Before I started reading the mystical tradition of our faith I had no idea what “emptiness” meant – the notion that we must past through emptiness to encounter God. Emptiness seemed like an odd virtue to me. I prefer a full gas tank, a full bank account and a full tummy. I want to be “full of the Spirit.” I like to see myself as someone who considers the glass half full rather than half empty. I admired busy people. Many people told be growing up that empty time was an occasion for sin!

Today’s famous second reading suggests I had a lot to learn. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn about Jesus: “Although Jesus was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, He EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, be born in human likeness…” While in human form Jesus “empties” again, suffering a slave’s death. This emptying is a pattern Jesus chose and calls us to follow. Tonight we try to get our heads around emptiness as a pathway for love and spiritual growth.

Flowers in the Desert

What do we mean by emptiness? In the biblical tradition the desert is a symbol for emptiness. God seems more palpable, more immediate, in the desert. Bushes are burning in the desert, manna falls from the sky, water comes out of a rock, the Torah is given there. Interesting people like John the Baptist hang out in the desert.

The spiritual richness of the desert makes sense because our ego has very little to hang on to there. The desert does not care what we do for a living and our money does no good. There is nobody to perform for. There is not a wine list there or other things to dull our senses. The masks we wear so effortlessly most of the time become heavy and start to itch in the emptiness of the desert.

I am so biased against emptiness, that it is only in hindsight that I can see its transcendent power. My first experience of emptiness was in my last year of college when I went off to London for a semester. My girlfriend (now my wife) had dumped me and I left behind a very close knit youth group. I did not know a soul at school in London and it was hard for me to connect in the five months I was there. I went from being extremely busy and very well connected to be very alone. It was very difficult, but it was a powerful time for me. I got the first hint that maybe I could be alone, that I was not alone.

Death is the Teacher of Life

I bet everyone here has a story of how empty moments in life changed you. It could have been an illness, a lost job, a lost relationship, an addiction…. something that makes us ungrasp and fall inward wondering if there is anything there. When we find out there is Someone there, we see for ourselves why emptiness is a divine path.

When it comes to emptiness I am convinced life is sometimes a better teacher than religion. I keep returning to a book called “The Grace of Dying” written by a hospice nurse who accompanied hundreds of people through death. She talks about the denial and anger that are usually present. She then describes a “nearing death experience” where an emptying often leads to transcendence. It occurs whether the patient is religious or not or whether they are looking for it or not. The patient tends to relax and withdraw. There is a silence and peace. Witnesses routinely speak of a discernible radiance and the patients often use transcendent language – like a veil is being lifted.

The author concludes that the nearing death experience is virtually identical with the experience of contemplation! Emptiness and transcendence go hand in hand in life as in death. Like Jesus we can choose emptiness with intention by nurturing contemplative practices that works for us. This is hard work. In our plugged in world there is no assistance is exercising our contemplative muscles.

Religion often does not help us find emptiness. For years I used religion to avoid emptiness. I filled myself up with the right beliefs, the right morality, the right liturgical events. I used my religion as another decoration on my constructed self. I am not over this tendency, however, it excites me to now see religious practice as training in emptiness, whether it be lost in the music, in the quiet after communion, in the quiet safety of a small group, in some form of meditation. We listen well when we are “empty” of our own ideas and agendas. Let’s be a faith community that treasures emptiness so we can bring transcendence and awareness to the circumstances of life in which we find ourselves.

Is this little hymn of the early church good news for you tonight? Perhaps this Eucharist can help us see the emptiness life brings us in a new light – as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Perhaps we can be inspired to act with intention to find empty space in our day and in our walk together. Let’s be a people who ungrasp, fall inward, and discover there is Someone there.


George von Stamwitz

Sts Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Saturday evening, September 27, 2014
Focus text – Second reading, Philippians 2:1-11

Photo by Alexander Steinhof on flickr.com