Sustaining the Gaze

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

I open the curtains revealing a sliver of moon and two stars in a brightening blue sea of morning sky. It awakens delight. I linger in a moment of sustained gaze until I feel the nudge of tasks pressing in the unfolding day. There are many distractions available to me at all times. Even in the face of stunning beauty I feel an itch of impatience.

The disciplines of patience and presence need to develop in me. What would it be like to sit with a landscape until I am no longer entertained by it, to let myself belong there, to allow two stars and a barely visible sliver of light speak deep into my soul about our shared identity as universe?

What if I stayed long enough to see this golden hue creeping up behind barren wintry trees, day greeting night and a turning happening that I can see and that I can’t– the wonder of living on a planet and the miracle of those perfect conditions that daily sustain all life?

And what does the constant need to be entertained say about the state of my soul? What does it say about a lack of respect for my inherent interdependence with the very things I reduce to offerings of fleeting pleasure? We consumers try to consume the whole cosmos. It feels like a hollow endeavor.

I can waste an hour on social media busying my mind, the satisfaction of a continual array of new images for this over-stimulation addiction, but I can hardly stand 10 minutes of gazing in wonder at the colors of dawn. What great spiritual deficit is this causing in me, in my culture? Always on the surface of everything at once, will we one day forget how to be with the “one thing needful” which draws us deeper, deeper, deeper? (Luke 10:42)

Will we forget how to make space to hear the One Voice through the many multiplying voices always around us?

These desert-waiting-preparing places in the spiritual tradition are not for rigid self-denial but holy fulfillment, which comes through emptying and entering those darkened doorways of the soul to discover the living love residing within, awakening us to the living love residing in all! And this experience cannot be bought. It does not promise to entertain. It is radical amazement beyond the realm of image or word at all. It is the speechless awe that must have filled the shepherds on the night of the birth of Christ when their ordinary landscape was suddenly ablaze with divine proclamation.

I wonder if they sustained the gaze, or if they worried about the sheep, or if they eventually turned away because “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets).

“God gently lures us into intimacy,” writes Norvene Vest, “and unexpectedly explodes us into mystery. Such encounters with mystery are simply too much for most of us until our capacity expands and our tolerance increases.” (Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings)

What if I dared to stay in the impatience-itch, to stay with the holy-ache from too much mystery or beauty all at once?

What if I resisted the addiction to move to the next thing, and the next,
and simply remained present long enough
to hear the voice of the Holy around me,
to feel the movement of the Holy within me?

What if Advent is about increasing our tolerance for divine mystery, expanding our capacity to bear it?

So that in it’s arrival
We are ready,
Present enough,
To receive it
To live it
To let it amaze us
And sustain the gaze…

So that we no longer observe
But belong
With the new-day stars
And sliver of moonlight
And the whole Holy landscape
Of everything coming to birth.

Spiritual Practice: Whether in holy attention, or prayer, or conversation stay present just a little longer than you normally would. Allow yourself to dwell deeply in one place for a while. What does it look like in your soul to increase your tolerance for receiving the Holy?

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