Gifts from the Dark Wood, V: Emptiness

Exodus 34:1–10, 27–28; Matthew 5:6

The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” —Exodus 34:6

o what have you given up for Lent?  What valued commodity are you sacrificing for the sake of your spiritual vitality?  Some Christians forsake food during Lent. This can range from Lent Light to Lent Apocalyptic.  Lent Light is fasting for 24 hours once a week.  Lent Apocalyptic is nothing but water and juice for 40 days.

Twenty years ago Liberty University was in such financial trouble that the school’s survival was in question, so Liberty founder Jerry Falwell went on two 40-day fasts of water and juice. Two full, Lenten, 40-day fasts, separated by a 25-day break.  He lost 82 pounds and raised $50 million.[1]  So don’t scoff at the ancient spiritual practice of fasting.

Isn’t it odd that such an eccentric spiritual discipline like fasting is central to almost every faith on earth?  This is especially true of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  When Moses meets Yahweh at the summit of Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments—God’s greatest gift to God’s chosen people—the experience is so lofty and sacred, he refrains from food for 40 days and 40 nights.  And of course it is Moses whom Jesus is imitating when Jesus goes into the wilderness to face his demons for 40 days and 40 nights without food.  All of this is why Lent is 40 days long.

Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan, to commemorate the month when Allah dictated the Quran to Muhammad.  From sunrise to sunset they refrain from food, water, sex, tobacco, lying, and quarreling.  When it’s dark, you can eat and drink again.  Some scholars think the Muslim tradition of Ramadan was inspired by the Christian practice during Lent in the Syrian churches during Muhammad’s lifetime.

Personally, I am kind of ecumenical, so in years past I have sort of combined Lent and Ramadan—no food from sunrise to sunset during Lent.  My wife calls it Rama-Lent.  Fortunately, the days are still pretty short in February and March, about ten hours, but this year Ramadan begins on May 26 and ends on June 25.  Poor Muslims; they have to fast on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year; 15 hours, 39 minutes, and 13 seconds sunrise to sunset.

You don’t necessarily have to fast from food.  I know someone who gave up her iPhone for Lent; well, that’s what she told me; I don’t know if I believe her; which would be harder 40 days without your device, or 40 days without food.  You could fast from television for Lent.  Many of us are tempted to fast from the news this Lent.  You could fast from Neiman Marcus during Lent, if you think you might be addicted.  A clergy friend of mine said to me, “This Lent I am fasting from Horace Blanchard, the most annoying and negative person in my congregation.”  There’s a thought: this Lent you could fast from annoying people and negative energy.

Fasting from food is an odd spiritual discipline, but I’ll bet you can see why it’s so central to every global faith.  Hunger puts you in touch with your essential vulnerability.  That emptiness in your gut reminds you that you are a creature, 24 hours away from substantial discomfort—without food; seven days away from death—without water; and about 40 days from death without food.  Fasting reminds us that we are dependent on God for our very survival; it reminds us of our carnality, our earthiness.

Also, I think fasting can sharpen our empathy, don’t you think?  If you are fasting this Lent, you can live into—just a little bit—you can live into the catastrophe that is afflicting four million folk in South Sudan just now.  Did you see that wrenching segment on 60 Minutes Sunday evening?

Have you ever participated in one of those Planned Famines sponsored by World Vision?  World Vision wants church youth groups to get together for a lock-in at church, but instead of the usual pizza and popcorn, the kids go 30 hours without food. It’s like a charity marathon: the kids get sponsors and raise money for World Vision’s food programs.

One high school student named Kari says one 30-hour Planned Famine opened her eyes to starving people around the world; she might make a career of international aid one day.  She says, “I used to say it all the time if I skipped a meal: ‘I’m starving,’ but I’ll never say that again, because I never have been starving.”[2]  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” says Jesus of Nazareth, “for they shall be filled.”

Fasting acquaints us with emptiness.  My friend Eric Elnes says that emptiness is one of the Gifts from the Dark Wood, and I think he might be right about that, but first let’s just be honest that emptiness in human life is not usually a gift.   Emptiness can be damaging.  Emptiness can be lethal.

Nature abhors a vacuum, the scientists tell us.  Nature abhors a vacuum in space; an empty region of space is one of the most powerful engines in the universe, because nearby matter will rush in aggressively to fill the empty space as expeditiously as possible.

Nature abhors the vacuum in your gut if you haven’t eaten for 24 hours.

Nature abhors the vacuum in your heart when you lose a spouse or a child or a parent, so let’s not celebrate that emptiness.

Jane Kenyon has a hard poem called “The Sandy Hole”:

The infant’s coffin no bigger than a flightbag….
The young father steps backward from the sandy hole,
eyes wide and dry, his hand over his mouth.
No one dares to come near him, even to touch his sleeve.[3]

Nature abhors the vacuum in your world of meaning.  Don’t you think addiction is a human response to the emptiness or shallowness of life’s purpose?  Choose your poison: alcohol, cocaine, OxyContin.  Or maybe your addiction is of the more socially acceptable kind: maybe you try to fill the emptiness with BMW’s or Givenchy or Rolex or Carnival Cruise, or Relais and Chateaux.

