Part One: Emptiness
Emptiness. The first chapter of Houselander’s book states that emptiness is the beginning of contemplation. See, when we consider a reed, we recognize that a reed has a hollow emptiness. It is this emptiness that makes a musical reed produce beautiful music. Nonetheless, it is empty.
We live in a world today where it is not difficult to see emptiness. But how is it we think about it? Do we focus on what is missing? Or do we focus on what can fill emptiness? Do we consider what used to fill the emptiness, like how a cold beverage used to fill a now empty glass, so we see something no longer there, or do we consider how an empty glass can again in the future be filled with something that brings joy.
Today, like so many ages before we are filled with emptiness. But, asks Houselander, is it an emptiness with a purpose, like the emptiness in the hollow of a cup, or the emptiness of a bird’s nest? Or is it an emptiness that is simply devoid of meaning, “a void, meaningless, unhappy condition?”
For the emptiness of the Blessed Virgin was the purposeful emptiness waiting to be filled with the incarnate Jesus, the Son of God who would become human through the fullness of the Blessed Virgin.
When we imitate the Blessed Virgin in our purposeful emptiness, we do not desire to fill our lives with meaningless things. We do not seek to have this or that material object, nor do we seek to fill each second of silence with noise to distract us.
No, if we are to imitate the Virgin, then we recognize the emptiness is waiting for its purpose to be fulfilled. Music fills the reed, water fills the glass, bird’s eggs fill the empty nest. Yet all lead to something beautiful and new. For this emptiness is not simply a cold lonely emptiness that can never satisfy, but rather an emptiness that longs to be filled with the Spirit.
For if emptiness is the beginning of contemplation, of that ability to see the world the way the God sees the world, we must first become a vessel in which we have emptied ourselves. We must empty ourselves of those things which do not lead to life. “At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the hard blocks and congestions; Not necessarily to discard all his interests forever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and interests other than love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had just come from God’s hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being and of what material we are made.”
It is not unlike the generous process my brother undertook in cleaning out my mother’s house, sifting through many things to discard the trivial and hold onto the valuable. It is not unlike the search of a child on a beach to find those beautiful shells and to throw back those ordinary shells of no beauty.
For us, this spiritual quest is one where we look to find nothing less than God himself, who though we may not always realize it, has always dwelt deeply in our inmost being. Our quest is simply to fulfill our purpose: to know, love, and serve God in this life and live forever with him in the next. For we know the eternal, we love the divine, we serve the infinite. And the eternal, divine and infinite have no room for limits of time and space.
Houselander points out eloquently that this quest to fill our souls is not having to remove all aspects of ordinary life. To be filled with the eternal does not mean having to set out on a long journey far away, one for which we are often too busy. “It is really through ordinary human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about.”
This is the insight of many the spiritual mystic. It is what is stated in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God. Our vocation, our call from God is not about escaping the events and persons of our lives, but rather to see in the ordinary events and persons of our lives the invitation to find God always and everywhere.
The images of Houselander for the virginal, purposeful emptiness of the Virgin are helpful to us. They show us how God, who filled the emptiness of the Virgin with something infinite and divine can do the same for us.
Questions to consider: (These are questions from Houselander’s book to consider, the ways in which God asks to use the material of our lives.
- Does he asked to be sung, to be uttered as the word?
- Does he ask to be sacrificed, to be lifted up and to draw all men to him?
- Does he ask to be fostered, swaddled, cherished, the little unfledged bird in the human heart?
How much can we do ourselves at this stage of contemplation? Not very much, for now, as always, most of it is done by God.
It can be helpful to have the book to read. To purchase books I recommend the Pauline sisters.
This commentary is part of The Friar Book Club. Other resources on our website include homilies, reflections, news updates, and more. The reflections from the Reed of God are geared to helping us enter more fully into the season of Advent. In addition, there are Advent Reflections which can help us to enter more fully into the season.