Madonna and Child (in progress)
icon by Chantal Heinegg
Yesterday, my wife talked about a reading she attended which was was, among other things, about seeing one's own nothingness.
Ah, Yes. The sacred writings. We gravely transcribe them from other languages and read them to one another as though they were going to change things in us. I would be tempted to laugh, except that the situation is so very dire indeed.
A very great deal has been said about seeing our own nothingness. People repeat this like parrots. Yet the phrase goes unexamined; and it deserves examination.
Do we have nothingness; is there such a thing? To speak of "our own" nothingness implies that it's a characteristic we have, that one can somehow ascribe it to us. Yet there is no such thing as nothingness; already, the universe begins with something.
There is existence. There is Being. And it is impossible, quite frankly, to recognize nothingness from nothingness. If nothingness actually existed, even then, something would need to recognize it.
Else, no conversation at all, about anything. Ever.
I think perhaps one begins, right away, to see from this that the idea of seeing our own nothingness, taken at face value, is utterly worthless. We haven't really pondered this; we don't understand it.
When the idea of seeing our own nothingness is mentioned, it only means our own nothingness in relationship to something else which is greater. It is not an absolute nothingness; it isn't an emptiness, a not–being. It is a being that lacks.
So it is not the nothingness that we have to see; it is an inadequacy, a lack, an insufficiency. It isn't that I am nothing — I am not nothing. As a particle of His Endlessness, of God himself, I am something; it is just that I'm an infinitesimally small something, something that lacks. So, relatively speaking, I am “nothing,” which actually means, not nothing, but instead something—something very tiny and inadequate.
I only measure this purported and nonexistent “nothingness” relative to that something which is God; and since we cannot know God in any real way from our level, but only through His action, which is Love alone, what I am "nothing" in relationship to is Love.
This is something I can in fact see; my love is "nothing" in relationship to God's Love. If I see my own nothingness, I don't see nothingness at all; I emphatically see something, which is that I am — and in that action of seeing that I am, I see how tiny and insufficient my love is relative to God's Love.
There are those, to be sure, who will hold up their transcendental experiences of annihilation and bliss within annihilation, of going into the silence and the light, as examples of how wrong I am about this. I am familiar with such experiences, and they don't suffice in terms of understanding this question.
We are not supposed to go towards the light. It is far too easy to take refuge in nothingness; from a spiritual point of view, it might be said, any idiot can do it. It takes a great deal more work, effort, and inner courage to see my lack — which is a much better way of describing the situation, and the phrase which we rightly ought to be using in place of this faulty idea of seeing our own nothingness. If we truly had nothingness, we wouldn't be; the fact that we are at all calls us to a responsibility to be more than nothing. We are first called to see that we are something; and yet even that it isn't enough.
We then need to see what we are.
Here is where the action of real feeling comes in. One can spend decades working on the awakening of organic sensation; and it is absolutely necessary. Even if one achieves something real in the realm of sensation, it then takes decades for it to develop a complete and permanent aspect within Being. And only then does real feeling begin to have any permanent action within Being; because without that foundation, no matter how impressive its action, it is always temporary and leaves one confused about its purpose. One catches the smell of the chicken soup wafting through the kitchen; but there is no broth on the tongue, there is no meat between one’s teeth.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.