I’m editing my book collection.
Our public library has a fall book sale, and receiving the reminder postcard was a motivation to admit I could indeed cull some books, many of which I bought from previous sales, from my shelves.
And from stacks on the floor. And a few stacks on tables.
Some books I’ve read and enjoyed, but don’t feel compelled to keep. I added a stack of the historical figure quasi-romance novels to the box. They were entertaining at one point, but not now, given that far too many write about the Tudor era and muck up the facts about the church. A few old seminary text books that were written for a church two decades past went in the box. And one Evelyn Underhill book.
I love Evelyn Underhill and her writings about mysticism. The problem with the book? It has no margins. The pages are thousands of words from the top of the page to the bottom, and small print, at that. The book was a review copy, so my hope is the final copy had margins.
Because a page with no margins feels too congested to read. When I tried to read some of my favorite passages on mysticism, the sheer enormity of the words on the page and the almost comprehensive lack of any space in between the words, sentences, and paragraphs felt alarming to me. Any sense of contemplation, silence, and observation that Underhill’s words communicated were obscured by the physical appearance of the words on the page.
As I hesitantly added this book to the pile, I wondered about the margins in my life. Too often, we flee from one meeting to another, from one moment to another, without any margins. We wake up in the morning and go. And we keep going until we sink into bed at night, hoping sleep will provide the blank spaces, the gaps, and openings we need for rest. Any pseudo-margin time we may have we often multi-task, checking our emails or social media while drinking coffee to keep us going at top speed. Then, quite often, we’re surprised when our rest (or lack of it) at night reflects the go-go-go of our days. Having the dozens of pages of our days occupied completely can rarely be balanced by one part of a blank page on rare occasion.
As a priest, I find this practice more seductive than it ought to be. The cult of busy-ness invites us to write the narratives of our day from top to bottom, side to side, leaving no margins for quiet, for breathing, for contemplating. A surprise moment of down time comes and too often our first inclination is to fill it with something.
A reality is sometimes our schedules simply squeeze out margins. Unexpected events and moments mean we will add a scribble into the margin on the page of our day. But to add these surprise events, the unplanned moments, and these extra words life often gives us, we must indeed have the space to begin with. We must have the margins.
Margins are the quiet space, the moments Jesus sails across the lake for time on his own, the languid meals between disciples on a beach, the long walks across the wilderness. The margins give us time to reflect, to do nothing, to be in our selves and souls, and to rest. They are necessary for life.
How do we create these margins?
The liturgy of the church has some excellent examples. Most Episcopal churches don’t begin immediately with the acclamation (the opening words of worship). Most have times of silence as worshippers slip into the pews and sit or kneel in prayer. Perhaps they just sit and peruse the service bulletin. All of these create a space, a margin to set apart our time with God.
Other churches have musical preludes before worship that aren’t wasted time, but instead a margin in which we can sit and breathe with the rhythm of the music, allowing for space between whatever narrative life is writing and the holy words of God.
I think about the margin I need before worship, before focused time with God. When I come in, rushed from whatever was in the hour slot before prayer and slide in, either exactly on time or late, I have no margin to allow for transition. I’ve squeezed the words of God into whatever space I have left. Does God still love me? Of course.
But have I likely missed some words that would have benefitted my soul because I didn’t allow space in the narrative of my life? Probably so.
Evelyn Underhill writes, in one of my favorite insights, “We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do... forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be.”
We all find ourselves filling in the margins of our lives with words written by our own desires, our own wants, our own egos, and even our own anger (my spiritual director loves to remind me how anger often masquerades as too many things to do because then we can be too busy to sit with it). When we find ourselves with too many words on the page, perhaps we can settle into the words of Evelyn and remember to be.
Be still. Be quiet. Be present with some beautiful music or a friend in conversation or a walk in nature. Be willing to explore why we may need to fill in the margins, and be open to see that, in the open spaces in our days, God waits for us to be present.
Be in the margins.