“Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or ‘spaced out’ but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation”
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
Where books are mentioned in this post, affiliate links are used.
Last spring, after leading a women’s weekend in Southern California, John and I stayed a few days longer in Carlsbad for some rest before we headed back east. On a slow walk through town, we wandered into a local book shop, the kind where the bookstore owner watches you as you browse the shelves of books that seem to have been placed there since the dawn of time.
It was as if the whole bookshop might fall apart if we removed one book from the shelves so I felt more comfortable right outside the doors where some discounted books were stacked on carts. One marked a dollar caught my eye based on the title alone. It was called The Solace of Open Spaces.
I’d never heard of the author, Gretel Ehrlich, but I bought the book based on the title and a short endorsement by Annie Dillard. It’s only a dollar, I thought. If nothing else, the title alone had already brought me at least a dollars worth of thoughtful reflection.
For over 13 years I’ve been writing under the headline creating space for your soul to breathe. I stand by it as a foundational practice for all of us, not just those of us with introverted personalities or who gravitate toward the contemplative tradition.
Creating space for the soul is part of being a healthy human. Still, I understand while for some of us that phrase sounds delightful, for others, well. Not so much.
What does it mean to create space for the soul and why does it matter?
John and our son were on an evening drive together (they do that sometimes) and I got a text from them telling me to go outside and look at the moon. They know how much I love to see the moon in all her stages but especially when she’s close to full and that night, she was.
But trees surround our house on all sides and by the time the moon rises high enough to see, she’s lost all illusions of grandeur. Still, I went outside and looked.
I love those lush green trees. But I long for open space. Most of the time.
For all the ways I crave space in my surroundings, I have a tendency to avoid it in my soul. When it comes to confronting the reality of our inner life, it’s not all full moons and rolling hills is what I’m saying.
I’m sure you’ve heard the mantras people like to say: be yourself, take care of yourself, protect yourself, love yourself, defend yourself, and express yourself. But, in the words of John Ortberg in his book Soul Keeping:
“What if your self is a train wreck? What do you do then? The more obsessed we are with our selves, the more we neglect our souls.”
Creating space for your soul is not self-obsession. It’s self-awareness in the presence of God.
Soul whiplash is real and it happens to the most faithful and spiritually mature among us.
If what’s going on in my life right now is at the center, that’s what my soul will revolve around, as evidenced by the shame and anxiety I feel when I’m behind, rejected, embarrassed, you name it.
Good circumstance leads to good feelings and experience. Bad circumstance leads to bad feelings and bad experience. It’s a cycle and we’re all caught up in it. And that is what leads to soul whiplash.
“If your soul is healthy, no external circumstance can destroy your life. If your soul is unhealthy, no external circumstance can redeem your life.”
John Ortberg, Soul Keeping
To keep our soul healthy, first we have to admit that invisible things are real, as real as love, hope, loyalty, and excitement.
You can’t touch them or point to them, but we experience them every single day because they’re as real as your living room sofa or the trees in your front yard.
Yes, invisible things are real, but real in a different way. We can’t easily diagnose a sick soul and give it a spoonful of medicine to fix it. When your arm is broken, it’s obvious you need help. What about when your heart is broken?
It’s easy to get tangled up in a fast-paced world: driven, distracted, and productive. But that’s a language the soul doesn’t speak. We can go on that way for many years. Many of us do.
Our invisible soul is often forgotten beneath the demands of everyday life. Creating space for your soul is simply your invitation to remember it. We can decide on purpose to create space so that we remember where we live: in the strong and unshakeable kingdom of God.
It’s about respecting the daily pauses we need to be fully ourselves so that we can be present with God and faithful in our home, our work, and our community.
If you feel like creating space for your soul seems too much like being lazy and doing nothing, the truth is it actually takes more work to create margin than it does to stay busy.
Busy is the default. Margin takes intention.
Here’s the secret that’s hard to believe: there’s still value in creating space for the soul even if you have nothing to show for it. Spending time in the presence of God without an agenda does not come naturally for most of us. But how desperately we need it.
