Widening Our Inward Spaces

A Journey Through Advent
by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries

I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!

–2 Corinthians 6:11-13, The Message

It was a morning like any other. Out of habit, I reached for my smartphone prepared to scroll through social media and news reports to prolong the time before I needed to drag myself out of bed. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of sunlight creeping in the spaces between the blinds and the window. Suddenly, like thunder in the soul, was a memory of life before my smartphone when I would wake up every morning simply to the light in the room.

I put down my phone. Without being too dramatic, I overcame the immense urge to fill the space and simply entered it just for a few minutes. I laid there in the silence of morning and witnessed the light slowly brightening the room. I breathed. I noticed what was on my mind. I felt what was on my heart. It was three minutes, maybe five, before I finally pulled off the covers and made my way to the kitchen to start the coffee. Time, which normally moves way too fast, slowed down. A spaciousness opened within me.

I am concerned that our inward spaces are becoming too crowded in an age of everything-at-once all-the-time. The inner resources we most need to access as we attempt to meaningfully engage with the complexities of this moment are just waiting for our attention. There have always been sources of distraction, but they are growing louder and multiplying. We must be even more intentional to pause the constant immersion in new information to be present with what may be seeking expression within.

Nir Eyal teaches programmers and tech entrepreneurs how to create habit-forming products. He observes that, “feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” (Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Penguin Random House, 2014, p.48). Technology (while it can also be beneficial) is one of many ways that I attempt to “quell the negative sensation” instead of listening deeper into my boredom or loneliness. You may have your own list!

This isn’t a new concept, but we have perfected the art of distraction in today’s society. When Henri Nouwen wrote Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life in 1975, he couldn’t possibly have predicted the myriad ways to distract ourselves today, but his words ring true, “creating space is far from easy in our occupied and preoccupied society. And still, if we expect any salvation, redemption, healing, and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Doubleday, 1975, p. 60).

This Advent, I am craving “salvation, redemption, healing, and new life” for the whole of creation. As the divide seems to be widening between us, I yearn to widen the space within myself to receive the Sacred Other. I yearn to widen space within to pay attention to the inner voices that speak with the intention of bringing wholeness. I want to be open enough to receive the “something” that can still happen to us. A wise friend reminds me that “Spirit is always seeking incarnation” even in me, even in those with whom I disagree, and in all the places I neglect seeing because I am too busy or distracted to notice. I want desperately to wake up to where God is moving here and now so that I can follow my deep longing to participate. To notice, I must make the time to see. I must create the space for the “Spirit to breathe.”

Christine Valters Paintner describes the practice of hospitality in our inward spaces:
“When you find yourself resisting an inner voice or shutting your inner door on it, take some time to intentionally invite this voice inside to the table. Ask it what is has come to tell you. Listen past the first layer, which may sound ugly or painful, and tend to the layers underneath. This takes time, much like growing in intimacy with a friend… It is in this place of hospitality to the unknown where we encounter God… We learn to make space within ourselves because on the other side of the voices that disturb us we find the gift of wisdom waiting for us” (The Artist’s Rule, Sorin Books, 2011, p.99).

I believe there are simple ways that we can open the space to listen more deeply to the inner voices we so often resist. When you enter a silent space, linger long enough to take a deep breath before you fill it with image or sound. Pay attention to how often you reach for your smartphone or computer throughout the day. Pause to listen within to what you are feeling and why before you respond to posts on social media or in conversations with friends or family. Take time for silence, even if it’s just a couple minutes.

Perhaps creating space to listen within is one of the most important things we can do to respond with integrity and depth to the urgencies of this moment. Nouwen’s wisdom still speaks into our realities when he proclaims that, “we cannot change the world by a new plan, project, or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice, and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Doubleday, 1975, p. 60).

May we widen the space within ourselves, and for one another, this Advent season.
Into this space, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
And still, and always, he does.

Widening the Spaces: Preparing for Advent

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries 

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been hearing a frustrated weariness coming from many as we approach the Advent season this year. Globally, we have been frightened and grieving as violence, despair, and division threaten to settle in as the new norm. Turning toward a season luminous with joy and hope, I struggle to embrace its arrival, wondering what “new thing” there could possibly be to bring, wondering how an ancient story might still form and guide us in these challenging times.

