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.

Daily Lenten Reflection

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. –1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV

Nighttime in the desert is as still and quiet as you could ever hope to find, a silence broken only by human activity. The usual night sounds one experiences outdoors – the rustle of wind in tree branches, the rushing sound of water tumbling over the boulders of a mountain stream, the stealthy movements of night-loving animals – are virtually absent. The nature of life in the deep desert is different, much more subdued, a signal of the lack of something, the apparent absence of that which sustains life: water. –Laurie Gordon, The God of Barren Landscapes

Reflection: 

  • How does a different landscape awaken you to the absence of what is normally present? What is absent in your interior landscape this Lent?
  • Pay attention to what you would normally see, experience, and hear in your daily life. What would you notice lacking if, for a time, you entered a space as “still and quiet as you could ever hope to find?”
  • Prayerfully dwell with 1 Kings 19:11-13. What is God’s invitation to you in this text?

I Cannot Go to Bethlehem

By Susan Oxley

I cannot go to Bethlehem.
Life moves too quickly.
The press of people blocks my way.
In the noise and confusion, the clutching of hands, I feel no angel wings.
You who are caught in the maddening whirl of activity, trapped in a crowded inn,
Peace. Be still. God comes to you quietly, in a stable, singing in you his new song.
Let your heart be a listening hillside, and the brush of angel wings will follow.

I cannot go to Bethlehem.
There’s too much sorrow and despair.
Grown people turn away, unfeeling, uncaring. Death reigns supreme.
How can I believe in a Baby? I hear no announcement of good news.
You who brood in sadness, by the echoing chasm of grief,
Remember the one who comes and abides. God With Us, Emmanuel.
Touch Him in your winter loneliness, hear him as a shout against despair,
Until, transformed by grace, your griefs become your joy.

I cannot go to Bethlehem.
Doubts and questions bar my way.
Fear whispers from all sides.
Journeys require faith—don’t ask me to go. I hear no songs of faith.
You who search and doubt and journey,
The Word has been shaped by love, spoken in fire, captured in flesh.
Traveler, have faith in beginnings and believe in preparation beyond knowing.
Kneel in the whispers of the mind, in the doubts of the night, and hear faith being born.

I cannot go to Bethlehem.
Inside, there is darkness, cold silence, empty echoes.
The voice I hear is only your darkness speaking to my darkness.
Without light, I can’t find the way. I see no stars to guide me in the night.
You who live in darkness, prisoner of the winter that knows no spring,
The people of echoes and silence have seen a great light!
Believe in a brightness that is beyond you, surrounding, invading, within you.
This Advent, let us all go to Bethlehem, and find our kneeling places.

Spiritual Practice: Spend a few moments in silence, breathing deep and listening within. Where do you find yourself reluctant? Where do you find yourself hopeful? What are the strongest movements within you at the beginning of this Advent Journey? What is the state of your heart as you make this journey?

Click the image above for a free Advent Spiritual Retreat resource.
Click the image above for a free Advent Spiritual Retreat resource.