Empty. Vacant. Unfilled. Barren. Void. Hollow. The list in my Thesaurus goes on, but I don’t need any more words to tell me that emptiness in any form is one I’d rather avoid. I’d rather have a full stomach, than an empty one; a built house, than a vacant plot; a full room of friends, than an unfilled one; a fertile womb, than a barren one; a life of meaning, than one void of purpose.

But here comes Line 4 of Leunig’s subversive prayer. God help us….to allow emptiness. Had I not come to trust the wisdom of his prayer, I might discard these three words altogether. And were I not on a slow, line-by-line journey of it, I would race past this point like nothing more than an annoying speed bump in the road, on the lookout for something more meaningful, more uplifting, more fulfilling, in fact. Yes, definitely more fulfilling.
Instead I am forced to sit and ponder the uncomfortable sensation of emptiness and ask what treasure could possibly hide in its deep, dark void.

Leunig’s prayer

God, help us to live slowly
To move simply
To look softly
To allow emptiness
And to let the heart create for us.

The World’s Search for Fullness

Perhaps a good starting point is to look around and see just what the quest for fullness has brought into the world. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t have some yearning or longing they seek to fulfill. A yearning for love that may drive them into the wrong arms. A yearning for success and meaning that could drive them to endless hours at the office. A yearning to fill the aching void inside them with something, anything…alcohol, drugs, food, possessions, status.

Sometimes it works. We find love and success and the ability to forget our pain … for a while. Then the very things we looked to fill us, leave us lonelier and more lost than before.

My Own Search for Fullness

I have walked this road myself. My yearning for recognition drove me for years. It often drives me still. Yet, even on achieving the goals I thought would fulfill me, the gnawing discomfort is still there. I still don’t feel good enough. I’m still as hungry for approval as I ever was.

I suspect our every attempt to fill the emptiness in our lives, hollows us out even more.

Sitting at Hollow Places

To allow emptiness.
This prayer reminds us to stop and sit at these hollow places in our lives. To sit so long that the pain becomes unbearable, yet instead of running away in search of something to fill it, to go deeper still. Deep enough to understand the true root of the emptiness.

And what then? you may well ask.

My own Christian belief system points me to God as the one who heals these deep, empty places that I can hardly bear to sit alongside. Maybe not right away. Maybe not even in this life. Yet I have felt enough of his gentle spirit blowing peace into my heart’s unrest, shining light into its gloom and sowing joy into its brokenness, to agree with Blaise Pascal’s words:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

The Treasure of Emptiness

And perhaps therein lies the true treasure of emptiness – an awareness that we ourselves can not fill ‘the infinite abyss’ and never will be able to. To allow emptiness is therefore a prayer to lead us to the only one able to heal the hollowness of our lives. It’s a prayer that leads to God himself.

Read the previous posts:        God, Help us to Live Slowly       To Move Simply       To Look Softly

(Prayer and cartoon from The Prayer Tree, by Michael Leunig, Harper Collins Publishers)