Like many of us, I suspect, there are times when my spiritual life feels spacious and calm like an open field at night; times when it feels dry and dusty and eerily silent like the desert; and times when it feels like a train wreck. And then there are times when I could simply shrug and ask, ‘what spiritual life??’.
I appreciate the value of sabbath rest and have come to love the calm that falls over Tiberias on a Friday evening, and I’ve tried to incorporate some of that stillness into my own days off. But somehow I feel uncomfortable appropriating this observance for my own use.
I appreciate the value of daily prayer, of asking for protection in the night, welcoming the morning, and giving thanks for the day that is past in the evening. But it is a spiritual discipline I am not good at keeping when I am not in community.
I appreciate the value of ‘devotional time’ or dedicated quiet time each day to spend in prayer and reading the scriptures. But with a fluid schedule, working sometimes from home, sometimes on the road, it’s another practice which has too often fallen down the list of priorities.
I appreciate the value of having a rule of life. But just the name brings out the rebel and free-spirit in me.
There are seasons when each works and seasons when none do. A whole different blog post could be written on this idea of what we mean by ‘work’ when we’re talking about spending time with God. But I think what I mean here is that there are times when these various practices go beyond being disciplines and instead feel like straightjackets. They leave me feeling panicked, claustrophobic, guilty, like a failure at life, at prayer, at priesthood. (This is where a good spiritual director is necessary. And yes, I do have someone I speak with about these things.)
I’ve just discovered Bonnie Gray’s book Finding Spiritual Whitespace.
It’s a raw, vulnerable book about her experience of PTSD and writing, anxiety and spirituality, prayer and therapy. It delves deep into her own past traumas, but at the same time, it invites the reader to find her own white space, the often called ‘negative’ space which balances design, provides a focus, allows the eyes to rest, and holds the weight of the story being told. Each chapter ends with a few reflective questions, rich with imagery to engage with.
Every designer, architect, photographer, gallery curator, sculptor knows the importance of white space.
I’ve long been an advocate of it in the little bit of design work or photography I do. Though like many of us, I’m often too hesitant to incorporate as much white space as I should.
I have to confess I haven’t read very far in Gray’s book yet. It’s one I will likely set down and pick up. But the title alone has been a gift.
I often found myself lamenting to my spiritual director back in Scotland: ‘Daily prayer just has so many words. I need more space and silence’.
So the sparse language of poetry is where I turn when I need to learn to breathe again.
When even that is too much, I turn to art.
Here when the stories flow like blood and words rain like bullets, I turn to music and the treadmill.
The ultimate aim of finding white space is no doubt the same as observing a sabbath, saying daily prayer, having devotional time, creating a rule of life.
But instead of feeling like one more discipline to take on, another task to add to my diary, another practice to fail at, another rule I’ll inevitably break, ‘finding spiritual white space’ feels like an invitation into spaciousness. A pause deeper and more refreshing than rest. An emptiness which makes the already beautiful more luminous. A participation in God’s own extravagant creativity. A balance that strengthens and heals.
In just over a month, I will be back in ‘my’ cottage in Invershin in Scotland, the place I go once a year to breathe deeply, the place where I watch the sunrise over a cup of tea and watch the most spectacular sunsets over a glass of wine, the place of cloud-watching and stargazing, the place of daydreams, the place of tears, the place of prayer, the place of rest.
I’ve never felt comfortable calling it a retreat. Now I know what it really is: a week of white space.