Human nature abhors the vacuum of the infinite darkness that bookends our existence.  A vast nothingness before our birth and another interminable void after our death, with just the thinnest sliver of existence between.  “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” says Pascal.[4]  Horror vacui, in Latin.  The fear of nothingness.

So maybe my friend Eric Elnes is wrong. Maybe emptiness is not a gift but an abhorrence.  On the other hand…  You saw that coming, didn’t you?  On the other hand, maybe nature adores a vacuum.[5]  That’s what New York Times science writer Natalie Angier says.  Nature must adore a vacuum because the whole universe is a mostly empty place, right?

This is true microscopically and macroscopically, at both the atomic and the cosmic scales, yes?  The atoms that comprise all matter are 99.999% empty space.  This rock seems so dense and solid, right?  It’s heavy, it’s hard; you wouldn’t want someone to throw it at you; that would hurt.  But that’s all a myth.  The density of this rock is an illusion. It’s 99.999% empty space.  And so is interstellar space. Beyond the solar system, there are just a few hydrogen atoms in every square mile of interstellar space.

Nature adores a vacuum.  Well, what’s the point? you say.  That’s all physics and philosophy, you say.  How is emptiness a gift from the dark wood in my practical, daily life?  My empty heart doesn’t feel like a gift, preacher.  OK, I get it. How about this?

You see, the thing about life is that we must use what we’ve got and what we haven’t.   We look for ways to use our laughter and our tears, our joy and our sadness, our losses and our gains, our successes and our failure, our plenitude and our emptiness.

Here’s a couple of examples.  Did you ever wonder how Stephen Colbert got to be so funny?  When and where do you hear God’s call to be on Comedy Central or the Late Show (Northwestern University, Class of 1986, by the way).  He comes from a devout Roman Catholic family and is raising his own family in that same way.  He is the youngest of 11 children.

When Stephen was 10 years old, his father was flying two older brothers to Connecticut to enroll them at the Canterbury School when the plane crashed in Charlotte.  Stephen’s father and two brothers were killed in the crash.

On the way home from the funeral, one of his sisters made another sister laugh so hard she fell on the floor of the limousine.  Mr. Colbert says that at that moment, he decided it was his calling to make people laugh like that.[6]  You can turn your empty heart into a dark gift.  We can make the world a brighter place by what we have and what we lack, by our plenitude or by our empty, broken hearts.

Who’s read George Saunders new novel Lincoln at the Bardo?  Second on The Times bestseller list last Sunday.  It’s about President Lincoln’s frequent sojourns to a Georgetown cemetery to visit the grave of his beloved 11-year-old son Willie. Willie had died of typhoid fever in February of 1862, when the Union was mired in the darkest days of the Civil War.

Life could not possibly be going any worse for President Lincoln in early 1862.  Thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers were dying every week.  Criticism of the President from both friend and enemy was scorching; we sometimes forget that Mr. Lincoln was the most vilified President until Barack Obama. And then Willie died suddenly of typhoid.  The sadness all but crushed him.

But not quite. What happened in the end is that it turned him into our finest leader of all time.  The novelist George Saunders says that “a burning-away of his hopes and dreams led to a kind of naked seeing of things as they really were. We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that? How can we keep going and live positive lives under that shadow? I came to understand Lincoln as someone so beat down by sadness and loss that he developed a sort of crazy wisdom—as if, in sadness, all of the comforting bromides that normally keep us from the harsher truths were denied him.”[7]

President Lincoln came to realize that there was nothing unique about the President’s everyone was suffering during these dark days.  And therefore his task was to diminish that universal sorrow in any way he could.  What the novelist George Saunders is saying is that there is a straight line between the emptiness in the President’s heart after Willie’s death to the greatest American speech of all time:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…

“Be kind,” said the wise old philosopher, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great struggle.”  So we will gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us by what we have and by what we lack, with our laughter and our tears, with our plenitude and with our emptiness.

Are you brilliant?  Teach me some curious, unknown truths.  Are you strong?  Help me carry what I cannot.  Are you hilarious? Tell me a joke; make me laugh.  Are you social magic in every gathering you attend?  Are you a walking, talking Linked-In? Make me your newest friend.  Is your heart empty just now?  Well, pull up a chair.  We’ll tell each other our brokenness and when we’re done, we’ll come away just a little more healed, just a little more hale, just a little more whole.


[1]Christine J. Gardner, “Hungry for God?”, Christianity Today, April 5, 1999, p. 34.

[2]Kari Borders, quoted by Gardner, ibid., 36.

[3]Jane Kenyon, “The Sandy Hole,” Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996), p. 81.

[4]Blaise Pascal, Pensées, #206.

[5]Natalie Angier in The Canon, excerpted in “The Emptiness of Space,” delanceyplace.com entry for May 15, 2014, http://www.delanceyplace.com/view-archives.php?p=2795

[6]Related by Laurie Goodstein, “Cardinal and Comedian Talk, and Joke, About Faith,” The New York Times, September 17, 2012.

[7]George Saunders, quoted by Gregory Cowles, “Inside the List,” The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 2017, p. 20.  Also quoted by Michiko Kakutanti, “Lincoln in the Bardo Shows a President Haunted by Grief,” The New York Times, February 6, 2017.