Presence

Earlier in the week I noticed Kaitlin Curtice’s blog post, ‘People Who Hold Space Will Heal the Church’, and I’m interested in what she says about holding space. She basically says that the church (and I think a lot of other institutions too) like to try and manage people rather than holding space where transformation could occur. (Reminds me a lot of the stuff I’ve been re-reading in Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out.

On a similar theme, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be present to someone.

Sometimes it just means what some of us might regard as trivial bullshit. Talking about the weather, exchanging friendly banter, talking shit…

But we need to be alert to when that’s not what’s needed, when our guest has something deep they need to talk about – illness, love, death, family…

We’ve also got to be attentive to when someone just needs silence or space.

Sometimes presence means sitting with someone. Something it means banter. Sometimes it means politeness. Sometimes it means eye contact. Sometimes it means (thank God) no eye contact. Sometimes it means depth. Its just being present to the person and situation and responding as appropriate.

Silence in hospitality

Yesterday we opened up our house for a discussion about the idea of hospitality as ‘making room’. I think when we’re talking about making room it’s important to think about how we demonstrate that in the discussion. I think that in our society we often try to fill quiet space with words and activity, and that if we allowed spaces to remain quiet and empty, we might hear voices we’d otherwise miss. For that reason I want to get comfortable with preparing less (or being okay not to use eveything I’ve prepared) and leaving more space in discussion for silence.

How do you feel about the place of silence in hospitality?

Gastvrijheid: freedom for the guest

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen talks about hospitality as ‘freedom for the guest’. (He says this is the literal meaning of the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid.) This means that we aren’t welcoming the guest in order to try and change them. Instead we’re welcoming them into a space of emptiness, a space where transformation might happen, but where we don’t know what the transformation might look like. It’s not a space where we’re seeking to influence them to take on our ideology, religion or way of life. It’s not a space that the host tries to fill with themself. It’s a space where the host and guest can discover each other and potentially be transformed by the encounter.

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Three ways of making room

I’ve been sick and exhausted for a while because a lot of things have been going on at once. This week i got to have a couple of days to be at home and rest. That’s a way of making room.

I also got to do some cleaning and tidying before a new housemate moves in to be more involved with our project. That’s another way of making room.

While we had a room empty, I was using the empty room to work and study, so I’ve needed to move my things. But that’s been an opportunity to rethink how I can best use the space I have. I don’t have a lot of space to work and study in, but I’d allowed it to get pretty messy and inefficient. I’d also had some ideas about how I could better organise the space, so it would be easier to work in. that’s another way of making room.

Hostipality with Nouwen and Safran


I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out and John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist at the same time. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Nouwen’s book before, and one of the things I’ve appreciated most about it is the way he talks about the relationship between hostility and hospitality. He acknowledges that when we begin to practise hospitality, we’re often using it to cover over hostility. We can use our ability to provide for others as a way of holding power over them. I think everyone has had some kind of experience of recieving grudging hospitality or passive aggressive hsopitality. Nouwen thinks that if we’re able to recognise the hospitality that often underlies our hostility, we can start moving toward true hospitality, which is freedom for the guest.

I’ve also been interested in how Safran picks up on the theme of hospitality and hostility, although in some ways it’s quite different. John Safran seems to have made himself vulnerable in the process of writing his recent book, by participating in hospitality with various Australians who have, for various reasons, been called ‘extemists’. By going and visiting folks from various Australian extremist groups, spending time in their homes, sharing beer, smokes and pizza, Safran has made himself vulnerable, and I think many of his subjects have also made themselves vulnerable in response. At the end of his visit to United Patriots Front member Ralph Cerminara, Cerminara said he was going to write an article about Safran for his website Left Wing Bigots and Extremists Exposed, but he said he’d changed his mind because ‘it was nice [Safran] came over to chat.’ Safran also visits Muslims from different traditions, visits the Aboriginal tent embassy in Redfern and has a fresh look at the presence of extemism in his own Jewish community. All of these encounters seem to complicate the nature of these groups, when their opponents and the mass media seem to want to simplify everything. Safran shows that they aren’t as homogenous as we might expect. He find that there are Jews among the United Patriots Front despite the presence of neo-Nazis. He finds that Cerminara has Italian and Aboriginal heritage, is married to a Vietnamese migrant, supports Aboriginal land rights, is angry about governments trying to move Aboriginal people off their land, and hates that he gets lumped in with the left wing activists because of these views. I’m not by any means saying that UPF are admirable people, but that the story is more complex that what we’re often told.

Continuity through practices

On Saturday I posted about how our household (which is predominantly Christian) is trying to make sure we are clear about making sure there is space for folks who aren’t Christian. We want to make sure we can work alongside and learn from people who have other worldviews, not just people who have worldviews similar to our own. I’ve noticed that when groups make this decision there is often concern from Christians that the group will lose it’s Christian character. I don’t have that concern because I believe the project’s Christian character is preserved in our practises. (I’ve also been part of other Christian projects where we’ve involved people from other faiths or no faith, and we’ve been able to do that by focussing on Christian practices.)

