A friend of mine who has made Australia his home, has been coping with bouts of clinical depression, and suicidal ideation. The prolonged lockdowns that Australia has put into place in various states has exacerbated this person’s anxiety. Coupled with the stress of being unemployed, seeking out new employment so as to provide for the needs of his family, and living with his family members in close proximity, who inevitably are trying to cope with the pandemic as well, buttons have been pushed in the wrong way, and swords have been drawn between family member and family member, leading to great emotional duress and hurt. To worsen matters, this person in concern, presents with special needs, which amplifies the anxiety that he feels, and as he tries to cope with living and with the pandemic.
The situation that this friend is undergoing, may be said to be exemplar of what the world is undergoing as well, in varying degrees and capacities. There is a cloud of uncertainty, a shroud of grief, an inexplicable melancholy, and an overall sense of heaviness about the things that we read about in the news, the weariness that comes from trying to survive a global pandemic, and an overarching feeling of confusion and loss.
What is one supposed to do in situations like these? The Christian’s first recourse is to turn to Jesus in prayer. The second, is to hold space for the person who may be undergoing a difficult situation. All too often, we find that we are hearing what someone is saying, but not truly listening, and we are in fact guilty of listening so as to try on our side to make a reply, without really being fully present to the person who may be sharing his or her situation with us. The tendency is to fix the person’s problem, sweep it under the rug, ignore the issue and change the subject, and move on as we have been taught to do from a young age.
Holding space offers a person the opportunity to be truly and wholly heard and seen. It has to do with the difficult task of putting ourselves into the shoes of the person, and allowing empathy to flow – without judgement, or the need to try and fix the problem, while intentionally being present, and making time for that person to enact out whatever is needed by them, such as to cry, voice out a complain or hurt, express a strong emotion, and receive first acknowledgement that they have been heard, and to have their emotions and what they are saying, validated in a non-judgemental way. A person who is holding space for another person is attuned to the person’s rhythms, shifts of eye gaze, body language, and offers a calm and grounded position to which the person is ready to listen attentively to the other person, and to sync his or her own feelings with the feelings of the other person. In holding space, it is important to curtail our own personal urges to be an expert in the area, and to curb our own need to offer our opinions and two cents’ worth, when the conversation ought to be about the other person, not us (Brodkin & Pallathra, 2021; Walker & Akbar, 2020).
It is challenging and difficult to hold space for someone – there is often the danger of distraction and tuning out, and also a tendency for the conversation to be rushed and hurried. Few of us in our busy lives have the time, nor the capacity to hold space for others. This difficulty is also the reason why Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Perhaps we may be wise in drawing inspiration from Mother Mary and her life when in comes to accompaniment and when it comes to holding space for someone.
In the scriptural texts, we see only four occasions when Mother Mary’s utterances are documented in the Bible, and these are found in the Gospels of Luke and John – when the Archangel Gabriel meets Mother Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), when Mother Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth, and proclaims the sovereignty and greatness of the Lord in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56), when Mother Mary finds the pre-adolescent Jesus in the temple (Luke 2: 41-52), and last but not least, at the miracle of the Wedding at Cana when Mother Mary intervenes on behalf of the wedding couple (John 2:1-11). There are other direct references to Mother Mary in the Scriptures, but these do not record any words that she speaks. These encounters are found in: the nativity account of Jesus (Luke 2: 7-7), when she ponders “these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19), at the presentation of the Lord (Luke 2:22-34), when Jesus is told that His mother and brothers are “here to see him” (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3: 31-35), at the Cross of Jesus (John 19:25), and at when Mother Mary and the other disciples are gathered in the Upper Room in prayer (Acts 1:14).
To put this across statistically, this means that of the twenty-seven books, Gospels, letters. and Epistles, found in the New Testament, only 2 books record anything that was said by Mother Mary, leaving 92% of the rest of the New Testament silent with no documented words at all (Peters, n.d.). This also means that any words that Mother Mary does say are extremely important.
What has this got to do with the art of accompaniment or holding space?
- In pondering many things in her heart, Mother Mary invites us to do exactly what she is doing, to surrender what we see, hear, and experience in our conversations to the Lord, while reflecting deeply on the encounter. In this, is a call to listen, rather than to make commentary or make our voice heard.
- The conversation is not about us, and Mother Mary shows this clearly, in how she deflects the Praise from herself to God, and how she is wholly attentive to the person whom she is speaking to.
- Accompaniment and holding space, requires us to set aside time, put down what we are doing, and venture forth, and reach out so as to meet where the other person is at. This is seen in how Mother Mary set forth in haste towards her cousin Elizabeth, when she heard the news that she was with child.
- The conversations are always directed to God – for instance at the Wedding of Cana, she tells Jesus directly what the issue is, then turns to the servants instructing them with the words, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is an act of Faith, knowing that the Lord God would know best what to do in any given situation. Rather than trying to solve the issue on her own accord, she turns to God, and she directs all attention to Him. Sometimes, the best thing we can do in holding space and accompaniment is to accompany the person in prayer, knowing that every prayer counts and that Grace is never wasted.
Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013) states, “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for “bringing down the mighty from their thrones” and “sending the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice. She is also the one who carefully keeps “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). (288)
Mary is able to recognize the traces of God’s Spirit in events great and small. She constantly contemplates the mystery of God in our world, in human history and in our daily lives. She is the woman of prayer and work in Nazareth, and she is also Our Lady of Help, who sets out from her town “with haste” (Lk 1:39) to be of service to others.” (288)
Is there someone in our lives who needs a safe space for you to hold space for? As a Christian what would you do to hold space for this person?
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Brodkin, E. & Pallathra, A. (2021). Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections. Public Affairs.
Peters, M.D. (n.d.). Bible Quotes by Mary. All About Mary. University of Dayton. Retrieved September 3, 2021, from https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/b/bible-quotes-by-mary.php
Pope Francis. Evangelii Gaudium. Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Walker, R. & Akbar, N. (2020). The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal System, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness, and Get the Help You Deserve. New Harbinger Publications.