A friend tells me that she once sat and meditated for an hour and half, only to discover at the end that what she had been meditating on, scene by scene, was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
There is a moment in prayer when you really do achieve emptiness: you actually manage to rid yourself of all the things that typically consume and distract you, every last worry and earworm and grievance. And in that emptiness you find, not some vast chamber humming with the solemn grandeur of God’s presence, but — nothing at all.
It’s dreadful. Suddenly you are a bag of meat and bones. Your butt hurts from sitting on the floor. Little thoughts about food and sex buzz around halfheartedly, get swatted, and buzz around again. This is all you’ve got: bones and hunger. You can’t think about the grandeur of love or the infinity of God. Your brain is about three inches deep. You can’t remember why beauty was interesting. There is nothing but time: tick, tick, tick, never slower or faster, inching along with nothing before or behind. When will it be over?
This isn’t what prayer aims at. I think it might be where prayer starts. I think this is what they mean when they talk about being aware of our own nakedness, emptiness, smallness, dependency. I’m a stupid bag of bones who can’t even think about anything worthwhile unless it is given to me, fed with a spoon. Everything good comes from something besides me.
I am empty, says the soul. That is when John 15:5 actually begins to make sense. Now the soul can say to God: fill me!
As with prayer, so with life. We are terrified of that emptiness, so we fill it with whatever we can: vodka, Beethoven, Marlboros, text messages, kale smoothies, tattoos, X-Men, even Kung Fu.
All of these things are good, but we stuff them into the wrong places. We stuff them into that emptiness, that inner chamber: our little interior desert, our little Poustinia, the silent chamber in our innermost heart, our Holy of Holies, where we alone may go. Where we go to meet God.