How do we prepare our hearts to live again this story of Christ’s birth into our lives and world? This Advent, we are invited into a practice of sacred opening to God, self, others, and creation. While the temptation is often to shut down and withdraw, Advent reminds us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by opening up with courageous presence to reality as it is, wherever we are. Something is happening, whispers the mystery of this season of hope. Can we gather the strength of heart to still trust that Spirit will become incarnate even where we least expect, for the healing of our world?

Each week during this season, we will contemplate widening the spaces in our lives and relationships. Perhaps the gift that Advent can bring this year is a sacred opening of those spaces within and around us which have become too crowded or closed. The more we open, the more we will be able to receive of the divine presence that is already here and always arriving.

A few practices can guide our way as we journey through the Advent season:

Opening Space Within: Resist the distractions that are often used to fill the time. Pay attention to what emerges as you listen into your inner spaces. This can be as simple as choosing not to reach for your smart phone while standing in line or spending the first couple minutes of the morning present to what you are feeling as you start the new day.

Opening Space with Others: Pay attention to the ways you interact, and react, with others (family, friends, colleagues, strangers). Intentionally take a posture of listening in your relationships rather than filling the space with your own stories or opinions. Keep your heart open to people with whom you disagree. Become more open in relationship with others by risking vulnerability.

Opening Space for Spirit: Find time each day to enter a few moments of silence, to be present with God. It could be a deep breath when entering the car for the morning commute, or an intentional pause between activities. Let this question gently interrupt you throughout the day, “Where is the Spirit present right here, right now?

Opening Space Around: Open wider your own boundaries of belonging. Explore a new part of your neighborhood, form of prayer, or relationship. We often get caught in the routines that encircle our lives with unintended boundaries of comfort and familiarity. Embrace a wider belonging by being present in a new place or with a new person.

May we dare to open wider to incarnation possibility in every relationship, in every place! 

Additional Advent Resources:

Upcoming Events:

Get the early-bird registration for our upcoming spiritual retreat when you register by January 1, 2018. “The Awakened Heart” Contemplative Retreat at Happy Valley Conference Center. February 16-18, 2018

Spiritual Formation and Companioning Program Applications are due by January 26, 2018. For more information, and to apply, visit our brochure. 

Lent: An Invitation to Simplicity and Resistance

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

In the madness of keeping up, a gentler invitation has entered our hearts, revealing the depth of our attachments to status and things. It whispers, “less, less, less”—echoing in the cavernous soul, trembling the foundations of this life we’ve made thus far.

What is small and quiet can become most mighty. Such is the way of Christ. Just one thought planted, proposing an alternative way, screeches to a halt the illusions of success, casting light on the hidden motivations for our money and time. We gasp at how subtle and impactful the neglect of our deepest values can be. We barely remember how, along the way, we traded in these values for a dream that was never truly ours.

What do we really need? What does matter most? Sacred conversations with courageous souls, unwilling to live in the wearying status quo, spark conviction in us anew. We, too, can choose a simpler way—discerning for ourselves what is necessary and what is abundance. Liberation from materialism beckons, release from the incessant cultural chant of “more, more, more.” Sometimes we share stories to share courage. I am grateful for the handfuls of fresh courage we have received.

This Lent, we have asked writers to share their stories of sacred resistance after the model of Jesus in the desert in the Daily Bread Blog (You can subscribe here: http://www.cofchrist.org/blog/daily-bread#!/). They are stories of release and awareness, of growing honesty and hopeful transformation. We invite you to journey this Lenten way with us, finding new courage and conviction in stories shared. How is the Spirit inviting you to resist and release in the desert this Lent?

(Read today’s story, a reflection on Ash Wednesday: http://www.cofchrist.org/daily-bread#!/2262/breathing-life-into-the-dust)

As we receive these stories and consider the intersections with our own, you are also invited into a practice of Spiritual Freedom (click here to access the practice), which is about becoming radically available to God as we discover and release distractions and attachments.

Additional Lenten Resources, including a retreat companion on Sacred Restraint, can be found here: https://spiritualformationcenter.org/news-and-events/lent-2017/

However you practice Lent this year, may it be a time of transformation and renewal for ourselves, our communities, and the world. Blessings of courage as you resist and release along the Lenten way!

Lenten Resource for Individual and Small Group Reflection: screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-5-44-58-pm