(Originally published on Issue 61, July 2018)
Emptiness is a very rich concept in Christian spirituality. One of the most famous passages in the New Testament about emptiness is from St Paul, where he speaks about Jesus emptying himself for our sake:
Let each of you look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you all, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
But he emptied himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in the form of a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 4-11)
St Augustine of Hippo’s famous saying is that ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’ That is to say that we experience restlessness (emptiness) until we allow God to fill us.
One of St John of the Cross’s central themes is the concept of ‘Nada’ (emptiness). This doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong when we experience it. It simply means we’re human. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, we were actually created with this emptiness that literally nothing in this world can fill.
Chiara Lubich often uses the expression of making yourself ‘one’ with the other; that is empty yourself in front of each person you meet. And as God can onlyfill our life where we give space to him, she also used to say that ‘we only have what we lose’.
Emptiness’ is therefore not a negative concept in Christianity but implies a fullness from a different source.
Personally, the most striking passage in the New Testament, for me, regarding this emptiness and fullness at the same time is the dialogue Jesus had with Nicodemus in the gospel of St John:
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said: ‘How can this be?’
Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, but you do not know these things?’ (John 2: 1-10)
Jesus here explains that to ‘be born again’, to be born of water (conversion and forgiveness) and the Spirit (allow God to be the ruler of our hearts), is a condition for every human being in order to be able to see and enter the Kingdom of God. And this is not an exclusive Christian message but a description of the human condition as such. In fact, Jesus wonders how it is possible that Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, could be unaware of this deep human truth.
In other words, we human beings are all called, without exception, to recognise our wretchedness, our restlessness, our emptiness and be converted from our empty ways of life. We are all called to accept God’s forgiveness and allow the emptiness, be filled with the mercy of God, with God himself. Only then, will God be the king on the throne of our hearts, and our emptiness will be filled with fullness so that our joy will be complete (John 15: 11).l
by Rumold van Geffen
Chiara Lubich often used a strange Italian phrase: ‘Farsi uno’ which we translate as ‘make yourself one’. Odd both in English and Italian but actually beautifully expressive of ‘putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes’.
This way of empathy is based on the writings of St Paul: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12.15). It is true love and involves emptying ourselves of all the riches we have inside us, in order to take on board the needs of the person next to us.
The Pirates’ hat
I had an experience of this soon after meeting the Focolare spirituality. I was helping my brother Trevor run his guest house in Eastbourne. His wife had left both him and their five-year-old son. I stepped in to help him cope, with both running a business and parenthood.
One day I was feeling particularly heavy. I can’t remember why. Perhaps it was the fact that Trevor’s marriage had failed. Maybe I felt trapped? I was at university and this was the holiday period when I could have been travelling… Suddenly, my little nephew, Alan ran into the room. He had a beautiful smile on his face and he was clutching a sword and a pretend plastic pirate’s hook. ‘Uncle Paul, Uncle Paul make me a pirate’s hat!’ At first, I was going to dismiss him and tell him I was too busy but he was so enthusiastic I melted. I quickly found an old newspaper, folded it into the triangular shape of a pirate’s hat and drew a skull and crossbones on the front. He was thrilled. I placed it on his head and he ran away screaming pirates’ curses…
I suddenly realised that I was happy. It was such a contrast to my previous mood. I was taken aback and realised that love had set me free. By emptying myself I had received the fullness of joy and of peace. It was an experience that remains with me forty years on as if it had happened yesterday.
The creative power of love
Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working with Sarah Finch, an actress who shares the spirituality of the Focolare. We have collaborated on various quite ambitious theatrical projects.
Two years ago we were writing a play to perform at UNESCO in Paris. It was called ‘The Return of the Little Prince’ and a sequel to the original book by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. I would write the first draft of a script and then we would meet up and develop it together. It is a great partnership: I bring writing skills and she brings a wealth of experience at the theatre. However, our experience has been more than this. We always try to be empty in front of one another – to be prepared to give our ideas but then to lose them. Early on we established a few ground rules to help keep us on track:
•To put love first so that it is God who gives us his light
•To really listen to the other person and try to understand what the other is saying ‘beyond the words used’
•No idea is a stupid idea. This gives space for ‘newer and even better’ ideas to be born. Many times we have been amazed at how creative ideas have blossomed ‘beyond our imagination’
•To speak in ‘truth’. In other words to fully give our ideas and not hold back on our own perspectives. This is quite hard to do because sometimes it is easier to pretend that we agree with something and therefore avoid ‘creative conflict’ which can be enriching. It means believing in the love of the other – but also being detached from our own ideas. I think this develops over years of working together and demands great sensitivity.
•Being prepared to apologise and start again when we’ve not lived the above!
by Paul Gateshill
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: