The Shape of My Emptiness

God speaks to me in images a lot.

And last October, when I finally realized the new thing God was doing inside of me to answer my prayer for hiddenness, an image began to accompany me through the journey.

It was the image of a curvy-shaped, ruby-red piece of glassware. Have you ever seen those art deco glasses from the 1970s? The ones that are heavy to hold and dark-colored but see-through, often blue or dark red in color?

That's what the image was like. It was ruby-red, and it looked like this:

The shape of my emptiness, part 1

Drawn December 12, 2010

At the time, I recognized that this was the shape of my soul in which God was currently forming me. It felt like the visual representation of my inward reality. In the bulbous center, God and I communed often together, but there was plenty of room and opportunity for me to go into the upper tier of the glass. That upper tier represented my daily, ordinary life -- the aspects of life where I interact in the world and with others.

It seemed as though the outward-facing lip of the glass was the means by which God poured more of himself into me and by which I was poured out for others.

It was so interesting to notice this image accompanying me in my journey toward hiddenness and emptying of self and then, shortly afterward, to begin reading The Reed of God, a book of meditations on the life of Mary. The first chapter, appropriately titled "Emptiness," offered these words for reflection:

That virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call emptiness is the beginning of this contemplation. It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended. . . . At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to . . . see ourselves as if we had just come from God's hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being, and of what material we are made.

-- The Reed of God, pp. 21, 23-24

It was such an encouragement (not to mention amazingly uncanny) to discover someone else talking about the shape of our emptiness after having just walked around for several weeks with a distinct impression that this red glass image I was carrying around was the shape of my inner reality of learning to become hidden and emptied of self.

This image stayed with me about four months.

Then, during a session with my spiritual director in February, I realized the image had changed. (Surprise!) It was no longer an art-deco, dark-red glass with a curvy shape.

It was a golden chalice.

The shape of my emptiness, part 2

Drawn February 13, 2011

I didn't notice it was a chalice at first. I noticed only that it was, first of all, smaller than the red glass. Simpler in shape. And, most amazing of all, stunningly golden.

Then I noticed a small amount of sweet wine in the bottom of the cup . . . and inside that wine, swirling around together, were me and God. We were commingling in ecstatic union, and it was amazing and beautiful and I couldn't stop smiling. And that's when, slowly, I realized:

This is what communion means.

That's the point at which I consciously realized my shaped had changed into that of a chalice.

I'm not sure what caused God to change the shape of my emptiness, why it changed from an art-deco red glass into this golden, brilliant chalice suited only for pure communion . . . but he did.

And that simplicity of communion led, eventually, to the next image God offered me, which I will share about in my next post. Stay tuned.

The Loneliness of Hiddenness

Self-portrait of loneliness

January 2011

Malibu, CA

A few weeks ago, in a course I'm taking on Henri Nouwen, the instructor asked us to consider our current experience of loneliness. It was an invitation from the heart of Henri Nouwen, one so deeply acquainted with loneliness in his own life, to turn our loneliness to solitude. This is a movement that requires our identification of the lonely places in order to move torward solitude.

When I received that question, my mind immediately flew to several instances in my life's journey where I have experienced acute and painful loneliness . . . except the question didn't ask about my past. It asked about my present. Where am I experiencing loneliness right now?

The truth is, I didn't realize I was experiencing loneliness until asked that question. But once I saw my current loneliness, I saw it everywhere. It is now overwhelmingly present to me. Loneliness has become my companion.

I'd like to share about this loneliness with you.

I've written here about my prayer to become God's hidden one. This is a prayer that took root in my heart in July 2009 and led into a strenuous, often chaotic, but ultimately beautiful journey to surrender and peace. It's a journey I still walk to this day.

Since the time in late October when I realized God has been answering that prayer, I've experienced an overwhelming stillness at the very center of my being. I feel God and I communing together in that place all the time. It's the place I live from most of my days. It forms the central root of my being. It's where I belong with God.

But I've realized that it's also lonely. No one else is there but God. And no one else, no matter how I have tried to describe the reality and beauty and peace and joy of this experience . . . no one else seems to fully understand what it's like to really live there.

I wish they did.

I've journeyed a lot of places in my life, and I have always had friends who companioned with me in those places. They may not have experienced exactly what I was experiencing during those times, but they were with me. I felt it. I knew it to be true. And it was enough.

But in this place, for some reason, it isn't enough. For the first time, I find myself really longing for companions on this journey who know what that still-center-life is really like. I want to meet people who have asked God to teach them how to die and to become hidden and have experienced God's answer to that prayer.

