The advent season directs our hearts toward anticipation and waiting. The imagery abounds in birth and gestational language. I wonder about Mary. The waiting for her, surely was a juxtaposition of wonder and fear, perhaps terror. We can only surmise what Mary was feeling. Never before had a human being been given the immense privilege and responsibility of being the womb for the Deity.
Imagine the fear, a labeled woman, whose reputation would be forever altered and her standing in society compromised. Without the intervention of an angel, her beloved Joseph could have cast her out. I have a sense that this young girl, would have had to give up her dreams, those she had envisioned for her life. An angel’s declaration, a life forever changed. Shock. Waiting. Confusion. Belief. Acceptance. I am amazed at how quickly she moved between these states of being. Perhaps, this speaks to her intimacy with Yahweh and the reason she was the chosen one.
As I sit with this astounding narrative, I wonder, what does waiting cost us? In this gestational time of waiting we call advent, what is being formed in us? We often pray and wait. This is not an easy place to settle. Waiting is not always bursting with joyful anticipation. Sometimes waiting requires a deep trust and a blind faith. Can we cry out like Mary, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1), in the presence of confusion and mystery?
This is a difficult posture, especially when waiting has cost and our lives are shrouded in mystery. May this advent season be one where mystery and deep joy respectfully sit together. “Oh, Holy One, be present to us in the time of waiting. Turn our hearts toward You. Give us a sense of Your redemptive and generative work, even in the times when we are blanketed in mystery. (If you are able, take some time to listen to Youtube, Martin Smith, Waiting Here for You).
As I begin preparing my heart for advent, I think of the expectant words of Jan Richardson,
“In the cave of our hearts, in the fabric of our lives, in the soul of the earth, You continue, Oh God to be Born”. (In Wisdom’s Path).
Birth, only the process of continuation. The work of God, never ending, not fully recognized. I wonder what our lives would look like if we truly lived in the space of continual revelation? What is being incubated right now? What would be birthed in us?
Healthy birth happens when the time of incubation is complete. When a child is born too early, problems occur. So, we sit with the tensions of readiness. This is the gracious space where the Holy One meets us, loves us and enters fully into the beauty, the creative process of our lives. It is a place of where impatience can grow and we desire to hasten the process. We may ask the childlike question, “Are we there yet?”
In this space we are given a Divine invitation, the invitation to slow down, listen, and cooperate with the continuation process. It is a place where trust and endurance can grow. In our haste to run for results, or to move ourselves out of mystery or pain we can bypass the work of grief, anger, fear, or anticipation, to name a few. What if God whispers to us, “Not yet” or the dreaded, “Not this”? Can we trust the Holy One in those places?
As you step closer to this advent season, if you are able, take some time with these images. What is God doing in your life right now? Where are the tensions in your life, that may in fact be birthing canals? Invite God into your own process of continuation. Take time to notice places where you desire to hasten the process. These are places for stopping, honoring and listening. Could these places of tension become places of invitation and hope?
Oh God, fill us with wonder and compassion as we wait for what is being born in us today. Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
by Mary Oliver
Poetry has a way of speaking beneath the surface of things. It opens us up to the possibility of more than we can rationally know. Mary Oliver speaks of her desire for quiet and simplicity. The trees offer her the invitation of both the possibility of her desire and the way forward.
A dear person copied this poem for me today, and it speaks deeply to the unquiet held in all the tasks I have to complete and the quiet offered when I walk in the forested path behind my house. I can easily lose all the busyness in my world when I enter the opening to this path among the trees. It is from a place of quiet that I sense my soul settle in. Have you ever encountered a contemplative walk of listening with all your senses to your surroundings?
May I invite you to try it out? First, start down the path with a pause as you embark with the intention to be aware that you are in God’s presence. Then pay attention to all your senses.
Close your eyes and listen to all the sounds around you: the birds, the insects, the rain falling, your foot moving the rocks beneath, people talking, and the wind blowing through the trees.
