner makeup. “There be dragons” points to the unexplored and unknown places within our own personhood which feel very dangerous to us. These are the aspects of what it means to be me or to be you that we don’t touch, we don’t become familiar with, because we are not sure what we will find there . . . or not sure if we will like what we find there.

A healthy, growing spiritual life – not to mention a healthy emotional life – explores beyond the edges of the inner map, discovers where the dragons reside, and faces them with courage and intention. In order to live soulfully in the world, we are invited to explore the fullness of what it means to be me and you, even if that means uncovering some things about ourselves that seem unsavory.

I am not proud of the Herod within me. My initial impulse toward this shadowy region in my inner life is to banish it . . . and failing banishment, to fix it. But I have lived long enough with my own shadows, my own Herods, to know that I will likely carry most of them until the moment of my death. They will be a part of the unique maze of what it means for me to be Jerry . . . and for you to be you.

A couple of experiences have informed me. In one, I sat in front of a wise Irish nun who had the patience to share her deep, deep connection to God with me over a period of many years. I lamented, on this particular day, these dark and shadowy parts of my personality that kept showing up when I least expected to see them. Some of them I dealt with in various ways – handing them over to God at the altar, burning pieces of paper that represented them, and so on . . . you get the drift – that my religious tradition commended and approved of. But always the behaviors, the emotional responses, the afflictive reactions came back . . . a week, a month, a year later.

As I lamented, this Sister gently asked, “And what would you like to do with these parts of yourself, Jerry?”

“I’d like to obliterate them,” I answered in all honesty.

“If you could obliterate them, what would be left of you then, Jerry?” And I immediately “got it.” These shadows – what I would call today “Herods” – were a part of what it meant for me to be Jerry. They weren’t the shiny, clean, perfect model that I thought my life was to be. They were ordinary and in some ways had no luster. But they were me.

The other experience came from a book by a Jesuit, writing about the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In a meditation on 2 Corinthians 12, the writer suggested that when the Apostle Paul prayed repeatedly that God would take away his “thorn in the flesh,” Paul was referring to a moral impairment rather than a physical issue. Paul wanted a character defect removed, a moral imperfection to be taken away, not a physical healing as has often been speculated.

The writer went on to say that Paul finally heard God say, “My grace is enough for you . . . for my power is strongest when you are weak” when he realized that he would probably go to his grave still carrying this particular moral defect.

In other words, Paul saw part of the Herod within himself, and after a long season of praying for its removal, finally embraced it and found God’s strength in that shadow-space where he was weak.

When I first read those words about 16 years ago, it was as if I had been liberated . . . from the anxious striving and diligent asceticism that I had hoped would straighten out my life. I realized again – as I had sitting with the Irish nun – that I would carry my own Herods for a long, long time. I simply needed to know they were there. I needed to be aware of them. (I’ll post some thoughts later this week on what to do with these Herods within us when we see them.) I needed to face my own dragons.

For Reflection:

How does the map image, with “There be dragons” written around the edges of the map, speak to you about your own interior landscape?

What inner dragons (or Herods) have you faced along your journey?

And what has been your own experience of reacting to the dragons – or to the Herods – that you discover within yourself? Can you imagine God saying to you, “My grace is enough for you . . . my power in you is strongest when you are weak”?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Herod: The Inner Landscape that Wreaks Havoc

You have to summon some courage if you dare to seek out and find the Herod within you, especially in light of the actual Herod’s horrendous actions. He was so threatened by the birth of a new “king” that he put to death all the male children of the region who would have been born around the time of Jesus’s birth, just to make sure he had no challenge to his throne. (Historians remind us that he also put to death many others during his rule, include several sons who Herod viewed as threats to his throne.)

While his actions are deplorable – and don’t parallel the extent to which most persons would go – they are driven by Herod’s interior state, by his inner landscape. And it is Herod’s interior state that we’ll likely find not all that different from our own.

These are a few words I’ve used to describe Herod, not to reduce him, but in order to help me find where he lives within me:

in control (of himself and his world)
managing (situations, taking them into his own hands)
maintaining (his own kingdom)
small (but wants to be big)

Once I name some of the qualities that drove Herod, I can easily find him within me, because these states also describe my life on a regular basis.

I’m very familiar with having my position or my status threatened . . .

I can be consumed by fear, whether that fear relates to my health, to my job, or to a national election . . .

I control and manipulate those around me, including those closest to me, in order to arrange my world the way I think it should be . . .

I try to move heaven and earth to maintain what I have, even if it means someone else has less . . .

I often strive to be big when I feel dissatisfied with being small . . .

I can scheme and plot my own self-interest to the detriment and harm of those in the world, perhaps not to the extent of Herod; nonetheless, I can do actual damage in my world, and even be oblivious to the harm I perpetuate.