I want companionship . . . but I have none. I've found a few companions through books written years ago by people no longer alive who experienced this, but that hasn't felt like enough in this place. I've wanted real, live human beings who know.

But God is only giving me himself, and he's asking for that to be enough right now. It's been tough to say yes and let that be enough, but I have, and God is and will continue to teach me much in this new place.

A New Way of Contemplation

You no longer need to feed your mind by meditating on who you are and who God is. You're past that, although it helped you once. These meditations filled your mind and taught you about God. Through them, you gained spiritual wisdom. But now you need to shift gears. Seek God a different way. Grace will help you focus on holding yourself steady in the deep center of your soul, where you'll offer God the simple fact of your existence.


The Cloud of Unknowing, page 183

I've been experiencing a significant shift in my faith life these last few months, ever since those two friends asked me to consider the gift inherent inside my inadequacy. I mentioned that it's helped me reframe that difficult pruning year I endured through the latter part of 2009 and almost the whole of 2010. I also mentioned that a pretty significant quiet began to take up residence inside my soul upon that new reframing.

It's that quietness inside my soul I'd like to talk about today. 

Almost immediately after I recognized everything God had been about in my soul for those 14-15 months, I began to experience the quiet. I noticed it as I went about my day. I noticed it when I talked with others. I noticed it in my prayer life. There was a peace, a simplicity, a surrender. There was hardly a need for words, with others or with God. As I mentioned in a previous post, it felt like being present and absent at the same time, being present to a person or activity but also having stepped aside inside myself so that God could be present and at work through me, a mere vessel for God's work.

I marveled at this, and I loved it. It felt like such a comfort as it happened. I didn't have need of anything, for God supplied it all. I felt such peace, and even, at times, a new boldness. I wanted this to continue as long as possible, perhaps for the rest of my life. I began to believe this is what is truly meant when the Scriptures say "it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

A few days after all of this began, I went on a special voyage to visit my dear friend Kirsten. On the way there and on the way back, I began to read a book by Thomas Merton for my upcoming graduate residency called The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation

It spoke exactly about what was happening inside my soul. 

I can't recount all the words that Merton used in that book. There are far too many underlines, check marks, and stars littered throughout the pages of my copy for me to zero in on any specific passage that meant a lot to me as I read it. Really, the whole book meant a lot to me. It's become one of those prized books I will always cherish because of how it met and spoke to me along the path of my spiritual journey just when I needed it. (Have you ever encountered any books like that?)

Several times in these intervening months, I have described this experience as being one of discovering a point of utter stillness at the center of my soul. At any given moment, I can choose to go inside that still center or operate outside of it. When I am inside that still center, I truly feel as though I am breathing God, feeding on God, resting in God, and fully existing by and through the grace of God. When I'm not inside that still center, I grab onto the other part of me that tries to cope and manage life on my own, without regard for God or dependence on God at all. When I'm in that place, I usually land pretty quickly at the doorstep of despair, unhappiness, and overwhelm.

More recently, I've been reading the The Cloud of Unknowing, a book written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous writer who guides readers through the work of contemplative prayer. I've been reading it in small doses before bed each night, and I'm finding it to be such a comfort. 

The other night, I landed on the words I included at the top of this post, which speak exactly to the shift I'm describing that is at work in my interior life with God right now. It speaks of a former way of prayer, a way that includes meditations about who I am and who God is, a way that has taught me about God and has grown me up in spiritual maturity. It's so true that my journey deeper into my life with Christ began -- and was so long sustained -- with such meditations. I learned who I am and who God is over a long and beautiful journey of many years. Through that time, I became rooted and established in my faith. 

But now, as the quote says, it is time for a new way. It is the way of contemplation.

I am learning that new way now, and I find my soul refreshed and ready for it. God has prepared me for this new way, and I am deeply thankful for it. 

This Loud, Profound, Pervasive Peace

Mount Calvary Monastery

Santa Barbara, CA

August 2005

With this joyful offering of my whole self last summer so that Jesus could become all that is seen in me, I came to closely identify with these words from Thomas Merton:

"For now, oh my God, it is to you alone that I can talk, because nobody else will understand. I cannot bring any other man on this earth into the cloud where I dwell in your light, that is, your darkness, where I am lost and abashed. I cannot explain to any other man the anguish which is your joy, nor the loss which is the possession of you, nor the distance from all things which is the arrival in you, nor the death which is the birth in you because I do not know anything about it myself, and all I know is that I wish it were over -- I wish it were begun. You have contradicted everything. You have left me in no-man's land."