Then open your eyes and notice the variety and shades of colors in the shadows and the sunlight. Draw your attention to your sense of smell; what do you notice as you focus on the scents around you. Remember, your sense of smell is connected to your sense of taste.
Lastly, notice your body and how it moves along the path, your heart beating, and your lungs moving the air in and out. Draw your attention to the way the sun, wind, or rain feels against your skin. All of these different means of sense create a symphony of sounds, sights, scents, and sensations.
I have discovered that a regular practice of this kind of spiritual practice helps me settle in my inner journey and to move more grounded in my outer world. I would love to hear your thoughts as you encounter this kind of exercise.
As I leave you to enjoy a space of trees for yourself, I have one more poem to share by Wendell Berry..
I’ve been doing some reading for my spiritual formation doctorate program about how to walk alongside communities of faith. The books span across a range of theological understandings and disciplines, such as theology, sociology, and psychology. I am finding that I am resistant to the traditional models presented. I think part of that is due to my own journey toward wholeness and my prior understandings.
For example, most of my life, I have forced myself to meet the expectations of others. I have grown to understand that complying was part of being responsible and a “good Christian.” Through the last few years, I have been on the journey of noticing when I am forcing myself and then following the invitation of healing and wholeness with gentleness and grace.
When I notice my tendency to force myself to fit in or “do right,” I stop and listen to what is going on internally for me. In doing so, I listen to my desires and woundings to discover the way forward. Listening deeply to my soul requires intentionality. David Benner defines our soul as the reflective space where we make meaning of our experience from the events throughout our lives. Using his psychological lens, he further defines both our soul and spirit as ways of living instead of as traditionally understood as parts of ourselves. 
An essential component in this journey is our tendency for self-deception. The truth is every one of us shares this same struggle, and we are unaware. The Johari window is a means of communicating that struggle visually. It illustrates our inner selves as being divided into four parts. One part we know and so do others, this would be our most visible part. One part we know but we do not let others see our private world. Others can see one part, but we are not aware of its hidden aspects inside ourselves. The last part is unknown to both us and others.
Spiritual writers would use the language of false self and true self. A greater self-awareness allows us to know our own tendency toward self-deception. As we continue to build up what we “should” be like, we tend not to notice our own actions or our motivations. At times, we may choose to not be aware of our internal workings but often we do not know how to live any differently and remain unaware.
For example, let’s consider the practice of gratefulness. If someone from my spiritual direction practice came in and spoke about being restless or discontent, I would not encourage a practice of gratefulness. That would devalue what was going on internally for them. If someone felt restless or dissatisfied, I would wonder what is underneath those feelings. What is the invitation for them?
Often, these seemingly negative feelings are an invitation to greater freedom in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. I would encourage someone meeting with me to share more about their struggles. I might even walk them through a healing prayer where they take their feelings or an image that represents that feeling to God to discover God’s view. It is in a place of non-judgment where we can begin to understand what is going on inside of ourselves and to begin to see our own belovedness in God’s gaze. I trust God to meet each of us in our struggles. Through our experience of being met by God, we can realize all of us belongs in God’s intimate gaze.
I would say that the practice of gratefulness would only enforce our false self. Experiencing God meeting us in our ungratefulness, discontentment, or restlessness, allows healing, integrating our false self and true self. I’ve seen experiences like this bring peace to people, and their presenting problem falls away to a greater understanding and a deeper intimacy with God.
Often, the lies we believe in our core are replaced with a core truth, bringing gratefulness that arises organically within and can’t help but be expressed externally toward others. We don’t have to act it out when we don’t feel the truth of it – being grateful when all we want to do is complain because of pain, hurt, or a core lie we have held for our lifetime.
Practicing gratefulness isn’t the problem but pretending to be grateful when all we feel is discontent isn’t helpful. We do not need to “fake it till we make it.” When we discover ourselves as restless and ungrateful, a practice we can embrace, instead of complaining, is first to notice what is going on in our hearts without judgment. Non-judgment means not assigning a value of good or bad to our noticings. Once we notice, we can listen with God about what is going on in our soul and allow God to show God’s view. As we experience the grace and gentleness of God, we can encourage others in this open, gentle, and compassionate way.
