Embracing the void

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…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Church calendar, Contemplative, Dark night of the soul, Emerging, Prayer, Spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Embracing the void

  1. Jemma says:

    Hmm Pete Rollins -I’ve read that book and I know a friend of his who also thinks he’s very cool. I also know what the ‘giving up God’ movement is trying to do -and letting go of presuppositions to allow space to be re-formed is a good idea, certainly as an exercise against modern ‘information’ culture. But this is a million miles from Eastern orthodox heyschast -in which we let go of our SELVES. ALSO unfortunately, since almost all the proponents of this ‘a-theology’ are from a culture which is already imbued deeply with creedally orthodox Christianity over one and a half millenia, many of them are not aware of the gift that this hermeneutic gives them… it’s safe enough to let it all ‘go’ in order to reconnect with their spirituality in an authentic way, because Christianity is dilutely running through everything, from law and pop-culture, to their well-stocked theology libraries. But ‘letting go’, a-theology is only a Western luxury… it’s no use at all to a three-quarters world Christian being tortured for their faith under a repressive regime; and it’s nowhere near as MUCH use as having a longterm attempt at Christian discipline… I mean praying the Psalms and reading the Bible day in day out, regardless of whether you fancy it or not, and regardless of how it makes you ‘feel’ as, for example, all us Anglican clergy are legally obliged to do. Praying to rule is, to spirituality, the equivalent of advising ‘eat less and exercise more’ to lose weight… Unpopular, hardwork, and 100% effective like nothing else. So might I suggest something a bit harder than ‘letting go’ of God, that is practicing… like a child learning to play an instrument, or perhaps an instrument learning to be played. There are lots of ‘Daily offices’ of morning and evening prayers available, some online… but I don’t really recommend you ‘try’, it’s like ‘trying’ to train to be an athlete… you may just end up buying the equipment and popping out for a run once or twice before you think… ‘nah this is never going to work for me’… Which it isn’t …it would change you like the sea changes a pebble. But then I work for Him… so in a way, I’m not qualified to speak into your unemployment, and should instead say -‘enjoy your leisure time’… and BTW the aching raging emptiness is actually a vast vacuum of longing for a God who has made every bloody effort to make himself known to us -see ‘Christ’… and it won’t be filled on earth, that would be a lie. But since you have the grace to tell where the pull is coming from, you can always allow him to draw you in his direction, rather than just sitting in a draft.

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    • Hi Jemma, thanks very much for your comments – and I’m very glad you sent the PS! 🙂

      As I’m on work lunch-break I can’t really respond fully in a way that will do justice to all you’re saying. But I’d like to just make a few points.

      Firstly, I hear you, and I appreciate your concerns and actually agree with a lot of what you’re saying, surprisingly enough. However, I don’t see it all as either/or; and I also think you may possibly have slightly misunderstood where I’m coming from and what this whole ’embrace the emptiness’ / ‘give up God to find God’ idea is trying to communicate.

      I’m certainly not unconcerned for the plight of persecuted Christians, but this blog isn’t really aimed at them. I can only write of what I know and for the kind of situations I know, aware that it won’t apply to everyone or be helpful to everyone.

      I’m also very much in favour of the spiritual disciplines, many of which I have made fairly concerted attempts to practice over the last 20 years, and have benefited from greatly.

      I also agree that God has done everything to make himself known in Christ, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve known his presence very strongly and deeply. However, I also believe that at times he ‘hides’ himself for a season.

      What I’m really talking about is a very specific stage of the journey or life-cycle of faith, which I and many others have experienced or are currently experiencing. It’s the stage when, despite all the spiritual disciplines, you feel a profound sense of the absence or silence of God, a profound sense of alienation from church and the Bible, and a profound dissatisfaction with the familiar rituals and theologies that have sustained you thus far.

      I believe that this is actually a deeply Christian experience, even a Christ-like one in some ways, echoing Christ’s Maundy Thursday ‘dark night’, and also the experience of Holy Saturday. It also echoes several sections of the Old Testament, particularly the unremitting Psalm 88 and parts of Ecclesiastes (‘Everything is meaningless’). These ideas have been later picked up and explored by medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart, so I wouldn’t see this kind of a-theology as a merely post-modern phenomenon.

      However, nor do I see it as applying to everyone at all times. It’s where I happen to be at the moment, and I think it’s an important and valid stage, but it’s just one part of the whole journey.

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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  2. Jemma says:

    By the way… I realise that all sounded quite rude in type… believe me that it was an interested reflection in an interesting post… it just came out rather um… unremitting.

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  3. Casey Penk says:

    Thanks for amazing post after amazing post.

    I will say that I’m personally at a point of extremes – I feel a profound sense of emptiness (my past is a past filled with doubt) but also an overfilling, cup-runneth-over joy (seeing the opportunity that Christ presents is undeniably exciting).

    First, the doubtful side.

    As I learn more about Christianity and Christ I am filled with questions and concerns and doubts – is it real? can it be so? how is it possible? – the kinds of questions the early followers asked. Sometimes it feels that I should throw these doubts away or sweep them under the rug. In the end, it feels as though doubt is dangerous and that we should blindly accept what other people say about God. But this is unhealthy by definition, because it is blind and cannot see either truth or folly for what they really are.

    Thanks for the encouragement to live with doubt, and simultaneously to seek. I liken it to the self-help mantra of “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Similarly, there is the idea of fear being natural and unavoidable, but of our need to press through despite that fear.

    Second, the side of me that believes.

    There are times when we feel discouraged and hopeless and as though God has abandoned us. I think the most courageous thing we can do in these times is to try and trust; to try and believe that He is still here for us, still listening, still trying to enter into our lives. I don’t think God ever gives up on us or abandons us. By trusting Him we are giving up our autonomy but we are also allowing Him to show us His amazing plans for us. When we strip away things that are not necessary (for example, the small trivialities of daily life) we allow Him to fill us up with meaning; to fill that void.

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    • Hi Casey, thanks again!

      I very much identify with the tension between our doubting and believing sides. I think this is a creative, dynamic tension that’s with us throughout our lives and that can actually spur us on to deeper, more genuine faith. The believing side holds on to God (or lets God hold on to us), sometimes despite all apparent evidence to the contrary. And this frees up the doubting side to probe and explore our real, honest problems and difficulties, so that we can face them and deal with them (even if we never fully get answers).

      Or something like that!

      Like

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