This is the sort-of culmination of my recent Lent posts on letting go of old certainties and moving on into a new and as yet unknown space.
I once wrote a scathingly satirical (though not particularly good) poem about an accidental blank space on an art gallery wall that came to be hailed as the ultimate masterpiece of post-modern art, literature, music, philosophy and religion. It was a rather obvious variation on the Emperor’s New Clothes parable.
It may be a sign that I’m disappearing up my own post-modern fundament, but these days I’m increasingly inclined to think that a blank space may indeed sometimes be the greatest art; that silence may occasionally be the highest music, and wordlessness both the best literature and the truest prayer.
This is not necessarily a philosophy of despair or nihilism. Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the importance of the void, the space that can be simultaneously both destructive and creative, both empty and yet teeming with potentiality and possibility. It’s both a space or void in our souls, and a space or void in the fundamental fabric or nature of the universe, of being. Without it, there could be nothing else. It is the void over which the Spirit of God hovers to bring life and light, form and fullness. And further, in a sense it is the sacred void representing the deepest Mystery of God which our words can never fathom or express.
Silence and emptiness can of course be sterile, barren and fruitless; but they can also be fecund with unborn meaning, pregnant with anticipated presence. In silence and emptiness we wait for something to be born or to arrive; we wait for ourselves to be born, and for God to arrive. The most beautiful earthly music, the most radiant art, the profoundest literature can never do more than shadow heaven’s reality; but in silence and emptiness we may sometimes glimpse that which cannot be expressed in any earthly sound, colour or language.
We long for certainties, for answers, for solid realities and fixed beliefs we can cling to. I’m not saying that there are no such realities, but we so often look for them in the wrong places; in doctrinal or moral formulations or ecclesiological structures rather than in the inexpressible, beyond-words reality of God. And God is not always there, at least not to our limited senses; his presence is sometimes more like an absence to us. Must we fill that void with our images, as the Israelites did with their golden calf, or can we learn to live in and with the emptiness? For, contrary to all our expectations, the absence can be where God most profoundly is.
Words and idols
In representing our deepest thoughts and experiences as words or art or whatever, we cannot but fall short of the reality. I’ve said before (but it bears repeating), that when we write and speak of anything beyond the merely factual or numerical, we cannot help but speak falsely (or at best partially), because what we speak of has that which is beyond expression or explanation. We can never capture the essence even of our own hearts and minds, let alone of God. Our expressions of God are therefore always idols unless we recognise them as only partial and provisional, rather than as ultimate descriptions of reality.
It’s a paradox that we have to use words to express what words cannot express. We still have to speak and write and create of course, and these are all good and vital things. But sometimes we need to dwell in the silence that expresses more than words.
God is both a God of revealing and of hiding; ‘truly you are a God who hides himself’, as Isaiah 45:15 puts it. There is a fundamental mystery at the heart of faith. We can approach God with all the confidence and intimacy of a child to its loving father, yet also and at the same time we approach the Utterly Other, the insoluble Mystery of Mysteries, the One whom no intellect can fathom or unravel, wrapped in impenetrable light.
Giving up God for God’s sake
We all have our own version of God, our own understanding of the divine mystery. We all have our own theology, our own religious system, our own cherished beliefs and prayers and interpretations of holy words. We need these things. But sometimes we have to give them up, let them go, consign them to the flames and scatter them to the winds.
I’ve also said before that sometimes we actually have to give up God in order to find God. We need to relinquish God – yes, only our flawed image, our personal partial version of God, but to us nonetheless the realest thing, our very image and knowledge of God. It is, for us, giving up God himself, with the prayer that God will give himself to us renewed. It is giving up the God we know (or think we know) for the truer God as yet unknown.
No theology can ever contain God. Even the best words of Holy Scripture cannot do more than point to his reality. Scripture itself has to be interpreted, and no-one has the perfect and infallible interpretation of the Bible’s words. The more convinced you are that you hold perfectly sound biblical doctrine and practice, the more likely you are to be wrong – in heart if not in fact.
We need our theologies, our beliefs and our practices, but sometimes we need to lay them down that God may surprise us afresh. In faith, we need to enter the void that may be the death of our faith – our faith as we currently know it and understand it.
Silence and fasting
Sometimes we find ourselves alone in the void, and find that we have no words left to pray in the darkness; but the wordless cry of our hearts may be more eloquent than all the sonnets of Shakespeare. Sometimes we have no song of praise or worship to sing, but the soundless, anguished call of deep unto deep may make a greater music than any symphony ever composed.
For me this is what the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence and fasting are most importantly about. It’s a deliberate stop to all the noise and restless activity of self-expression and consumption that we use to fill the voids, both the void within us and the void without. In silence, solitude and fasting we bring the naked reality of ourselves to the utter reality of God, without any attempt to control or manipulate either. As far as humanly possible, we come without pretence and we worship without idolatry.
I’ve written several times about what’s variously described as the Holy Saturday experience, the Dark Night of the Soul, the Chrysalis or the Desert experience. Whatever you call it, its essence is the void; a blank space, an emptiness, a waiting. It can be an emptiness of despair or of hope – or both; a void of annihilation or a crucible of creation – or both. It is a space of both death and birth, lying between both: the tomb that is also a womb.
It is the place where we give up our cherished notions of God and also of our self. It is the empty space, entered willingly or unwillingly, where we may have to witness the death or change of all our beliefs and ideas and understandings. It is the black hole in which our naked, real, unmasked selves come face to face with the Presence so great that it can only be felt as an absence; a vastness so great it can only be experienced as a void. From this crucible we can in time emerge phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old into the re-born life of the new. But the waiting and the darkness may be long before that occurs.
Walking in darkness
For those of you walking in light and joy at the moment, these words are not meant for you, not now. They are for you who walk in doubt and dark and despair, in the valley of the shadow of death, or just in blank emptiness and meaninglessness. Don’t avoid the void; do not despise the doubt, or despair of the dark. If you can, embrace the emptiness, trusting, or hoping, or at least imagining, that God too is there in it with you. For the God who is too great and full and real to be contained in any of our words or pictures or rituals may, perhaps, sometimes, be found in the sacred silence and space of our aching voids, of our terrible raging emptiness.
If you want to explore these ideas more, I’d recommend you look out works by Thomas Merton or Meister Eckhart, and also try out Pete Rollins’ excellent How (not) to speak of God. It’ll do your head in, but in a good way…