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. 

The River

by Dustin Davis

One day I discover that deep inside my heart a river flows. So deep is this river that before I stumbled upon it – quite by accident mind you – I never knew it existed. Even as this river is new to me I can tell it is an ancient river, its banks carving out the landscape long before. What a delight to find such an unexpected surprise in what I thought was the well-mapped terrain of my heart!

Time and time again I return to the river. Its beauty is at times beyond comprehension or expression, and it seems enough to simply sit along the edge and take in the dazzling sight. So much of this river still remains a mystery. I don’t know its source or to where it stretches over the horizon. And what to name it? The River of Life, the Flow, the Living Water, the Force, the One…

I decide that I should build a place to live along the shore of this river, as majestic as it is. Who wouldn’t want to live amongst such scenery? Stone by stone I build my dwelling. It is hard work! When I grow tired from my labor I walk to the river to rest, to get a drink. How refreshing! Most times I return quickly to the task at hand, but sometimes I linger. “Drink of me and never thirst again,” the river quietly whispers, lapping at the shore.

My stone house grows very large. It has more rooms than I had originally planned. It appears impressive to some, though I never seem satisfied. Its walls are too high, and it’s hard to see the river outside because the windows are too small, too few. It does offer a certain level of shelter and comfort, but then what’s the point of living so near the river, I catch myself wondering.

There are times when I leave my house to marvel at the river. “Never thirst again,” it invites me. Drawn by its cool, healing waters, I actually wade into the river. It moves swiftly around me, the current gentle but strong. What a feeling to be part of the river, to be part of something more! I swim out from the shore and am caught in the current. I begin to flail and flounder. I can’t touch the riverbed below. Already I am swept down the river away from my house. I try desperately to swim upstream, fighting the current. In a matter of mere moments I am exhausted and gasping for breath. Finally, once I reach my familiar shore and my house, I pull myself from the river and collapse on the dry ground.

At night I sit and look at the river from inside my house. It sparkles in the moonlight, the stars reflecting on the smooth surface. It was exhilarating to be swept of my feet, but startling nonetheless. I have too many questions and not enough answers it seems. Should I risk going back in? I wonder. What if I am swept away for good? What if I end up so far down the river I can’t make it back? What will happen to my house that I’ve worked so hard to build? My lovely view of the river will be lost! Do the waters turn choppy? Are there rapids? A waterfall? I realize that I can’t control the river.

“Be still,” the water calls, and I go outside. Even though I can’t see where the river flows beyond the horizon I imagine it flowing where all rivers flow, to the ocean. My deepest longing is to float along the river, not fighting, not struggling, but riding the twists and the turns and the rapids. My deepest longing is to float in that Great Ocean at the end, held aloft by the buoyancy of the loving voice that assures me, “You are mine.”

I stick my feet back in the river.

Not Passivity

Lenten Practice: Centering Prayer
Daily Act: Practice deep breathing throughout your day. Whenever an emotion is triggered that would cause you to be anxious, stressed, or angry, take as many deep breaths as needed to rest in God’s presence. Allow your responses to flow from this presence.
Weekly Prayer Phrase:

I dwell in you as the source of all life.

“Contemplation is a very dangerous activity. It not only brings us face to face with God. It brings us, as well, face to face with the world, face to face with the self. And then, of course, something must be done.” –Joan Chittister

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

This isn’t about passivity
The spiritual life is
Not a practice in being
Overly nice while
Injustice persists surrounding

It isn’t about fleeing
To a warm, safe space
Secluded from the
Wild dangers
Of the real world

That seems important to say
At the beginning

It is about living from
That space deeper

It is about making
Whatever adjustments are required
In each moment
A response is provoked
That would honor the
God-life in the
Center of our beings
Yearning to come to expression
For the sake of shalom made real

If you would but dare
To suspend your own preferences
And opinions
And enter the deepest inward space
Where the God of wisdom
And justice resides
You will discover
The same source of
Courage
Vision
Compassion
As Isaiah
Hosea
Micah

If you will live
From this space
As the source of all action
It will lead you
Right into the real
This beautiful, wild world
That you are called to love
And transform
In holy ways