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.

Holy Saturday

by Kris Judd

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.  This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Luke 15:50-556(NRSV)

Death surrounded them, encircled them, and knocked them off their feet. The events of the preceding days had happened so quickly they had no time to fully prepare for the life-changing, hope-betraying crucifixion they had just witnessed. The future that had been so bright, filled with miracles and baptisms and new followers suddenly turned dark, just as the skies that stood over the three crosses just the day before.

Jesus was dead. The dreams to challenge the empire were now dead as well. What would become of these men and women who had given up everything they knew—careers, family, security, status—to follow this crazy dreamer? If they had known it was going to end this way, would they have made the same choices? What was left for them to choose now—now that their world had ended?

Filled with shock, then sadness and fear, they chose to hide, cloistered together. They had been told to wait, but for what? They had waited all of their lives for this Redeemer. Could they wait any longer? What other choices did they have but to wait? They did what was most familiar and perhaps comforting to them in this time of chaos and confusion. They stopped trying to make life work; they observed Sabbath and rested.

For today’s readers, this day offers us Sabbath as well. Holy Saturday extends to us the same invitation to rest in an uncomfortable place where we do not know exactly what we are waiting for, but where we can’t return to what we once had. We live suspended between the familiar and the unseen, between what we know and what we must trust. No wonder we numbly move from the crucifixion to the resurrection, barely noticing the 24 hours in between. It’s too painful to live in this space between death and new life. It’s easier to be in the certainty of one or the other.

Like the early disciples, we live in chaos, confusion, deep sadness, and even fear. The future we had prepared for is no longer visible, and perhaps not even possible, since crucifixion erased those dreams and resurrection hasn’t yet been made real.

Sister Joan Chittister writes, “The spirituality of religious life today is neither the spirituality of the cross nor the spirituality of the resurrection. The spirituality of our time is the spirituality of Holy Saturday: a spirituality of confusion and consternation, of ineffectiveness and powerlessness, of faith in darkness and the power of hope. It is a spirituality that carries on when carrying on seems most futile.”—The Fire in These Ashes, p 41

This day of preparation, Holy Saturday, is a day to carry on into what seems futile and to live in the mystery of endings when we long for new beginnings. This is a day to surrender into an agenda that is not our own, in a world where our vision of what makes sense gives way to a future that is not tied to our desires or plans. Without the dying, there will be no new life or transformation for us or for the world. On this day, let us rest, release control, and simply make space for that which will be soon unwrapped before us.

Daily Lenten Reflection

And, always remember, the way of suffering love that leads to the cross also leads to resurrection and everlasting life in Christ’s eternal community of oneness and peace. Trust in this promise. –Stephen M. Veazey, Words of Counsel 2013

We do not seek out suffering, but it happens. There is no neat theological explanation for the Good Friday moments of life that can satisfy my deepest questions. And yet, we can see how it is often through enduring what we would never choose that we find ourselves transformed into who we really are. When asked to draw a map of my spiritual life, the relationship between the lowest points and the most growth becomes abundantly clear. In our aching Gethsemane prayers we dare to utter what is most real in us. There is no time for fancy wording or even right theology. What was once abstract becomes sharp immediacy. And it is here, in this journey to the cross, right in the middle of what we’ve tried to avoid, that we discover the presence of the One who is truly in all things even in the places we’d rather not be.

And it is here, in our dying, that the seed of resurrection breaks open, shedding even its own seed-identity to become fullest life beyond what we can imagine or hope. This is the threshold we dare to cross. This is the promise we dare to hold. –Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering 

Reflect: 

  • When have you discovered the presence of God even in a place you would rather not be?
  • What is the invitation of Holy Week in your life this year? What promise do you dare to hold?
  • Prayerfully dwell with the words of counsel. What is God’s invitation to you in this text?