I recently read an essay by Cecile Andrews titled “The Spirituality of Everyday Life.” In the essay she talks about the way we fill up the space in our lives with activity. Ask yourself, how often do you find yourself with a free moment, and then reach for your cell phone, or move swiftly onto the next thing, without pausing to enter into a minute or two of silence and “presence?”
There are psychological reasons for avoiding empty spaces throughout the day. Freud noted our habit of repressing unpleasant thoughts and experiences, which bubble up from our subconscious if we give them space. But this, Andrews argues, is precisely what we should be doing. “Space,” she says, “is like sunlight and fresh air toward which the buried uglies of our souls crawl in search of healing.”
She advocates giving time during the day to being. She discovers from her own experience that space, rather than being an empty void, is like a well of creativity and presence. Taking time each day, however long it may be, simply to be, can aid our self-understanding and make us aware of the presence of God. This practice moves us to the boundary of prayer, and for some it can be a way to enable God to bring things to mind. For others, the fear of what may arise from the subconscious will cause them to avoid it. Andrews identifies the area of resistance, “When people tell me they have trouble taking time for prayer or meditation, I often ask them what unpleasant things they might be wanting to avoid.”
It was helpful for me to read her article by chance, during a retreat earlier this month in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. When I first arrived at the retreat center, it took me a couple of days to adjust, because I was used to being busy and having my time occupied with activity. Here it was different: I was freed from my usual obligations and so was free to order each day as I liked. Soon I began to appreciate the sense of peace within and without, and how prayer filled the space once occupied by noise and bustle.
Silence while on retreat offers a number of possibilities: there is space for reflection, for reading and, for me, the practice of Christian meditation. But away from prayer, books, and meditation, one can can simply sit and open up the mind to whatever may come. It is like stepping out from a crowded room into a vast expanse of wilderness. What will I encounter?
It is memory which makes the largest claim on my open and relaxed mind. The first things that come to mind paint a partial picture of a past event. Yet first impressions can be deceptive; the longer I rest, the more other aspects of the event seem to fly in, creating a more rounded picture.
I am aware that memory can be unreliable, but on this occasion the practice of being still and open allowed a particular memory to be formed, which helped me to understand not only what was bad about it, but also what was good. Interestingly, it was the bad part of the memory which arrived first – if I hadn’t made space for a longer period of time, then I would have walked away with a purely negative remembrance of a past event.
In the spaces which God gives us for receptive stillness, Andrews advises us to “seek the truth, not what is comfortable. Seek the real, not the easy.” She advises setting aside some regular time each day, which at first may only be a few minutes. She writes that “a friend began each morning with only the time it took her coffee to percolate.”
This practice is good way of making space for God in your life. One of the insights from my own experience was to see how God was present at a particular time in my life, even though I wasn’t aware of it then. Perhaps in the silence, God was generously sharing his own memory with me? I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I am reassured by the knowledge that God is present throughout our lives and we are carried through by his unfailing love and care.
God’s love be in your heart