I’m nearly finished with Gretel Erlich’s book. It’s her story but not so much a chronological one. It’s organized more as a collection of essays and for some there may be too much meandering in her writing. As for me, I like her style though it takes some time to settle into. Once I do, I’m always glad.
As I read about her life in Wyoming, I’m struck by the personality of this open space she writes about. It’s romantic in thought but gritty, earthy, and dangerous in reality. It’s offensive, this western space, filled with wild animals and death and harsh extremes; too much snow in winter, not enough water in summer. Almost everything is abundant, but not always in the right direction.
Erlich points out when we see space as Americans, we gravitate toward filling it.
“We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness.”
Facing the space on the inside can feel that way, too. We’ll see the all the extremes of our own shortcomings, all the ways we aren’t quite living the life we long to live. Why would we choose to face all that on purpose?
Because if we turn our back on the shadows within us, we’re also turning our back on the light. If we refuse to see the extreme of our own shortcomings, we’ll also miss the abundance of God’s full-hearted love, the comfort of his presence, the peace that goes beyond what makes sense to us.
As we begin to turn inward, we may first see empty nothingness. But in time, it may turn into sacred space instead. This practice of a transformed perspective does not come quickly.
“As a people, we are not comfortable with waiting. We see it as wasted time and try to avoid it, or at least fill it with trivial busyness. We value action for its own sake. It is hard to trust in the slow work of God.”
Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening
There’s a line from Dallas Willard I’ve heard repeated several times over the years where he says, “If you don’t come apart for a while you will come apart after a while.” We are made in the image of God so what did God do as a human? The life of Jesus makes it so we don’t have to wonder.
When God came to earth in the person of Jesus, he got away alone, took time apart from the crowds. Even though he remained in constant communion with his Father when he walked along the road and had lunch with his neighbors and taught on the mountainside, he still found it necessary to get away.
If God himself set an intention to come away for a while, how much more is it necessary for us? And what does that look like in our regular life?
It’s true the traditionally contemplative people among us may see the need for time away more quickly and may find it easier to prioritize, but as people who live in the kingdom of God, we are all praying people. And prayer is a reminder that God is not in a hurry. His work is often painfully inefficient, at least according to my timetable. Especially in times of decision and discernment, coming away to listen and simply be is not a luxury but a necessity.
This need for us to come away is recognized by not only by churches but other people as well in other fields.
Author of the book Quiet by Susan Cain told Scientific American this about solitude: “Solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity . . . From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude.”
The words we use are important.
There are many ways to create space and I’ve learned definitions matter. When I say create space for your soul or come away for a while, there are many words and concepts that might come to mind for you as there are for me.
Usually this is scheduled, has an agenda with either tickets, appointments or excursions. We’ve made plans for a long time, we bring family, or friends or whomever. It is a time to get away for recreation. But how many times have we gone away for a vacation and we come home exhausted?
2. Church Weekend
Most churches will call this a “retreat” but I prefer to use the phrase church weekend because that word retreat can get wrapped up in all kinds of definitions. A time away with church members can be a beautiful time of connection and community but also time when several people share a room, you listen to a speaker or several speakers, you follow someone else’s agenda, you have to engage in weird and uncomfortable icebreakers, stay up way too late, and come home tired.
3. A Break
When my kids were small, this is what I called a trip to Target. I needed a break from the questions, the needs, the being on point-ness of being a young mom with young kids. Self-care is so important. But that is more like a spa or a massage or time alone in the car than a spiritual encounter with God.
Can a spiritual encounter happen on a vacation, a church weekend, or a break? Absolutely.
Can you create space for your soul in these first three? Of course, but if your purpose is soul space, these three scenarios are not ideal.
Still, these take place in our regular life where we live, and one of the reasons I created this blog and the podcast is to offer ways to help you create space in regular life, including on vacation with family, in community with church members, and that much needed break you get in your car while running errands.
But there’s another kind of coming away when the walls are closing in, and that’s the kind we do on purpose with God.
Sabbath rest can be a weekly part of the rhythm of life and we are invited to keep it. If you want to learn more about that, listen (or download the transcript) to Episode 40: Keep Your Rest. It could be argued when we don’t keep the sabbath weekly, our need for time away may come more quickly, but that is one way to come away with God weekly, regularly, part of our rhythm of life.