The words I listed above are dividing words. They separate. They set us against others. For example, I realize that when I feel threatened or fearful, anger usually lives just beneath the surface of my consciousness. I respond sharply, even profanely, to those who stumble unknowingly across my emotional landmines. Love and mercy become distant, unreachable goals. Retribution and hatred follow my anger.

And I realize in those moments that I don’t have to take a life literally – as Herod did – in order to do major harm to others.

For Reflection:

Look at the list of words above again. With which of the words do you seem to be most familiar? If you notice 3 or 4 words that describe your interior from time to time, take them out one word at a time. For each one, spend a few moments thinking about times in recent days when you have experienced that word.

As that way of being was living and active within you, what did it feel like to be you?

Were there particular behaviors that arose . . . an argument with someone else, an angry rant whispered under your breath, or a physical reaction?

As you explore these things, do so without judgement; rather, the goal is to notice and become more aware of what lives within you, not to condemn yourself over it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Herod: Am I Big Enough to Stand Down God?

Matthew 2:1 – 18

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied . . .

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Last week, I invited you to give attention to the Magi in the Birth narrative. We explored the Magi, not to analyze them or scrutinize them, but to see if there might be some way in which the spirit of the Magi also lives in us.

This week, we’ll use the same text from Matthew 2, this time to consider Herod. At first glance, you may read the Herod portions of the narrative and be repulsed. This is an odd narrative to include in the narrative surrounding the birth of Jesus, and usually is omitted from contemporary celebrations of Christmas. But it is an essential part of the story, with a very “real-world,” earthy feel to it that makes the rest of the birth narrative all the more remarkable.

Herod the Great is an insecure, defensive ruler who is so threatened at the announcement of a newborn “king” that he determines to kill the child. Then, when the Magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod, he kills all the children around Bethlehem who would be the approximate age of the child-king. It is a ruthless, extreme story.

“Herod” was the family name of a line of rulers. Herod the Great is the “king” who represents the Roman Empire, the occupational forces. In the birth narratives, he symbolizes the structures and powers-that-be which oppose the work of God in the world. He represents the structures of the world that are ordered around power and control, deceit and manipulation, that stand against the kingdom of God (which is the God-project for the world, the God-structure of everything created, the “Disk Operating System” of all creation).

In short, Herod the Great resists God’s work. He sits on his throne as king, wanting to be the sole ruler in his world, threatened by any other claim to power and authority – even God’s claim to power. He is so threatened, so constellated around himself and his own personal kingdom, that he will banish and even kill anything that threatens his personal kingdom. Herod really does believe that he is big enough to stand down God, that he has enough stature to order his life-world is a way that benefits him, and only him.

I believe Herod lives in some way in each of us. Perhaps not the extreme to which Herod was a despotic, psychotic, ego-driven ruler who routinely killed those who were a threat to him . . . but if you look at what underlies Herod’s behavior, I think we’ll find some traits that are consistent with our own humanity.

The Herod-corner of our lives is that place where we quietly, perhaps secretly, create our own personal throne on which to sit so that we can govern life, control not only our own destinies, but seek to control others as well. From this personal throne, the Herod-part of us will resort to most any means to maintain our autonomy.

Further, the Herod within us resists letting go, because to surrender self to another, even to God, would mean to be out of control, to lose control over life. The Herod within us wants to govern everything, wants to control everyone, wants to shape life in a way that is pleasant and beneficial to the self. Indeed, Herod represents all the ways, both consciously and subconsciously, we try to manipulate our world, our environment, our relationships, toward our own favor and for our own benefit.

For Reflection:
Read the text from Matthew 2 again. What words, phrases, or images stand out for you? Write them down in your journal or on a page. They bring them into conversation with God. Allow God to speak to you through what you are hearing in the scripture.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Magi: Earth's Crammed with Heaven

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s well-known poem says:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Browning's poem reflects a Celtic vision of the world, which holds that the entire created world is alive with the presence of the Divine. The Celtic cross, a cross with a circle at its heart, reflects that oneness. There is no separation between the Divine and the human, the heavenly and the earthly. God is always and everywhere.

The Magi remind me to embrace wonder. And when I am in touch with the Magi within me, I am more prone to notice the wonder of the world . . . the wonder of stars in the night sky . . . the wonder of a friend who has overcome tremendous odds to arrive at this moment of life . . . the wonder of forgiveness that arises within the one who has every good reason to be bitter and angry. "Earth's crammed with heaven."

