Our experience of life’s emptiness is a universal human experience; it is not without cause or purpose, for through it God directs our attention back upon Himself, that we may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).
By F. K. Bartels
25 August 2012
After watching a video on YouTube showing teenagers dangerously launch themselves off scooter-powered merry-go-rounds driven to neck-snapping speeds, I couldn’t help but pray that other youngsters and teens around the world would not attempt to duplicate the maneuver, or engage in any other such “thrilling” activity so unusually careless. Several years ago, I was seriously injured in an accident, which fractured six vertebrae in my neck and a number of other bones elsewhere. Consequently, watching helmet-less teens in missile-like, head first flight through the air doesn’t resonate too well.
Nevertheless, these videos—there are several of the same sort—also serve as an interesting analogy of what life in the contemporary world can feel like. There are times when it seems as if our world is spinning so insanely fast that, at any moment, our grip will inevitably fail, resulting in an uncontrolled hurtle into space. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but you get the point.
But there is something else nearly everyone notices about life in the here and now. Whether we choose to step onto the merry-go-round and whirl through life or not, busying ourselves with work and movies and dinning out and a plethora of other social activities, or decide to walk a quiet path in search of peace, there is an emptiness about life that inevitably surfaces. Fear of this emptiness—which falls under many names, the most common of which are boredom and loneliness—can lead to a frenetic quest for distractions: if we fill our life to the brim with “things,” that bothersome, unsettling emptiness will surely leave us to never return again. For some, it can take a very long time to grasp the futility of such an endeavor.
St. Augustine, Doctor of Grace, laments in Confessions of his previous attraction to created “things” of “fair forms”: “Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all.” There is a wealth of information in those three sentences.
Regardless of our attempts to annihilate it, emptiness rears its head time and again. That irrepressible void we feel in life is impervious to whatever powers of human nature we might employ in an effort to eradicate it: emptiness seems an incurable plague on our existence. Some would even conclude that to be human is to be empty, which unleashes a host of other dreaded feelings, such as incompleteness, hopelessness, insecurity, unhappiness, uncertainty, and so forth. However, although we often act as if emptiness is our archenemy, I suggest it is not. On the contrary, it might be more accurate to view it as a friend.
To Whom Does Emptiness Lead?
It is of crucial importance to ask these questions: “From where does this emptiness I experience come?” and “Why cannot I subdue it?” Catholic anthropology, which is the study of the truth about the human person informed by reason and the light of faith, points to God’s revelation as providing the definitive key to unlocking the mystery of emptiness. If we want to understand who man is, why emptiness is a universal experience of humankind, we need look to man’s Creator: God. To say that “God is Creator,” really says it all.
Consider, for a moment, man as a creator. When man creates (fashions something from existing material), he does so to fulfill some intended purpose or need, whether it be entertainment, pleasure, financial gain, personal expression, societal benefit, etc. When man creates, he does so to add something to himself from outside of himself, something which he perceives will bring some good to himself or to others. When man creates to bring good to others, it becomes one of his highest acts of creating, and as such mirrors the divine Other who, in his unsurpassable wisdom, chose to make man.
God created man, the crowning glory of his material creation, out of a superabundance of love: our glorious Father did not make man because he is lacking something within himself or because he is in need of anything outside of himself. God does not create out of a need for his own fulfillment, for he is infinitely perfect and lacking nothing within himself. God freely chose to create man in order to pour forth his own infinite and boundless love, which is ultimately accomplished by offering man an indescribable and priceless gift: a share in God’s own supernatural life. The supreme act of God’s love is, of course, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, an infinite sacrifice of love for the sake of humankind. Christ crucified reveals the unimaginable force of love by which God draws man to himself.
So vital is this concept of God’s call, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its first paragraph with these words: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.”