-- The Seven Storey Mountain, page 459

I so loved (and still do love) these words from Brother Merton, who has become like a spiritual father to me in so many ways. These words resonate with the experience of light and dark, apprehending and distancing, leaving and arriving that this giving over of self has been like for me. There are so many contradictions here, and yet all the contradictions are true. It is strange to talk about, and there really are no sufficient words. Merton does as good a job as I could ever hope for, so I'll let his words do the talking.

It's been interesting to notice the peace that has descended upon me since those two spiritual friends asked me that momentous question about gift in the midst of my inadequacy. Once I realized God was answering the prayer I had enjoined with him over one full year ago, all the fiery anger and indignation and frustration and self-striving that had been my experience over this past year went completely out of me. I accepted the inadequacy. I began to welcome it. I even began giving thanks for it.

It was like my huge, indignant balloon deflated in that one moment. I became willing to learn to be emptied. After more than a year of fighting against myself and against God and against circumstance, I finally gave up the ghost.

Since then, I've noticed an increasing quiet taking up greater habitation inside my soul. This, too, is hard to describe, but it is as though I am present while absent at the same time, especially when engaged in my listening practice. I feel myself fully attuned and alert and present to the other person, but I also feel myself not present, in the sense that it's like I've stepped aside so that God can stand in my place.

It's a strange experience, at least when trying to describe it in words to another, but it actually feels like home. It feels like how my soul was meant to live in the dance of life with God. It's a loud, silent, profound peace that pervades the whole of my insides, and in this place I don't need to say anything. I don't even notice time. I don't need to know where things are going or have any answers. I don't need to feel awkward or worry whether I'm saying and doing the right things.

I simply hold the space. I stay present. And I let God and the other person talk and move toward one another . . . because, after all, that is what a true listening practice is all about.

A Prayer Remembered

Greenville, SC

January 2006

Hi there, friends.

As I shared in my last post, I've been learning more and more about this pruning year and what it has held for me. Whereas I have previously looked at this last year as a terrific blight upon my soul, I'm beginning to see that from God's point of view, it has all been utterly intentional and even good.

The beginning of this realization came when, as I shared in my last post, two people totally unrelated from the other asked if the inadequacies I've been feeling in my listening practice might somehow be gift. That notion struck me as laughable at first, but I eventually came to see that it has held the gift of my utter dependence on God. Through my inadequacies, others have received more of God and less of me.

And that's when I remembered the prayer.

Last summer, a new prayer emerged in my times of quiet with God. This was in the midst of my summer of solitude and study.

It was a prayer to learn how to die.

Now, this wasn't a prayer for physical death, but rather for Jesus to become all that other people see and receive when they encounter me and for me to become completely hidden from sight. This might sound like a strange prayer, but it emerged out of a growing adoration and love for God. I found myself, as his beloved one, wanting to give him everything. I thirsted to be undone and lost for him. I wanted him, my beautiful beloved, to be the only one seen.

Through this process, I began to sense God's re-naming of me as his Hidden One. It was a tender name for me to receive from him, and we shared such sweet times of conversation and contemplation during the weeks this prayer was at the forefront of my intention. It became the great joy of my heart to give God more and more of myself. I sincerely wanted to become nothing so that he could become everything in and through me.

It's so obvious to me, looking back on things now, to see that these past 15 months have been an answer to that prayer (and is still in progress). And yet somehow, once the fall months began and chaos ensued, I totally forgot about that prayer.

I think it fell off my radar because I couldn't in any way connect the consolation and joy I held in those sweet prayer times with the stumbling, fumbling confusion I began to experience in greater and greater measure everywhere I turned. There just seemed to be no connection at all between them. It felt like I'd entered a totally foreign land. (And in a way, I guess I had.) But I think that's why I fought as hard as I did against what happened once the summer ended. I thought God and I were headed in one direction, but he took me in another.

Now, 15 months later, I see what needed to happen.

First, I can see that he took me through a solid year of chaos in order to unglue me. And it worked. I could not depend on myself if I tried. No matter where I turned, all I met was overwhelm. I was utterly, utterly unglued. I felt like a fish flopping about on the shore with no water to keep it alive.

And then, a few months ago, when I stepped away from some commitments in order to create greater spaciousness and quiet in my heart, I did recover a deep and solid sense of myself again (for which I'm so completely grateful!), but I then also found myself back in familiar territories that now, for the first time ever, felt totally and completely foreign. As you know from my previous post, that resulted in a whole lot of desperate, pleading prayers for God to fill up what I lacked.

So I became unglued, and then I became dependent.

