Saturday, February 16, 2013



I’m indebted to Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B. for the following story. Once upon a time the master had a visitor who came to inquire bout Zen. But instead of listening, the visitor kept talking about his own concerns and giving his own thoughts. After a while, the master served tea. He poured tea into his visitor’s cup until it was full, and then he kept on pouring. Finally the visitor could bear it no longer. “Don’t you see that my cup is full? It’s impossible to get any more in!” The master, stopping at last, looked at him and said “Just so. And like this cup, you are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Lent is a time for emptying our cups. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are all meant to aid in this exercise of emptying ourselves of all the “stuff” that we have allowed to accumulate, things that crowd God out of our lives. Our materialistic, frenetic, noisy, fast-paced culture fills us up at the speed of light with, well, you name your own. Our cups are all running over with substitutes for God. St. Augustine says that there is in each of us a God-shaped vacuum that can be filled by nothing but the Divine, and that divine emptiness remains perpetually unfilled despite our efforts to stuff it with created things.


A slightly different metaphor is one of my favorites. It’s the idea that certain experiences in life can hollow us out. Such events are invariably painful – maybe by definition – and involuntary. I’ve had a couple of such experiences; I write about them in my book, “Walking in Valleys of Darkness.” When my brother died of cancer the grief excavated a hole in my life that is beyond description. It was the “hollowing experience” par excellence. My comfortable world of predictability, control and reasonableness vanished, to be replaced by … an excavation! My first response, after the numbness wore off, was a deep, deep sadness. Very little in life mattered any more, and certainly things that had previously seemed so important suddenly didn’t matter: my sense of perspective had been transformed.


Aristotle held that “nature abhors a vacuum.” This goes for the human psyche as well: we can be sure that something is going to come along immediately to fill in whatever hollowness, voluntary or involuntary, may happen in our lives. So the important thing is to keep guar over the excavation, to keep the teacup empty, in order to leave room for God.

Again, Lenten practices help us to recognize and even facilitate the divine presence. Doing charitable deeds for others and spending time in reading scripture or in introspective prayer are some of the ways that we give God first crack at filling up the emptiness. Fasting is a great metaphor for this necessary emptiness that the Lord needs in order to fill us with the divine presence, grace, and love.

As we continue our Lenten journey, let us welcome the hollowness, and then profit from it by allowing God, and God alone, to fill us up.

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