02 Apr The Nothing Which Is Something
In the community where I live, we are over two weeks into a period of social isolation. My church community has rather quickly adjusted to virtual worship, meetings and gatherings. We are using a platform technology which allows us to see each other’s faces and have kept some rituals in worship where we acknowledge each other. Yet, I sense some dis-ease with our shared isolation. Most of us are not used to being at home all day by ourselves or with our families. Many are not sure what to do with increased free time. My younger son has shown up at my house more than usual. He’s bored, bored enough to visit dear old dad.
The rush of American life has been interrupted by this coronavirus. We are faced with more silence, less stimulation, the emptiness of nothing to do. In many, the instinct is to seek to fill the void, with movies, with physical exercise, with cooking, baking, news-binging, and social gatherings on-line. Virtual Happy Hours are a new pass-time. I actually wrote a letter the other day. My older son is in communication isolation at Naval Officer’s Training School and cannot use a phone, computer or any electronic device for the time-being.
Here, as we near the end of the church season of Lent, we have been given this unique opportunity to engage in time-tested spiritual practices like silence, solitude, prayer, contemplation, deep listening. I have had more than one person reach out to me by phone and remark that, now, I must have nothing to do. Nothing to do. The comment did not sound like a compliment. We have been trained to value pastors by how busy they are, as if busyness is next to godliness. Is God pleased by busy pastors, busy churches, busy people? Did Jesus say, “Get busy, get productive, the kingdom of heaven is at hand?”
We begin the season of Lent by reading of Jesus’ time of forty days in the wilderness, fasting, praying, wrestling with demons. The forty days of Lent are supposed to mirror Jesus’ time of spiritual preparation for the work which lay ahead. We, too, are invited to get away from the demands and routines of life and to do nothing with God, and also with other, darker, spiritual entities.
Imagine Jesus, in this age of cell phones, seeking isolation for spiritual work for forty days. “Hey, Jesus, where are you? What are you doing? I haven’t seen or heard from you in such a long time!” How might Jesus explain the value of inner work, of deep listening, of soulful preparation, of doing nothing? How have contemporary Christians moved so far from a recognition of the value of emptiness in the life of the soul?
This Sunday, churches across the world will read from Philippians 2, which celebrates the emptying work of God in and through Christ. In what may be the oldest hymn we have in the Christian tradition, Paul enjoins the church in Philippi to have the same mind in them which was in Christ Jesus:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
Jesus went from God to slave. He let go of attachment to divine identity and status. Heck, he even let go of identification with respectable human status. He even let go of life. He emptied himself of everything. He embraced nothingness. He allowed his own cancellation of self. This is at the heart of the Christian mystery, this profound emptiness, letting go and nothingness.
In this time of disruption of our lives, do we have the courage to fill our days with nothing? Are we able to sit, to be, to listen, to allow? I have been experimenting for the past year with bringing a Benedictine rhythm of prayer and work to my life. Of late, I have been rising early in the quiet and the dark to prayer with Matthew’s Gospel, to chant the Psalms, to sit in a prayer of silence called Centering Prayer, to be with myself in the nothingness of solitude and silence. What all contemplatives have known for millennia, is that the nothingness is not nothing. It is something. The emptiness is not empty, but filled with subtle presence. The letting go does not lead to loss, but to a fullness of inexpressible depth. The abyss of empty space is not ultimately an abyss, but an infinity of an incomprehensible intimacy of love. The death of identity and even life are a passage to our true identity in God, our true life in God. There is nothing to fear, but we can discover this truth only by becoming empty.
Now, Jesus emerged from his forty days alone and embraced work. He engaged the demands of teaching, healing, preaching, and challenging prevailing norms. His work, often, was exhausting, and he found himself returning again and again to silence, solitude and prayer.
I imagine that our forced period of social isolation will lift in time. There will be a time once again for the busyness of work. So, why not embrace this opportunity for something different? Why not welcome doing nothing for a change? How might our lives change if in the nothing, we find something?
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