Cultivating Emptiness


Emmaus 1Most books on leadership talk about great leaders having a confidence that radiates from an inner stillness and calm—something like: “If you can keep your head about while everybody is losing theirs.” But actually developing a still, calm center goes deeper than that.

Feeling empty?  If it’s the right kind of emptiness, this is a good thing.  Paradoxically, when the phrase “I’m feeling empty inside” signifies something bad it’s often because there’s too much inside: too many anxieties, responsibilities, activities that bounce you around so much you lose your way and sense of purpose.  It’s become a cliche that our lives are too busy, and someday we will have to deal with its increasing speed and fragmentation.  Cultivating emptiness, however, goes far beyond being less busy.  It is intentionally using some meditative practice—and there are many—that helps you cultivate emptiness.  It’s another cliche that meditation helps you mentally and physiologically.  The alpha waves in your brain increase, you think more clearly, you feel energized.  In addition, this kind of intentional emptiness can lift you spiritually, putting you in touch with God and God’s creative energy in deeply profound ways, ways far beyond words.

We say that God is beyond anything that we can conceive, and so words and the concepts constructed out of words as often block us from God as they do help us make some kind of contact.  I am convinced—and every meditative tradition in every religion confirms this—that prayer becomes most profound when it moves beyond words into silence, and you are simply there in God’s presence.

I was thinking of all this when I recently prepared a sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter, a Sunday whose traditional scripture in the lectionary is Luke 24:13 and following: the story of two persons walking on a road towards the town of Emmaus.  Suddenly they are joined by a stranger who asks them why they’re so troubled.  They’re dumbfounded.  “How can you not know what’s been happening?” they say, referring to the tumult surrounding the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and now the disappearance of his body.  They tell the stranger that some even say—amazingly, confoundingly, maybe foolishly—that he’s come back to life.  That stranger who has joined them is Jesus.

The Emmaus road story generates this main question, Why didn’t the two recognize Jesus?  It’s also generated profound answers, and at least one more famous question: If Jesus walked into our church today, would we recognize him?  “We had hoped,” say the two travelers to the unrecognized Jesus, “that this Jesus was the Messiah who would deliver Israel,” but almost certainly they had in mind a political and military deliverance.  Though Emmaus was said to be only about seven miles from Jerusalem, it’s been difficult to pinpoint its actual location.  A generation before Jesus, the popularly acclaimed king Athronges, hoping to liberate Israel from the Romans, led a guerilla attack on a Roman company at Emmaus.  In retaliation, Roman legions razed the town, and Emmaus slipped into oblivion.  Jesus warned of the futility of military deliverance, and he was trying to explain to the travelers that the deliverance he would bring Israel—and in turn all of us—would be through suffering.

The two travelers had to get beyond their words, especially beyond their concepts of who the Messiah was and how he would deliver them.  But what interested me most this time around the story was that they didn’t realize who Jesus was until he also stopped talking.  I thought to myself: even Jesus himself couldn’t use words well enough to communicate the most essential fact: that it was he who was talking to them.  It wasn’t his fault.  That’s the way words are: finally unable to communicate the deepest sense of communion—which is why when you see something so beautiful or you experience something so intimate the last thing you want is someone saying anything.  Please, don’t speak.  Only when the talking stopped and he broke bread with them were their eyes opened.  Suddenly they recognized the stranger, and suddenly the stranger disappeared, but his identity lingered in their hearts.

When you cultivate emptiness, you cultivate a still, calm place without words and beyond concepts.  We need this place more today than ever, and people struggling to lead social change, or to lead a church, or any group trying to do important, “good work” need to be doubly aware of their need for emptiness.  When we try to do important, good work we often feel we know what we need to know and know how we will bring about change.  Because we often feel God had called us to this work, we feel we know God’s mind.  The two travelers were talking about liberation and were certain they knew the path to it. Jesus had another way.  More than a way to get there, however, our stillness, our silence—our emptiness—before God will give us the calm we need to walk what is many times a long, stoney path.

You need to radiate a stillness and calmness anywhere you lead, and that could mean leading just one child, yours or another’s, or one friend.  To change the world could mean just changing one person’s world.  All significant change I can think of, large or small, starts small.  I like to say—jokingly, but truly also—that Jesus started by calling just one person, who immediately went to get his brother.  So now he had two, and, really, never got beyond twelve.  Think small, and act out of a stillness, a calmness, that comes from an emptiness you have intentionally cultivated.

P.S. I have thought about the Emmaus Road for decades in many ways. If you would like to listen to a draft of “Emmaus,” a choral piece I wrote in 1980, click here.

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