I'm still learning as I go in this process, but God has been gracious to pull back the covers and give me a peek at his intention through all this. That peek is such a gift because we're not always granted those gifts, are we?

But now I can say in all honesty that this past year has been a gift. I can give thanks for it, which is a total marvel to me. I see that God, in his own mysterious ways, has been answering my prayer to learn to die. Less of me, more of him . . . even though I had no idea he was diligently about that work all along.

This Inadequacy, This Gift

Laguna Beach, CA

November 2005

So, the story of this pruning year has developed quite a bit in the last several weeks. I'm gaining new insights into what God has been about these last 14 months or so. And I have to tell you, it's quite a marvel to me. It reminds me once again that God always knows what he is doing, even if I don't.

This is going to take a couple installments to fully articulate, so I hope you'll bear with me as I go.

As I've shared with you a bit before, I spent a lot of time in the last 14 months kicking and fighting against what was happening. I went from a pretty strong and beautifully fruitful place inside my soul to a place of utter chaos. I blamed myself for this chaos. I blamed my circumstances, too. Other times, I blamed God. I just couldn't seem to figure out what was happening, and I couldn't seem to get away from it or make it better. I hated it so, so much. I felt so weak and poorly. I couldn't show up for others in the ways I wanted to, and I couldn't seem to get a grip on everything vying for attention in my own life.

It was a hard year.

Then, as I've also shared with you, I reached a point where it was time for a change. I needed greater spaciousness and quietness for the restoration of my soul, but it had also become quite clear that the time had come for me to reclaim a direction for my life that God has clearly marked out for me. So Kirk and I agreed on some changes, and I set out into this new chapter inside my story.

However, I didn't expect what came next: I discovered completely new places of inadequacy, this time in places that had always been known and natural and familiar to me.

Primarily, this happened when I was listening. Listening is something that has always been like second nature to me, ever since I was a child. It is something I love doing for others, and it is something that somehow God always seems to use. For the last several years, I have come to embrace that truth more and more and have been walking deeper into the ways God can use this gifting in the lives of others more intentionally.

But here, in this new chapter of my story, a chapter that was to see me embracing that listening role even more, I felt inordinately clumsy at it. I felt like an old car lurching down the road because its fuel injection mechanism isn't working quite right. There I would go, lumbering in fits and starts down the street, lurching and then stopping, lurching and then stopping, with an occasional squeal of the tires and sometimes a blast of the horn.

It was so puzzling to me. And a bit alarming. Instead of being fully present to another's sharing, an interior monologue kept going off in my mind every time I was listening to someone, and that interior monologue kept chattering about all the things I ought to be doing or saying or not saying, and then doubting every last word and gesture and action and inaction I took.

In other words, I found myself far too focused on me in moments that were meant to be fully focused on the person before me.

This was not what I was used to experiencing in my listening practice with others. And so I would cry out to God in desperation, asking him to overcome my failings and my weaknesses, asking him to be all that was needed for them, since for some reason I couldn't do this listening thing well right now.

I kept bumping up against this fact over and over again: I was needing to relearn how to listen.

This bothered me because, again, listening has always been something I've intuitively known how to do. It's not ever been hard for me to focus on the other person, and prior to this last chaos year, I had begun to inhabit the sharing of other people's stories so much that I totally forgot myself while I was listening. I somehow came to feel and know their own experience as they shared it with me.

All of this distracted inner chatter and outer clumsiness, then, confused and frustrated me. I wasn't being the kind of listener I'd always known how to be.

A few weeks into this new (un)experience of listening, I shared all this with my spiritual director, Elaine. A few days after that, I shared it with another good friend who is training to be a spiritual director as well.

And both of them, quite separate from the other, asked me the very same question: Could there be gift here?

Gift . . . in this inadequacy? At first pass, I scoffed at their question. But then my mind turned directly to this: one thing every person kept receiving from me in this new place were those desperate, pleading prayers on their behalf for God to be everything that was needed because I couldn't know or do what was needed.

Yes, this was gift.

Those prayers were gifts that those individuals wouldn't have received otherwise, if I'd been in my stronger, more healthy place. When I listened to people before, I felt a distinct partnership with God in those sessions, and I certainly felt aware of his presence throughout and often asked for his help. God usually showed up in those listening sessions in ways that were unexpected and needed.

But this? This was new. Never has there been such a desperate cry for God to be everything because I felt myself nothing. All of this was utterly new. And I couldn't help but think those prayers on behalf of others, those prayers as a result of my inadequacy, were indeed gift.

Stay tuned . . .

This Pruning Year

" . . . every branch that bears fruit He prunes,

that it may bear more fruit."

