Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Creating Space

Fashion for social distancing?

When I first heard of social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, I thought we could bring back hoop skirts to keep others at a six-foot distance!  😉

“Creating space” was a common phrase among therapists and pastors alike when I was in seminary in the mid-70’s. Creating a welcoming environment for another was the intent of the metaphor. A form of this is what is now called “safe space,” and in olden days called “sanctuary.”

Our counseling professor illustrated this with a juvenile court assignment of a child who resisted any verbal interaction with him. The boy would simply wander around the office looking at things, playing with various items. Finally, Dr. Brown told him that he would be assigning him to another therapist. Upset, the boy insisted, “But I like coming here.” Asked why, the boy explained, “Because you’re the only grownup that leaves me alone!”

In the present pandemic of easy contamination, when we can’t “kiss it and make it better” nor offer “warm hugs” of comfort, creating space becomes all the more vital, as in “life-giving” or “life-preserving.”

A couple of years ago I wrote a blogpost about the hugs exchanged within our former congregation in greeting and departing and passing the peace.  What I’ve since discovered in our new church start is that younger people are less so inclined. There are still huggers, of course, but I’ve learned the discomfort of some who prefer another form of greeting, and rather than appear a sort of old vampire grasping for youth, I restrain my touchy impulses. Since then we have also learned a lot about avoiding touch from the “Me Too” movement.

Now the coronavirus has taught us, as the song by The Police goes, “don’t stand so close to me.”

Continuing my re-read of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life in preparation for what may become an online spiritual formation course, I read this sentence of Henri’s on Monday as an example of such hospitality: “It is like the task of a patrolman trying to create some space in the middle of a mob of panic-driven people for an ambulance to reach the center of the accident.” “First responder” could easily be substituted for “patrolman.”

I thought of Henri’s own creation of space in his campus office when he removed shelves of books lest a visiting student feel overwhelmed in the belief the student had nothing to offer this well-read professor.

I also thought of my first Presbyterian pastor’s explanation of what constitutes social action. Christian compassion, Dr. Morse said, is expressed when you tend to a person’s wounds as you wait for an ambulance. Social justice is expressed when you subsequently investigate why it took so long for the ambulance to arrive.

Nowadays this would include finding and filling the gaps in our systems of medicine—exactly what’s needed in our present crisis. Obviously this would include examining political and economic solutions.

Henri harmonizes the German word for hospitality, Gastfreundschaft, meaning “friendship for the guest” with his own native Dutch word “gastvrijheid” which means “freedom of the guest”: “Hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him or her alone.”

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. … It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. Reaching Out, 51.

I stumble over political “dividing lines.” I have a friend who seems to support President Trump no matter what. Yet my friend also once supported President Obama. As the present administration dismantled protections and services that might have helped the U.S. in this pandemic and now stumbles incompetently while blaming everyone else, “dividing lines,” like Trump’s infamous wall, makes me stumble. 

Creating space for the other is far from an easy task. It requires hard concentration and articulate work. It is like the task of a patrolman trying to create some space in the middle of a mob of panic-driven people for an ambulance to reach the center of the accident. Reaching Out, 51.

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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.


  1. Good morning Chris,
    I've always been a lover of Henri Nouwen and know from some of your books, that you and he had a special friendship. The thing you said about him clearing out a whole shelf of books so as not to intimidate anyone entering his office is so endearing and so Henri, as far as I knew/know him. I remember the story of rushing to his class at Harvard, always a bit late....passing a homeless man who was always there and dropping a $10 dollar bill in his hand. In the evening when he was doing his examen, he realized he had not called him by name, which he knew, nor looked him in the eye to see him as a human being. This distressed him enough to write about it in one of his books......the person was always the important part of the equation.

    Thank you for your post...

    I pray you stay healthy in mind and body,

  2. Thanks, Mary, for this story--so typical of Henri! He taught by example as well as by word. Your story is a priceless reminder of how all should be treated! I pray you also stay well and gracious!