In her book Gravity and Grace, the late Simone Weil wrote, “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” With those words she emphasizes a spirituality which for the most part has been only a minority report in the Christian church. It is the spirituality of weakness and emptiness.
It is no wonder that Jesus said, “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him.” He said this, not to glorify poverty, but to show that the only receptacle for God’s grace is a vacant human heart. We all must become poor, in one way or another, to receive what God has to give.
Somewhere along the line we simply lost our Way, that being the Way of Jesus. He always taught and modeled an inverted power, personal capability turned on its head. He never used coercion, strong-arm tactics, or dirty ladder climbing to the top. Rather, he descended to the bottom choosing the way of sacrifice, service, and humility.
Yet, we who are Christian often march forth to clutch for power and accomplishments as quickly as all others. Our good old Protestant work ethic (Catholics work just as hard, by the way) with a strong dose of entrepreneurship drives us to amass everything from fortunes and followers to perfect attendance pins and pats-on-the-back. We can become so full of ourselves that there is no room left for anything else, not even the grace God longs to give.
Personal achievement should be rightly celebrated, but it cannot be forgotten that egotism, pride, and ambition are the real enemies of the gospel. Why? Because when our hands, heads, and hearts are full, we are simply unable to accept what God offers. “Grace fills empty spaces!” Or in the words of Leo Tolstoy, “Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup which is already full.”
I remember the telling of an old story about a scholar who climbed the mountain to meet the Zen Master face to face and to learn from him. This scholar had an extensive academic background. He had read and studied all the important texts and was a wealth of knowledge and experience.
After making all the customary bows and introductions, the two sat together and the scholar began talking about all he had done and all he had studied. He talked about all his endeavors and all he hoped to achieve in the future. The Master listened carefully and patiently and began to brew tea for the two to share.
When the tea was ready, the Master brought it over and began pouring it in the scholar’s cup; and he kept pouring, pouring, and pouring. It filled the cup, ran over into the saucer, into the scholar’s lap and onto the floor! The scholar jumped up shouting, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full and running over! You can’t get any more in there!”
The Master stopped pouring and said: “You are just like this cup. You are so full of yourself that nothing else can get in! You come here asking to be taught, but I can teach you nothing until your cup is empty.”
None of us will receive God’s good grace or experience genuine transformation so long as we remain full of ourselves. The gospel is completely unappealing – it is downright repulsive – to those of us who feel that we can manage our lives with our own abilities, resources, accomplishments, or on own terms. As long as this self-reliance reigns supreme, the reign of God cannot take hold in our lives.
No, it’s not what we’re often told, but emptiness is not curse; it is the cure. Insufficiency is not the end; it is the beginning. Admitting that our hands hold nothing is not a liability; it is receptivity. And when we acknowledge that we have nothing left, it is then we have found the most important thing of all: The capacity and space to accept grace when it is offered to us.