John 15:2

Hello, dear friends.

I've had quite a revelation stirring up my mind and soul these past two days. It is causing a complete reframing of this past hard year, and I can hardly believe it is happening.

On Sunday morning, I settled in at my desk for some time of devotion with God. Are you familiar with the lectio divina method of reading Scripture? It's a way of reading that allows for deep introspection and personal response, usually in such a way that evokes a conversation between one's soul and God.

This is the way I most often read the Scriptures in the morning. I'll take a psalm or other small passage in the Bible and, before I begin, will sit with the page open before me on the desk and consciously open my heart to God. I'll ask him to meet with me through the words we're about to read together.

Then I'll read through the psalm or passage once, often aloud, and then sit for a few moments and reflect on what I just read. If I have questions about what I read, I voice those questions to God. If something doesn't make sense or is hard for me to fathom, I tell God about it. If I find myself adoring God just a little bit more by what I learned of him in that section of Scripture, I tell him that too.

And then I go back to the beginning of the passage and begin to read it again, this time a bit more slowly. (This is the real heart of the lectio divina practice.) During this second time through, I pay more careful attention to the words, asking God to alight my eyes upon a small portion that is to be my focus of devotion for the morning.

Here's where this practice created a complete reframing of this past year for me on Sunday.

I was sitting with a somewhat lengthy passage in John 15, and on my second time through it, a verse near the beginning of the chapter completely arrested me: ". . . every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit." When I came to these words, it was like they jumped off the page in brilliant and holographic light. I couldn't stop reading and re-reading them. I kept turning the verse around in my mind, hearing it again and again, tasting it on my tongue.

Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 

It was so clear to me in that moment that this verse applied to me and this last year of chaos I've sustained. There's no doubt that my "branch," at the end of last summer, was bearing much fruit. As I told one friend yesterday, it was like huge mounds of fruit were bursting off my branch at that time . . . fruitfulness upon fruitfulness everywhere! And like I said a couple posts ago, I emerged from that summer feeling more healthy, spiritually and emotionally speaking, than I'd felt in my entire life.

But then I was swept into chaos. Waves upon waves came crashing down on me, and no matter which way I turned, I couldn't seem to catch my breath or find any semblance of peaceful waters.

I kept looking to my circumstances, seeing how they might need to change change. And in late November, I landed on the word "congruence" and went about pruning back some of my commitments. (I can hardly believe this now, but I even used a tree and branch metaphor and image for this process of discernment at the time!)

There was a little bit of calm after that initial pruning in November, but still the waters felt prone to choppiness, and when I started my full-time job in January, the tumult started up all over again. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. I just couldn't get any kind of grip on life.

Again, it was so, so strange.

It's been such a sadness to me, the pain and tumult of this past year. I've written before that it contained an incredible amount of loss, primarily through relationships I couldn't maintain because of all the many which ways I was being swept from one end of the ocean to the other in what seemed to be every single waking second of each day.

But more recently, I've been noticing an incredible sense of loss that is more spiritual in nature . . . a loss of who I had been in the world, to God and to others, when I was standing in that whole and healthy place before the chaos began. Where had that girl gone? How long will it take her to recover from this year? The word regression keeps coming to mind.

Up to this point, having made the decision to leave full-time work, I have had such mixed feelings about what transpired through the course of this year. Because of the way my decision to leave my job came about, it's so clear that God has used this last year's experience to fully clarify in my mind how he made me to exist in this world, not only for his own glory and my health, but also for the benefit of others. My decision to leave my job was wholeheartedly, then, about claiming these truths and doing what was necessary to continue striding forward toward the work he has given me to do in this world. (I'm sure at some point I will share more of this story and its implications with you.)

But even though I can see how God used the year to clarify his intents and purposes for me, which has been such a great gift on the back end of what felt like nothing but pain and confusion, I've still felt that acute sense of loss. I've felt anger about this. And I've even felt a lot of shame, as though the tossing and jostling in those waves was my own dense inability to know how to ride waves instead.

But no more.

Now, because of John 15:2, I see that this has been a pruning year. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. My God has been pruning me this year. There's something in me that needed to be pruned. And he did it so that I could bear more fruit.

It's no wonder I felt such pain and confusion: I was having whole pieces of myself lopped off with each incisive and precise clip of my smart gardener's shears! But even more than that, he's helping me see through this revelation that the tumult and confusion is not my fault at all. It is his doing. His intentional purpose for me. He has work that he's about in me, and he's been going about it, even if I've been unable to understand what was happening.

You can bet I'm going to be sitting with this one for quite a while. There's so much here for me to learn and better see.