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?

Holy Impatience

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

In 1963, while Martin Luther King Jr. was in the Birmingham, Alabama jail, he received criticism from white clergy for being “unwisely and untimely.” His response, written from his cell, may be one of the most powerful pieces on the urgency of justice and the tension of privilege.

On the subject of waiting he writes, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’ …. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Advent is the season for waiting, which sharpens our attention to how we wait and what we are waiting for. It is easy to say that in general I am waiting for shalom, for the birth of Christ’s peace into the world. It is harder to get specific, especially when the particular prompts painful transformation within me and the systems I rely on.

From a place of privilege, I confess that I sometimes manipulate the waiting into procrastination. The white clergy in the 1960s were uncomfortable with King’s civil disobedience. They knew what was coming was nothing less than radical reform and the cost was high. It called for confrontation of not only a racist society, but also the lingering racism in their own hearts. “Just wait- I’m not ready,” they said, not maliciously as much as fearfully.

In the glitter and glow of this almost-Christmas time, I can forget the high cost of the birth of Christ that is almost upon us. In the waiting of Advent, we are not sitting passive or idle. We are allowing the Spirit to work within us. We are noticing the signs of our deepest hope coming alive along the way. We are cultivating the ground of soul for the God-seed that will die and become bread at the tables of the hungry. We are hearing with greater receptivity the impatient cries of the most vulnerable and oppressed with whom the Christ we wait for spent his life. When Advent comes to an end, when the waiting is over, will we have the courage to accept the new life placed in our hands for the healing of the world?

We must honestly discern within ourselves,
For what am I waiting expectant? (Poised)
For what do I procrastinate the arrival? (Resistant)

We learn slowly that this Advent waiting is not a linear process that happens once a year. The Christian seasons reveal to us the rhythms and patterns of life found consistently in discipleship. We know Christ’s peace is already here, accessible and urgent. We know it is coming, always being revealed. We hold this paradox in our hearts as we face the enormity of injustice before us. The waiting is for the forming of our lives into the Christ who gives all for the sake of others. We are to discern carefully, in every season, when action is required and when patience is action. This requires maturity in the spiritual life, honesty about our motivations, and the desire to be deeply rooted in God’s Spirit as the source of all movement, as was the Christ we await.

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” writes Dr. King, “… We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

How are we called to use time constructively and creatively this Advent season for the particulars of Christ’s peace to change our lives and world?

This Advent, may we grow legitimately and unavoidably impatient for justice.

Spiritual Practice: Repeat the two questions above in your own heart to discover where you wait expectant and where you procrastinate the prompting of the transforming Spirit. Pray for the courage to be a co-worker with God, attentive to each moment where the time is ripe to do what is right.

If you want to read the whole Letter from Birmingham Jail, you can find the text here:

The Slow Work of God

by Shandra Newcom

“Trust in the slow work of God.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

When I was pregnant with my son, 15 years ago, I found myself in a place of waiting. I was waiting for him to grow and waiting for him to be born. It took all I had to discover the patience within that allowed me to wait with anticipation and promise.

I like things to happen quickly. I’m a fast reader, thinker, and mover. But being pregnant brought with it a slowing down that really forced me to wait for the time to be right. I learned that I could live into a place of patience and soon enough, my child was born. And, of course, he was worth the wait.

I think I’ve learned to move quickly, from a culture that teaches us that individualism and self-concern are primary. If I move fast I don’t have to pay attention to people around me who may be suffering, who may be in pain. I can walk or drive by folks on street corners, look away when I pass someone in tears, not engage when someone wants to tell their story in a way that asks me to stop and listen. I can live in my own little world, safely insulated from the cares and concerns of others who may need something from me. And safely insulated from the relationships they offer when I realize that I need something from them too. There’s a back and forth, a give and take that I miss when I breeze through life. The way to experience deep and abiding love in relationship is through time and commitment to community.

The culture in which I live tries to keep me from this deep well of engagement. I feel the need to have an encounter with the Divine but I’m taught to look for that feeling of peace in the stuff I buy or the things I think I need. But what I don’t need is more stuff, more things, more ways to ignore the real lives of those around me, more ways to ignore myself. I can surround myself, insulate myself, with stuff and I will still be lonely, still desire communion with God, still feel empty.

God comes in the quiet times, the times when things do not have a hold on you. God comes in the waiting moments, the times when you pause and pray. God comes in the patient listenings, the times you open to peace and hear with your whole heart.

And this is not a quick fix for the problems you carry within you. This is not a sudden departure from concern or pain. This is a window into peace that brings patience and hope. This is a waiting for a birth that promises to be transforming.

We can’t jump there from here. We can’t skip over the journey. We can’t buy our way into the story. Our stuff won’t get us there quicker. In fact, the opposite is true. We must wait and walk together. We must stop and listen to each other. We must be counter-cultural and ask more questions than we give answers. We must give away the stuff that surrounds our heart and keeps us from feeling deeply, no matter if that stuff is what we bought at the store or gathered from our past or built on our own.

The slow work of God is leading us to new life. In patience we find promise. Our birthing pangs point us to possibility. Let us wait and slow down so that we will not miss anything. Let us join together to live this process in community so that all will be welcomed. Let us be together on the journey, stripped bare of the trappings of the season and filled with the heart of Christ.

Spiritual Practice: Approach prayer with the intention of patiently listening. Allow yourself to simply be present to God in the silence.