The emptiness in life we experience is a result of the divinely infused desire for God written upon our own restless human heart (cf. CCC 27), which beats for a love that can only be found in Love Itself, and which cannot know perfect fulfillment, joy, peace and happiness until it rests in the eternal embrace of the divine life of God. You, O soul, were made for God, who, in his plan of sheer goodness, created an inner and irrepressible thirst within you that can only be satisfied by Himself. Love, without fail and unceasingly, calls you to Love! There is no escaping this movement. It cannot be annihilated. Although repressed for a time by those silly attempts at travel in the wrong direction, the emptiness returns, for we are made for a sublime purpose: blessed communion with the mysterious, divine Other who is our origin, sustenance and end.
“The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator” (GS 19 § 1).
One of the truths about man, is that he will find no relief from emptiness until he embraces the truth of his origin: “God created me for himself.” The more we live for the sake of love for God, the more the emptiness recedes into the distance; for as we share in God’s divine life, invigorated by the indwelling Spirit who possesses us with his Love that we too may possess him by our love, we find we are living a new, re-created existence, one which cannot be adequately expressed in words. Emptiness is our friend because it leads us to our God, whose love patiently and unceasingly calls us to share forever in his life. In fact, for those whom the spiritual masters referred to as “beginners” in the spiritual life, feelings of emptiness are a sign of God drawing near, for it is always God who first calls us (cf. CCC 2567).
When we become aware of the reality of our existence and our complete dependence on God, turning to him in total love, we then say along with St. Augustine: “Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved Thee!”
The Church: City of Truth and Doorway to God
Perhaps most important of all, though, is to get it into our heads that God’s plan for his children is lacking in nothing. God has gone to every possible end to give us the means to attain salvation, as is clearly evident in his Son’s assumption of human nature and submission to dying the death of a criminal on a Roman cross. It is inconceivable that God would do such a thing, calling us to himself, only to have it end in our groping about in a sea of chaos and doctrinal confusion, such as is so often the case with some today who, by their own design or by following the whims of others who would lead them astray, insist on an unwaveringly individualistic and subjective spiritual path.
Among the capital errors of our age is religious indifferentism, the notion that one religion is just as good as another or that no religion is just as good as any religion. While some, thinking they have solved the religion question, deem themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” such an avenue of pursuit of God does not lead to the fullness of truth which is essential for the authentic development of the human person. Thinking that any religion or no religion at all is satisfactory, an attitude both bizarre and insane, is akin to a person who insists that open heart surgery will fix the arthritis in his ankles; or a fatally ill person who refuses to take a life-saving medicine.
Uncertainty of the truth and dilution of it, disunity, doctrinal confusion, Christian division—none of these are God’s plan for his children. The Father from before the dawn of time conceived of a community of love, a city of truth and holy dwelling place in which men would be incorporated by Baptism into his Son and the Catholic Church he founded. Within the womb of the Church, the sacrament of salvation, we receive divine life as we consume the Risen Lord in the Eucharist (see Jn 6), nourish our intellect as we drink from the well-spring of the fullness of truth, and thus live out a fully human life as members of the divine family. Christ died for his organic, visible and invisible, definite and specific Church in order that his brethren might be swept up into the life of the Holy Trinity.
“[God] calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (CCC 1).
Life’s emptiness calls us toward God. But we learn of God through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is there, in meeting God, in partaking of the words of truth and the sacraments of life, that the emptiness in the world begins to fade away as our life’s true purpose rises to the surface of our understanding with ever-greater clarity. We are no longer caught up in an empty, perhaps frightening, merry-go-round world. In its place is fulfillment, happiness and joy, as we enter into a life lived for the sake of love of God; a life immersed in the incomparable gift of prayer; a life in which we are called to the permanent reception of divine love and blessed communion with God.
The Father has bestowed the gift of emptiness upon you, that you may find him and know him, for eternal life is to know the Father, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (Jn 17:1-3) into the world to reconcile man with God.
“The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature: For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God. For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (CCC 460).
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Photo Credit: Andrea Boldizsar.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.