Monday, March 9, 2015

Emptiness and the spiritual life.

Being filled and fulfilled occupies a large part of our lives on quite many levels.  There is a basic instinct in each living being to continue to live by filling the body with its needs of fuel in terms of food and energy.  Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become almost an enshrined framework in the study of sociology, and to a certain extent, is an accurate observation of the human person’s needs.  It charts the inner works of a person’s ladder of needs as one moves through the stages of human growth.

It is when one transfers these spoken and unspoken needs to the spiritual life and adopts blindly the same approach towards fulfillment to the inner life that one finds it so challenging to make inroads towards growth and maturity.  These days, it becomes even more of a challenge to even consider the possibility of happiness and contentment that is to be found in selflessness, emptiness and the need to die to the self because the social media puts great emphasis on self-promotion and creating ‘followers’ to one’s life.  Yet, there is much to be said and appreciated about the need to become comfortable and fulfilled through emptiness and finding strength through weakness and living through dying, which is the ultimate call to each serious disciple of Christ.

To be sure, many resist the call to emptiness and kenosis simply because it is counter-intuitive.  It is so easy to fall prey to the notion that the more we have, the more fulfilled and contented in life we will be.  Marketers seize on this insatiable need and create a host of needs that often are hardly real needs at all.  Sure, it drives the economy but it also creates a self that shuns any interior call to appreciate simplicity and even suffering.

It was when I was contemplating this that I chanced upon a precious observation of St John of the Cross that he made when he meditated on the spiritual value of emptiness.  He said:

“A sail can catch the wind and be used to manoeuver a boat only because it is so frail.  It is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.”

A simple observation, yet profound on a great many levels.  It should strike a rich chord in anyone who has that inkling that loneliness and anything that speaks of being empty and perhaps even useless, is in fact strength.  It is indeed a paradox, but a very common experience of the spiritual life is our coming face-to-face with paradox and find a contentment and equanimity there. 

What St John of the Cross speaks of is the need for the person to accept a rather extraordinary notion that emptiness and weakness was where real strength lay.  If I can use the image of a vessel that is to be filled, it has first to become empty before this can happen on any level.  I had a very personal experience of this truth when I had to be depleted of my own stem cells through extremely high dosages of chemotherapy and intensive irradiation of my bone marrow so that my body could accept the stem cells of my anonymous donor (at that time), which gave my whole system a life-saving reboot.  And those of us who do play any wind instrument will know that hollowness is required in order to receive the player’s breath so that sound can be produced.  Being empty is in a very paradoxical way, the pathway to being filled. 

When this truth is accepted and embraced, it becomes for us not only to live it out, but also to proclaim its truth as it will become apparent that only through this kenosis that true transformations can happen in our lives. 

The notion of being empty is filled with negativity and causes us to push it as far from ourselves as possible.  The disciplines of Lent that invites us to fast, pray and give alms become easily misunderstood and under-appreciated when they are in truth the Church’s way of inviting each member to undergo that very necessary pathway that sees richness in dying in its various dimensions. 

But it is when one truly undergoes a death or near-death experience and lives to reflect and ponder on it with regularity that one can begin to find such truth in things like the spiritual musings of St John of the Cross when he noted that it is “the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind”.  Suppleness is so necessary for the strength not only in terms of the physical life, but as I was to find out, for the interior life as well.

Perhaps this would seem to be balderdash to anyone who is still in what Fr Richard Rohr calls the ‘first half of life’, but one truly needs to go through that first half of accumulating, attaining, acquiring and filling before the requirements of the second half of life begin to make any sense.  In truth, it is the fact that it is beyond the senses that makes this truth all the more elusive to so many of us who are struggling with emptiness and what it can offer. 


  1. Dear Father Luke,

    Finding strength through weakness is a noble act of admitting one's shortcoming, and the knowledge of dying to self. One may have gotten a prestigious name for oneself in society but the commercial world has tainted even the so-called 'religious man' to indulge in selfish means of acquiring information.

    Such unscrupulous act is a blockage to the spiritual life path. When things are acquired through improper, heinous means, the triumph and happiness are immediate but thereafter, the appreciation and false ownership quickly replaced with the notion of "the more you ask, the more you want."

    It's a virus waiting to mutate. Such action no longer serves as basic needs for appreciation but towards the ladder of greed and a host of other needs waiting to be accumulated further. That great emphasis of supreme self-promotion of success, coupled with a string of "holy followers" in one's life is an urgent wakeup call for one to turn inwards and warrant the need to reflect upon the exploitation of fellowman's kindness, simplicity and possible suffering.

    The mind which is stained no longer make sense of the truth but mislead others into false brotherhood. Living a spiritual life calls for commitment and maturity, even more so because it evolves only after many stages of life challenges and growth.

    The road to ascend that ladder of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs commences at the bottom line of every human basic needs for food which is tantamount to our willingness to adopt spiritual life, the righteous way of life. Yet, there are many who took the shortcut inroad path to continue to fill their bodies with more selfish contentment of spiritual emptiness that falters upon one's integrity, trust and responsibility.

    May the Lord guide those who are not chosen to be His children yet that one day they too could follow the footsteps of Christ. When reality turns ugly, the awful truth is this, "false Messiahs and false prophets will perform miracles and wonders in order to deceive even God's chosen people, if possible." Mark 13:22


  2. “A sail can catch the wind and be used to manoeuver a boat only because it is so frail. It is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.”

    This beautiful imagery caused me to pause and reflect on the many occasions when God chose the weak and lowly or puny and ‘frail’ in terms of courage- for great missions – Moses commissioned to lead the people out of Egypt, David fighting Goliath, or Gideon delivering Israel from the hand of Midian. For each of these, we are told that each had a specific fear but each was given the assurance that God will be with them. How did these people seemingly become stalwart hearts over night?

    I feel that it is when we are frail and even ‘broken’ –when our confidence and self-conceit is taken out of us – that we become malleable enough for God to use us for his purposes. Perhaps, our weakness makes us very aware or sensitive of our smallness or inadequacy. This consciousness of our weakness makes us more open, creating a space within us for God and so we pass on to a conscious dependence on the ‘wind’ or the Holy Spirit to flow in and do the work for us. In this way what is said in 2Cor 12:9 – “ My strength is made perfect in weakness” rings true – for God works in and through man’s weakness.

    God bless u, Fr