I don’t think Christianity is generally known as a faith that emphasises practices. Generally we think of Chritianity as being focussed on beliefs. However, the gospels suggest that Jesus first invitation to his early disciples was to come and follow him. By looking at Jesus’ behaviour (rather than looking for theological doctrines) I think we can find the kind of practices that Jesus was teaching his followers:

  • befriending the stranger
  • sharing meals across social boundaries
  • providing access to medical treatment
  • reconciling with enemies
  • bringing marginalised pople back into the community

Those Christian practices are all things that we do in different ways as part of our project. They don’t require people to adopt our religion to participate. But I think they do preserve continuity with the teachings of the founder of our movement.

Sharing space with other voices


Over the last couple of years our household has started hosting learning circles. These have been informal events where we’ve opened up the house to visitors so that we can discuss things that we’ve been learning through the project. We’ve realised that because we’ve been a predominantly Christian household we need to be clear about making sure participants don’t presume everyone is Christian. I’ve found that a lot of the time Christians will presume that they are in a homogenously Christian space where their beliefs and values are taken for granted. I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of experiences of Christian spaces which I think did a good job of making space for outside perspectives. I think it’s important that we keep finding ways to create spaces where people with different worldviews can learn from each other. (I don’t have any problem with Christians having their own spaces, I just think there are already so many ‘safe spaces’ for Christians just to be around other Christians.)

Growing a garden of solitude in the desert of loneliness

In a few weeks our household is hosting a learning circle on the idea that hospitality is ‘making room’. Our thoughts about this have been influenced a lot by the writing of Henri Nouwen – in particular his book Reaching Out. Some of us used to draw on his ideas when we were working in the city. I thought I’d some blog posts over the next few weeks explaining ‘making room’.

In Reaching Out, Nouwen described a spirituality that helps to sustain hospitality. Nouwen was coming from a specifically Roman Catholic perspective, but I think his ideas could be useful to people from a range of different religious or non-religious locations. From Nowen’s perspective, spiritual growth involved reaching out in three different directions:

  • reaching toward ourselves, by moving from loneliness to solitude
  • reaching toward others, by moving from hostility to hospitality
  • reaching toward God, by moving from illusion to prayer (this one comes across as the most religious, so feel free decide whether that is or isn’t for you)

When describing the movement from loneliness to solitude, Nouwen noted that our globalised society doesn’t make space for solitude. The normal mode of operating is to try and fill our space with people and busyness. We think that we’re going to escape loneliness by crowding ourselves in with people and activity. Nouwen reckoned that by expecting other people to take away our loneliness we’re actually putting an unreasonable burden on them. By expecting other people to take away our loneliness, we doom them to disappoint us.

Nouwen believed that what we actually need to do is come to terms with our aloneness. This was how he believed we could move from loneliness to solitude. He talked about entering the desert of loneliness and gradually beginning to grow a garden of solitude there. Nouwen said that if we can become content being alone, this prepares us to be part of community. Coming to terms with our aloneness allows us to participate in hospitality without burdening others with our demands.

6 ways to grow community at work


Last Thursday I wrote very briefly about growing a sense of community at work, and I asked what you think is the best way to do it. I thought I’d post your suggestions today:

  1. Steph suggested we should make sure we notice people and mention things we appreciate about them. In workplaces it can be easy for people to go unnoticed. If we consistently notice people, we’ll create community over time.
  2. Dylan was saying he’s just started a new job, and he’s just been looking out for opportunities for informal, spontaneous coversation.
  3. Steve suggested letting community just happen organically. He said he’d seen bosses try to enforce community from above, and it never works. He was telling us about an attempt one boss made to get everyone to cheer at the end of meetings, which sounded kind of awkward…
  4. Lucas kept it simple: ‘Humans being nice to other humans!’
  5. Jacqui’s suggestion was simple as well, but I think there’s also a lot of depth to it. She suggested sharing food, which is actually something I was talking with some students about yesterday. I think sharing food is really good for developing a sense of community and mutuality, because it’s a reminder of our shared dependence on food and on the land that provides it.
  6. Shae was saying he has no idea how to develop community at work because he’s lucky to work with someone who is already one of his best friends. They’re both already part of the same community in a lot of ways. What he was describing reminded me of the fact that before industrialisation, that’s more what work was like. People would work locally, often out of their homes alongside family. Because of industrialisation many of us now travel out of neighbourhoods to work with people that we don’t see except at work. I think this means we have to be more intentional about growing community. If we have the opportunity to work in our local communities, it can male it more straightforward.

If you have any more suggestions, please feel free to keep adding them!