- At the Desert Retreat House -
Having just returned from a visit to the Vatican, some friends of mine recently posted some pictures they took inside Saint Peter’s Basilica. I have been there several times and it is a most impressive place, so rich in history, art and architecture; but when I looked at those pictures everything seemed so “filled up” to me. Every inch of every wall is covered in gilded design, statues everywhere. In some sense it is so filled in that it doesn’t leave a lot to your imagination.
As I viewed that picture of a “filled in” and “filled up” church I thought about how utterly empty the desert is where I live; and yet, this desert is probably one of the most spiritual places on earth.
In the English language (and in Western culture) the word "emptiness" has a very negative connotation. An empty stomach, an empty bank account, an empty house, even an empty space on a wall conjure up images of a void that cries out to be filled. And so, the first response to emptiness is usually to do something about it, to fix the problem, to replace what is missing and fill up what has been emptied out.
When I think about it, our human hunger for "God" is also a form of emptiness. Human beings seek transcendence. We often feel unfulfilled and empty in life and so go out on a spiritual journey as we seek wisdom, deeper truth, greater meaning.
Yet, despite our constant attempts to fill up all the empty places in life, we often remain rather unsatisfied. A bank account may be overflowing, the refrigerator filled to the brim, a person can have ever creature comfort ever desired and yet somehow it just not enough- something is still missing.
Even our quest to fill up our hunger for God often goes unfulfilled regardless of what we may do. People may read volumes of theology books, memorize the scriptures, fill their minds with words and ideas, perhaps consult with a clergy person or a spiritual guru, but somehow the emptiness still remains.
I have come to believe that maybe the very emptiness we experience in life may actually be a symptom of the fullness that we seek.
I am reminded of the life of the great mystic monk, Thomas Merton, recently celebrated by Pope Francis when he spoke to the U.S Congress. Merton wrote volumes of books filled with spiritual guidance. When he first began his career at the monastery his books were replete with theological language, scripture quotes and references to church doctrine; but the older he got and the more advanced on the spiritual path, he became less and less concerned with words and ideas. Toward the end of his life he would just go outside his little hermitage in the mountains and quietly sit, basking in the glory of a summer's day, listening to the sounds of the wind in the trees.
Although he was a Christian monk, Merton was highly influenced by a Buddhist wisdom that celebrates "emptiness" rather than shrinks from it. For the Buddhist, achieving "emptiness" is a higher level of spiritual awareness. When your mind is clear of all ideas and the slate of all your explanations has been wiped clean, there is nothing left but emptiness. So, all you can do is "sit and stare," wide open to the present moment, experiencing life as it is and not as you think it should be, enlightened by the great mystery that everything and everyone belong to one another.
One week before his untimely death in 1968, Merton was visiting a monastery in Sri Lanka, and as he gazed upon the many Buddha statues in the shrine, he had a moment of intense spiritual revelation. It was the culminating point of his long and fruitful spiritual journey.
Looking at those Buddha figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly,
jerked clean out of my habitual, half-tied vision of things,
and an inner clarity became obvious and evident to me--
everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.
I don't know when in my life I have ever had a such a sense of
beauty and spiritual validity.
As I see it, the desert wilderness where I live is such a perfect icon for the spiritual path precisely because it is so full of emptiness - so wild, untamed, unable to be controlled, understood or analyzed, devoid of any creature comforts, so many spaces not filled in.
All I can do is sit and stare into the wilderness; and when I am willing to just that, and I take it all in, it always reveals a greater truth to me.
The "God" I seek is way beyond what I think "God" is.
Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.