 David G Benner, Spirituality and The Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 121, 137.
I recently re-read Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. It was first published in 1999, just as I was beginning full-time pastoral ministry. Twenty years later, after retiring from being a pastor and with the benefit of life experiences over the past years, this book provided an entry for cultural and personal reflection. I appreciate Rolheiser’s humility in stating upfront his focus on Christian spirituality and “acknowledges God speaks in many and diverse ways, and no one religion has a monopoly on truth.” My experience of listening and experiencing God in different cultures and through different people has resulted in greater freedom, joy, and awe. I have caught glimpses of God in a variety of pools of wisdom in and outside the Christian tradition.
Foundational to this book is the belief that everyone has a spirituality, but it is not clearly understood as to its meaning and source. Rolheiser uses the word eros to describe the fiery energy at the center of our lives – a sacred fire of creative energy that drives our spirituality and Christian practices. He suggests we are not restful or serene creatures, and eros is connected to our seeking and searching. For me, the words wrestling, passion, desire, intimacy, and longing come to mind.
Twenty years ago, Rolheiser already recognized our cultural context was post-Christian and post-modern. I was certainly not as aware of this shift as I am now. In hindsight, the significance of this transition for individuals and religious institutions in the West means we are navigating new terrain and traveling off-the-map. Phyllis Tickle described an every 500-year cycle of historical upheaval as rummage sale. We take furniture out of the attic and decide what to keep and what to let go of to make room for new acquisitions.
A key quote from Holy Longing continues to resonate with me for its relevancy in our current cultural context:
“Each generation has its own dark night of the soul, its own particular temptation to despair, as it tries to find peace of soul and make peace with its God. Our own dark night of spirituality is very much shaped by our naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy; by a conspiracy against death and prayer caused by narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness of our age; and by our inability to hold in tension a series of dualities.”
My experience of carrying tension within myself and with others during this rummage sale moment feels vulnerable, risky, and isolating. Rolheiser writes, “Accepting to carry tension for the sake of God, love, truth, in principle, is the mysticism that is most needed in our day. Almost everything within our culture invites us to avoid tension and resolve it whenever possible even at the cost of some of our more noble instincts....Waiting in frustration and consummation is not our strong point"
Connecting mysticism with holding tension in our off-road terrain is a hopeful insight regarding a way of faithfulness with only enough light for the next step. For some, mysticism is suspect, but the writings of the mystics have shaped my spirituality and the Quaker tradition. For instance, the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, recounts many mystical experiences in his journal. Friends across time and places have gathered together in the silence of Waiting Worship to listen together seeking guidance, comfort, and encounter with Presence in their midst.
Some of my favorite Christian mystics include Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and the unnamed author of the Cloud of Unknowing. These mystics offer a language of interconnection and hospitality toward themselves and others. Their understanding continually disrupts and invites us to expand our framework regarding the how and why of God and how we make meaning of our world. I find the notion that we must all be mystics and live in mystery, to be life-giving and expansive. This mystery is not something to be solved but a mystery that continues to unfold and suggests we must wake-up to all the different ways of knowing. This unfolding invites us to trust our inner experience in addition to the certitude often valued in statements of doctrine and belief.
What helps us wake-up? How do we make space for our new understanding of experience and learning? What allows us to hold tension as we seek connection and meaning within the pressure of unanswered questions and shifting times? A word closely associated with the mystics is contemplation, which describes a way of life that allows for inner stillness and silence that opens up and syncs the knowing of the head, the heart, and the gut. This movement of integration allows us to heal our distorted and limited vision and wake-up to experiences of Divine encounter all around us. We will take a more in-depth look at this invitation in the next blog post.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality, 1st Ed. in U.S.A (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 41.
 Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012).
 Rolheiser, 40.
 Rolheiser, 224.
 Rolheiser, 216.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!