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Emptiness – the space for life to happen

3 November 2010

That you might be strengthened in the inner person being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend the breadth and length, and height and depth, to know the love of Christ, which passes all understanding. That you might be filled with the fullness of God

Ephesians 3

There is no doubt we live in an age where Science helps us to explore the physical universe its breadth and length, its height and depth. It puts forward hypothesis, tests them and then says what it knows. Perhaps, more importantly, it says what it does not know. Science does not tell us if God exists or not it says it cannot know.

I want to explore this thing called emptiness, and begin by saying the starting point for emptiness is to say that God cannot be known in the way that we normally know something. We dwell in the material world, and so our knowing is linked to what we can conceptualise, what we can imagine, what we can learn and think about. Our knowing is about our attachments.

In Hinduism there is a saying found in the Upanishads ‘Neti neti’, which means ‘neither this, nor that’. It is a way of describing something by what it is not. For the Hindu, it is a way of approaching Brahman without using affirmative definitions or descriptions. It is a way of saying that the Divine is not real as we are real but nor is the Divine unreal. The Divine does not live as we live, but nor is it dead. The Divine does not love as we love, but nor does it not love. It is a very helpful way of saying that whatever the Divine may be, whenever we seek or attempt to capture that in words, we end up falling short. In the end we can never describe God in words.

It is interesting to note that the one time in scripture when God is asked to give a name, in response to Moses question, Who shall I say has sent me? – the reply is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”. In other words “I have no name, I cannot be named, I cannot be contained”.

Emptiness is difficult for us because it contradicts our usual way of functioning intellectually. I cannot imagine emptiness; I cannot think of emptiness; I do not understand no thing or nothing. I normally understand space as the planets, the stars, etc., but emptiness is beyond my comprehension. Emptiness draws us into the fullness of God by drawing us to no thing, to the Neti-neti, ‘neither this nor that’.

For silence is not God, speaking is not God, fasting is not God, eating is not God, loneliness is not God, company is not God, hate is not God, love is not God. God is not anything or contained in anything, God is hid between, in the spaces that contains life.

When I was a child, as St Paul says, I thought like a child, reasoned like a child. When I was a child, I first of all experienced myself as the centre of the universe. In fact, in the early days of infancy there is no other, I am it and everything is an extension of me. When I go through the terrible twos, I learn to differentiate myself from the others. I experience myself as being separate from the world, but still somehow in control of it. Slowly I find that I do not control the world but somehow it controls me, and I adapt to the social norms and conventions that society places on me. Then as I grow older I begin to question and challenge those norms and conventions. My mind becomes large with knowledge and I learn to rationalize and reason things in new ways. I start to create my own norms, to adapt old ones and discover new things. I become the authority of my own meaning and destiny.

Then I learn to experience life, and how life can bring new challenges that shake the foundations I once felt would sustain me. And so I learn to adjust and seek for new ways of being through the shifting rhythms of life.

At each stage as I learn new things, experience new things, become new things, there is also a different image of God. Each transition of life becomes an experience of dying and being born anew. In my childhood, God was much like an earthly figure, a parent. The world was the earth that I knew according to my local suburb, my area, my country Australia and God somehow controlled and cared for everything in my world, much like a parent cares for their child. But I imagined God to be a being, a much bigger superior being, but nonetheless a being.

As I grew in my awareness of life I started to question if this God has as much control over the affairs of the world as I originally thought. The age-old question, why do bad things happen to good people would haunt me. My non-believing friends would often question me, if God is a god of love how can he let bad things happen? I had no good answer for this.

As I continued to experience life and its challenges the thought that some supernatural supreme spirit of love would play such a joke on creation as to create it perfectly, then cause humans to have free will so as to make mistakes so as to then be able to send a saviour to rescue us from our mistake, once and for all, seemed ludicrous.

As each stage came along, the image of God became less clear; the face of God became more clouded. The God of my childhood became more distant.

In the 14th Century an anonymous author wrote a spiritual guide called the Cloud of unknowing. This Christian author goes beyond thought and imagery as radically as any Zen Buddhist. All thoughts, images, concepts are buried beneath the Cloud. It is in the cloud that one moves from asking who or what God is, to the simple assertion that God is.

The 3rd Century Cappadocian, father Gregory of Nyssa, wrote a reflection on the life of Moses. In this life of Moses, Gregory speaks of life as perpetual ascent. He is one of the first to question the Static model of creation; that of perfect creation ruined by original sin. Rather, he says life is perpetually becoming what it is. One might say he was the first of the existentialists. He takes the journey of Moses up Mount Sinai and says that there in the cloud was where Moses saw God. Moses’ experience, rather than being the end, leads him further into the cloud, and yearning for more. Not that he is unfulfilled, but his desire to know God is never satiated. It can never be as the breadth and length, height and depth of God can never be exhausted. Why the cloud? Because in the cloud his sight is blinded, it is beyond concept, beyond sight, beyond imagination that God is to be experienced, that God is to be known.

How we speak of God changes through our life as we evolve, as we move from speaking and reasoning like a child. If we look back over the history of the human person, religions, cultures, races have evolved and developed the way in which it speaks of God and thinks of God.

Life is a wonder, life is a miracle. It is not a wonder and a miracle because it has been created by a higher power. It is a wonder because it simply is. You are a wonder simply because you are. And who we are is located in the breadth and length, the height and depth of life itself the fullness of God as St. Paul says, in this life, the one life we live and move and have our being.

When I was a child I set out on a path, in search of the path, the path to God. The path sometimes seemed to be clear, other times not so clear. Sometimes there seemed like there were many paths, other times I lost the way altogether. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed by the choices of paths that I couldn’t cope. And sometimes I wound up retreating to the bed.

Now, rather than following a path, I simply rest in life as it comes to me, in all its wonder, its terror, its sadness and joys. I don’t know God, but I know what it is to love, and to hate, to know suffering and elation, to know sadness and to know joy, to know companionship and to know loneliness. I know what it is to live life and to have life lived in me.

Life doesn’t need a goal at the end of it to have meaning and purpose. Life is what it is, and I can be fully present to it now. Each moment is its meaning and purpose, simply because it is life will be what it will be, neti neti – neither this nor that – it simply is, and I am, you are, we are.

Life expresses itself in each moment, calls us each moment, embraces us each moment, lives in us each moment. Life is a wonder, a miracle, you and I are a wonder and a miracle. We can know this, but not through imagination or concepts, not because I tell you or someone else tells you how wonderful you are. We know this in the deepest part of our nature, not by talking, but in the being, in the silent being, in the space.

Awaken to a new perspective.

That you might be strengthened in the inner person being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend the breadth and length, and height and depth, to know the love of Christ, which passes all understanding. That you might be filled with the fullness of God.

Emptiness – the space for life to happen – in which we live and move and have our being.

Peace be with you


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