Making Space, One Book at a Time

Today’s post is by Mary van Balen

Sometimes the simplest of chores become prayer. It’s about paying attention and being present to the moment. That’s what wisdom teachers have always said whether they were early Christian monks living in the Egyptian desert or a contemporary Buddhist monk like Thich Nhat Hanh; a Sufi poet like Rumi or a modern poet like Mary Oliver. Jesus told us the kingdom of God is within, is now. This moment. I guess I just didn’t think that applied to moving bookcases around in my apartment.

But here I am (and have been for weeks), sitting with boxes and piles of books. And, as it turns out, with God. I switched my bedroom and office, giving the office more space and a guest bed. Kind, young (read: strong and enthusiastic) neighbors helped with moving furniture, but I alone could put the mess back together.

I love books. Getting rid of any one of them is a major decision, even ones barely read or languishing on a bottom shelf, out of sight. You never know when it will emerge as just the one you need. That’s what I usually tell myself.

But I’ve been determined not to put all those books back. It’s time for a sorting, and not just the books. Choosing which to keep and which to share with others presented an opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and how open I am to what lies ahead.

A writer and lifelong student, books provide a map of my journey starting with high school and wending its way through the twists and turns of a life. The collection is eclectic to say the least, with a book on the rituals of the Lakota sacred pipe sharing shelf space with Madeleine L’Engle, Biblical commentaries, and The Nature of Cape Cod.

The process has been an examen.

Which books have helped me encounter the Holy One, to be more present to the moment? Which ones bring deep joy or help me engage with the world and my journey? Which ones contain knowledge and wisdom that inform my writing? Which ones open windows on the world that give me a fresh perspective so compelling that I return again and again for the view? These are the books I want close at hand.

And which books have done their work by laying a foundation, getting me through grad school, providing diversion, or nourishing me in a place I no longer inhabit? These books can go.

Answering the questions requires thought and prayer. It calls for discernment and, eventually, willingness to let go. Not just of books, but of paths not taken. Of hurts. Of the illusion that every path needs trying, or that broad and shallow is better than narrow and deep.

So far I’ve separated myself from large bags of books. A couple boxes remain, but they are filled with as much paper and small items as with books. This particular prayer is drawing to a close.

I’ve heard people talk about downsizing to a smaller house or seriously simplifying their living space. It wasn’t easy, but it resulted in a sense of freedom. I’m feeling that. My newly organized office provides ready space to sketch and paint and explore the prayerfulness of art. Before, the chore of clearing a space squelched the activity before it began.

Surprisingly, I find looking at shelves that aren’t solidly packed with books is restful. I appreciate the visual space. And creating space on the shelves creates space within, giving the Divine room to stretch and move. Without so much clutter, perhaps I’ll be better able to feel the stirrings.

All those wisdom teachers were right, and Jesus wasn’t kidding: God is with us now, in the moment whatever and wherever it is. Being present to it with some soul-space, we can discover Grace already there.

February 02, 2019 by Mary van Balen 6 Comments
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Peggy Davis
Peggy Davis
5 years ago

I love this post. As another book lover with far too many books at this point in my life, I really appreciate how you separated the ones to keep and the ones to let go of, to pass along somewhere. You give me hope that I might do this one of these days, present to the moment and appreciative of the past as I let it go. Thanks!

Mary van Balen
5 years ago
Reply to  Peggy Davis

You’re welcome, Peggy. I appreciate your taking time to comment. There is always hope for us book lovers!

Greta MacRae
Greta MacRae
5 years ago

Thanks for naming the sorting as a prayer!

Mary van Balen
5 years ago
Reply to  Greta MacRae

You’re welcome.

Anita Davidson
Anita Davidson
5 years ago

Thanks again, Mary, for thoughtful, soulful reflections.

Mary van Balen
5 years ago
Reply to  Anita Davidson

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Anita.


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