I want to invite you to consider this part of your own life . . .
the part of you that is observant and watchful . . .
the part of you that believes a Power beyond you holds the universe together . . .
the part of you that believes there is an unseen connection among all the seemingly random events of daily life . . .
that part of you that stays alert and awake . . .
the part of you that is open to newness . . .
the part of you that can believe there is truth and life and meaning that you have not yet understood . . .
the part of you that acknowledges there is more truth (about God, life, yourself) that lies beyond your current belief system . . .
the part of you that really does want to give yourself to something larger, something expansive, something beyond, something that is “exceedingly, abundantly beyond ALL you can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

The spirit of these magi is alive somewhere within you, opening you to the mystery of God, leading you onward toward new discoveries with God, expanding your soul.

This spirit is alive within you when you stand in awe before a sunset that takes your breath away . . .
when you hold a new grandson and allow his speechless cry to be God’s voice to you . . .
when you hear a new insight and sense the deep conviction that it was “just what I needed in this moment.”

As Eugene Peterson says in The Message, “The world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts.” (Ps. 40:4 – 5) Those who carry the spirit of the magi within know this from experience. The universe is alive, it is not settled. It is pregnant with truth, exploding with meaning, with God-wonders.

In the spirit of the magi we search, we watch, we enquire, we question, we follow.

Earth's crammed with heaven.

For Reflection:
Think about the last 24 hours. What “wonder” have you experienced in the last day? . . . in the created world? . . . or with another person? You might even take out your journal and create a “wonder list” that would form the basis of your prayer time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Magi: Journeys That Shift Everything

Something in the very act of journey transforms those who push through resistances, who weather obstacles, and who persevere through the fatigue and relentless dailyness of staying on the path.

In the world of spiritual journeying, there really is no firm destination. If you do arrive at what you think is a destination, it will look much different than you envisioned. And then, once you feel you have arrived, the destination changes, always stretching out before you.

Here is T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi.”

The Journey of the Magi
T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

[T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962, p. 99.]

Eliot uses the Magi’s journey as a metaphor for a spiritual journey, a journey which deepens and rearranges all of life, including one’s relationships and stance in the world. Those who know Eliot better than I do claim that he was rediscovering Christian faith when he wrote this poem. The poem very well could be Eliot’s spiritual journey. It resonates with my life’s pilgrimage, as well.

Eliot’s poem is darker than Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” (yesterday’s post). Eliot doesn’t flinch at the difficulty of the journey, and the ongoing resistance the traveler faces at every turn.

In the first stanza, Eliot introduces the challenges in a number of different images . . . “a cold coming” . . . “the worst time of year for a journey” . . . “a long journey” . . . “the ways deep and the weather sharp” . . . “the very dead of winter.”

The journey is not for the faint of heart, for “a hard time we had of it.” Resistance to moving onward comes in a number of forms: “night fires going out” . . . “lack of shelters” . . . “cities hostile” . . . “towns unfriendly” . . . “villages dirty” . . . “charging high prices.”

As Mary Oliver noted in yesterday’s poem, the most formidable obstacle to our exploration is often summarized as “the voices singing in our ears.” Mary Oliver wrote that those voices are “shouting their bad advice.” For T. S. Eliot, they are saying, “This is all folly.” The voices sometimes come from family, friends, co-workers, or those who find journey a waste of time. And just as often, they come from within us, our own interior, whispering voices that seek to convince us to stop, go back, stay safe.

In Eliot’s vision of the Magi-journey, the road is long and full of obstacles. The arrival at the end of the second stanza is, well . . . underwhelming.

“And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.”

For me, the crux of the poem comes in the third stanza, Eliot’s reflection on the experience of journey. In Matthew 2, the Magi were led by a celestial light to the birth of Christ. But Eliot, imagining a journey that is more interior, suggests that at the end of this journey there is both birth and death. While he had thought they were different, this journey draws the two experiences together, two aspects of the same life-experience which are both necessary for a complete life.

This is a birth and death that changes a person deep within, that alters his or her fundamental stance toward all of life. This death (letting go) and birth (new life) shifts one’s relationships, attitudes, and loyalties.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this about Eliot’s poem:

What happens when a birth – Jesus' 'birth', as the poet starts re-discovering Christian faith – changes everything? The bizarre fact is that it can feel as if nothing has really changed, except that you have a sense that no one else has noticed what has happened – because something certainly has. 'Birth or death?' A new start that is felt only as the death of all that has been familiar; and yet the old world goes on, galloping aimlessly like the old white horse. Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone's questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.

When Williams says, “an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything,” he is writing about the nature of a life that is becoming, growing, and evolving deeper into God in a way that makes a difference in relationships with God, self, others, and the world.

In Eliot’s poem, that deep inner shift is noted by the Magi returning “to our places” but “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” So deeply has life shifted that upon returning home to their families, friends, and neighbors, they feel surrounded by “an alien people clutching their gods.”