This is a scheduled time apart from daily life where we come away on purpose to connect with God for a short but extended period of time, from a full day to a couple of days. If you’re tired, take a nap. If you want to read, do it slowly. My friend and teacher Keas Keasler emphasizes the importance of getting out of your zip code for this.
If you want more information or guidance on what a true retreat might look like, check out Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Invitation to Retreat. She talks about the importance of retreat and how to practice it in your actual life. She started this practice of coming away with God on retreat when her kids were young, but it wasn’t fancy and it probably wasn’t for super long periods of time.
This is a longer span of time that includes a leave from work, sometimes associated with education but also in ministry, generally given after 7 years of work a time of rest, renewal, sometimes study. It could be anything you want it to be as long as it’s restful and fits with your life stage.
Creating consistent space for your soul is available to each of us, and it doesn’t depend on our planner, it depends on our heart. And it might not take as much time as you think.
A note on sabbaticals: I recognize the remarkable privilege it is to be in a position to receive a sabbatical. I thought about this a lot last summer during my History and Traditions of Christian Spiritual Formation class because our teacher, AJ Swoboda, was entering into a time of sabbatical himself right after our class was over.
He acknowledged the discomfort this sometimes brings up – like how come you get to take a break from work when so many people around the world have to work 2 jobs just to get the bare necessities and sometimes not even that? Where is their sabbatical?
His response to this has stayed with me. He simply said, “The problem isn’t that the rich get a sabbatical but that the poor don’t. And the poor won’t get one until the rich start taking them because these are the times when we have our best ideas.”
Dr. Swoboda has some beautiful things to say about living a sabbath keeping life, pointing out that rest is not something “that comes with getting our lives in order. Rest is something God finds on our behalf.”
He mentions that nowhere in the Bible are we asked to create or make Sabbath. Instead, we protect it and enter into it. It’s not something we make up, it’s something we’ve been asked to take care of. We’re invited to do that in any capacity that works for our season of life. God is always beckoning, always ready for us to come away. Not forever, just for a while.
Soul space is not an end in itself, but it is a way for us to place ourselves in the presence of God.
We can find him anywhere, even beneath the piles of busy, everyday life. But sometimes we need something drastic. Something longer, something that will allow spacious places for deep work that can only happen in the silence.
As for me, July will be a time for me to come away for awhile.
I’ll do some traveling at the beginning of the month but then it’s home for reading, for listening, for being with my people after maybe the busiest two years of my life so far. My girls have two summers left at home after this one. My home needs my attention. I want to take longer walks around the neighborhood.
I plan to rest and as I do, I’ll be carrying some questions along the way. What does it mean for us to, as David Fitch says in his book, Faithful Presence, live together in Christ’s kingdom? And what does it mean for me vocationally to bring the world along?
What is my next right thing?
Discerning our next right thing is a question we’ll always be asking.
I don’t necessarily expect to come away with answers but I do hope to come away as more fully myself. In order to do my job with any amount of integrity, I also have to create space for myself. So this will be my last post on the blog until mid-August. That’s also when podcast episodes will return.
Until then, I hope you’ll catch up on any posts you may have missed.
- What to Do When You’re Offended
- 3 Things to Do When Things End
- This is More Important Than Your Decision
- There’s No Wrong Way to Grieve
- 10 Things I Learned This Spring
More, though, I hope you’ll find ways that make sense for you in this season of your life and in your own way to create a little space for your own soul to breathe, whether that be 10 minutes in the morning, 10 hours on a weekend, or 10 days unplugged from all distractions.
Father, may you be our vision as we walk into the darkness.
Transform our emptiness into sacred space.
Be our patience as we trust in your slow work and simply do our next right thing in love.
“Perhaps silence makes you uncomfortable. Gradually you may learn to welcome silence, understand that it is a time of great fertility and growth, not of emptiness. Silence cultivates vulnerability toward God, because silence is an outward form of an inward surrender.”
Jan Johnson, Meeting God in Scripture
We’ll be back with new podcast episodes mid-August but in it’s place, you can always download the audio version of The Next Right Thing for less than 10 dollars. Happy listening and happy reading to you.