The Beauty of Emptiness
We spend our lives, indeed most of waking hours, trying to get rid of the emptiness that is part of the human condition. We generally don’t like any sense of emptiness because it makes us feel vulnerable and weak, like we are not in control. We combat those feelings through strategies that we believe will fill … things like approval from others, accumulating material possessions, or achieving our identity in what we do and accomplish.
Most of the time, we are not even aware that we are engaging such strategies. It often just feels like normal life and whatever it takes to quell angst in our lives is embraced. And yet, we have those moments of clarity when the strategies aren’t working, when life gets messy. It is in those times when we become most aware of the emptiness and therefore, our vulnerability. Put simply, we become aware that we are powerless to “make life work.”
And, so, in what way is there a beauty in emptiness?
The beauty is in the fact that when we embrace emptiness and experience vulnerability and weakness, we are never closer to experiencing our divine design. This can feel very counterintuitive because we’ve been led to believe that being in control and strong is achievable. However, we have been created as vulnerable, dependent beings. As we welcome vulnerability, we have the opportunity to move toward deepening dependence upon God and His love for us. There is no other path.
Again, most often, our attempts to be in control operate under the surface of our lives and outside our immediate awareness. So, it is usually painful situations and suffering that bring us to a place of awareness and then we have choices to make.
For the last two years, I’ve been in a fight with cancer. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma which led to a year of chemotherapy, a brief remission, a recurrence of the cancer, and then an unsuccessful stem cell transplant. It was unsuccessful because I had developed Leukemia as a result of all the chemotherapy I’d received. This all led to more chemotherapy and ultimately a stem cell transplant with a donor.
For the first six months of the year, I was in the hospital for three of those months, and I was confronted quite violently with a sense of vulnerability. Because of being isolated in the hospital and separated from my ability to do much of anything, I experience a stripping of those strategies that I’ve often used to fill the emptiness. In particular, as a “doer,” I felt helpless. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t take care of my family. I couldn’t control my body as chemotherapy reduced my energy and took away my immune system. I couldn’t eat for long stretches of time. The list of “I couldn’t” statements could go on.
The emptiness and vulnerability were heavy.
And yet, God in His grace met me there in ways that I’d never experienced. It was in the vulnerability that I actually experienced His presence and love. It wasn’t an emotional experience that made me feel warm but I deep settled sense of peace. It was in the vulnerability that I saw Him provide for our family financially, emotionally, and relationally in ways that I always thought I could control.
Things that I would have said I believe deeply (He provides, He loves, He is present) became my experience. It was in the vulnerability that I found an experience of dependence that was outside my control. I can relate to the following from Pedro Arrupe:
“More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
In it all, I experienced a deep sense that all that was left was love … God’s love for me and my call to love others. As I underwent a stripping of my false self (trying to make life work on my own), I could see my identity in a very different way. Thomas Merton put it like this:
“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”
So, why can we say that there is a beauty in emptiness? Because it is in the vulnerability that we experience so clearly the choice to release self and know love. Jesus, of course, said it so well: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25, NLT)
Giving up our lives is a way of saying that we let go of our strategies and embrace the emptiness. It is one thing to understand this all intellectually. Poet David Whyte wrote: “The only choice we have as we mature is how to inhabit our vulnerability…” So, how do we actually embrace or inhabit our vulnerability rather than fight against it?
In Philippians 2:5-7, the Apostle Paul writes:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant …”
The most studied phrase of these verses is “made Himself nothing.” In the Greek language, the verb is kenao and means to empty oneself. The theological debate over the centuries centered around what He emptied and much consternation surfaced around the idea that Jesus might have emptied Himself of His attributes as God. However, if we understand this idea in context, a robust idea emerges. First, the phrase “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” is the idea that He did not use His attributes as God as something to be used for Himself (“grasped” is literally, “to be used to one’s advantage). And then, second, we understand the idea of emptying as “embracing emptiness” or vulnerability, which is exactly what the second person of the Trinity did in taking on human flesh. There is perhaps nothing more vulnerable than being a baby. He continued to embrace emptiness throughout His life as He experienced temptation, suffered, and went to the cross. So, in the same way we are challenged to embrace emptiness by not using our “power” and strengths to strategize ways to make life work. Jesus modeled this for us.
How do we move into vulnerability? In Colossians 4:2, we are encouraged to “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”
First, we simply engage in prayer. We bring ourselves before God. Second, we watch. In prayer, we watch for the ways that we are tempted to push away vulnerability. We notice when we are trying to fill the emptiness. We ask God to show us the emptiness and to give us the strength to abide with Him. Finally, we give thanks. Gratitude is what keeps us grounded. As we see our emptiness and vulnerability, we thank God for the gifts that are a part of abiding in vulnerability.
What we begin to experience in this kind of prayerful life is that we see everything as a gift … everything is connected to His goodness in our lives. While I wouldn’t wish the difficulties I’ve been experiencing over these last years on my worst enemy (not sure who that would be anyway), I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
The beauty of emptiness … a life of gratitude as we see His gifts in all things and abide with Him in them!