By the end of the poem, though the journey is over, it’s not yet over. “I should be glad of another death.” To journey onward will lead to other deaths and other births. In truth, the invitation to journey and growth never ceases. We will not arrive . . . not until our last breath.

For Reflection:
Take a few moments to reflect on your own experience of being changed by a spiritual journey in a way that causes you to feel like an “alien” among family, friends, and neighbors. Has that experience caused you to take a different stance toward your own spiritual journey? Does it make you reticent to move onward?

If needed, take a moment to touch and embrace the Magi within you again . . .that spirit of exploration and adventure . . . the courage to move beyond what you have seen and what you know . . . the part of you not afraid of mystery and the unknown.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Magi: Journeying Deeper into the Heart of the World

The spiritual life lends itself to the image of journeying. Early Christians were called "people of the Way," which in itself is a path or journey symbol. Movement on a path signifies growth, becoming, and exploration.

In the narrative of Christ's birth, the Magi represent those who embark on a significant journey, following a mysterious heavenly light, though they begin the quest without knowing the particulars of the pathway, nor what would await them at the destination.

In my experience, a few stars have appeared in the outer world, inviting me to go, to follow, to explore beyond the edges of what I had known. More often, though, the stars arose within me, and I was drawn to follow. In fact, most of the time I would describe the experience as "I HAD to follow" . . . as if I really had little choice . . . as if this prompting was so compelling that I had to honor it.

As I have thought of the Magi in the narrative and the Magi within me, Mary Oliver's "The Journey" has come to mind.

The Journey
Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

[Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, p. 114.]

For me, the poems contains a couple of pivot points. The first comes in the opening lines: "One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began."

I've had occasional flashes in which I suddenly knew what I had to do . . . "one day . . ." But more often, the sense of "finally knowing what I have to do" has come over time, through life's lengthy wisdom. And that sense usually arises not because of something I read, something I hear from another person, or anything else that comes from the outer world. The impulse to go, to journey, to take the next risky step most always comes from within me.

And yet, I can go long days, even years, knowing what I have to do and still not doing it. The pivot for me in these opening lines is, "and began." She starts. She moves. She takes the first, most difficult step.

And the journey begins. It does not begin as long as the Magi study the star from their rooftops in Persia. It does not begin as long as they are pulling out books from shelves to study the meaning of new constellations. It does not begin as long as they sit in the coffee shop discussing with other wise persons the meaning of new stars and their alignments. The journey commences when they step onto the path . . . when they actually take off in pursuit of they-know-not-what.

"though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice . . ."

I've never met someone who wasn't familiar with the "voices of bad advice" that shout from around us . . . the voices that call our journey folly, that tell us to "get real," that remind us of all the ways were are disappointments, that not-too-subtly express confidence that we'll fail or have to turn back, that try to shame us into getting in line.

But the more insidious voices have always come from within me in a doubting, even accusing tone.
"What if you fail?"
"Can you deal with the uncertainty?"
"Wouldn't you like to know how the story ends?"
"You've never done this before."
"You're crazy!"
"What gives you the right to do this?"

Still, in the landscape of Mary Oliver's poem, you go on, despite the voices. "But you didn't stop. / You knew what you had to do."

"It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones."

You go onward because it is "already late enough." Enough of life has passed. You press forward, even though the storms of the many years have left your path littered, blocked, and cluttered with "branches and stones."

"But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own . . ."

Stars burn through clouds and appear finally, within eyesight, to help navigate the trek. And a new voice arises from within us, but only as we leave the old voices behind. We recognize slowly -- "little by little" -- as we walk away from the old and stale that this new voice is our own, the voice that has always been within, but which we now slowly recognize.

This, for me, is the second pivot point in the poem . . . the leaving behind -- of voices and terrible melancholy -- and the discovery -- of a previously unnoticed voice.

The poem, it seems to me, describes the Magi-journey. I know it describes the journey I have been invited to make.

For Reflection:
Reading poetry, REALLY reading poetry, is a contemplative exercise. You can't rush through a good poem. The poem invites you to slow down, to listen to words, phrases, and lines with your heart. It invites you to make connections. In a really good poem, you will have the sense that "I could have written those words." (This is one reason I've always loved this poem . . . I know Mary Oliver wrote it, but it is also MY poem for the way it describes my own journey.) Good poetry offers the reader many doors through which to enter the landscape of the poem.

So I invite you to read "The Journey" again slowly. Notice words, phrases, and images that speak to you. Sit with it for awhile without trying to make it say anything in particular. Let the poem find you.

Finally, you might consider one or two ways the poem parallels your life experience. What real-life experience do you have of the journey Mary Oliver describes poetically?