My favorite slogan of the environmental movement is the edict that we should:
“live simply so others can simply live.”
It’s a basic truism that most of us who are living in the world’s wealthiest nations find incredibly difficult to enact. The everyday components of our lives – driving to work, flying to visit family and friends, buying a plastic bottle of water, printing out important documents, using our cell phones – contribute to the planet’s disease and the diminishment in the life quality of our brothers and sisters in the poorest nations. Even the most ecologically conscious of us have a difficult time living in this country, without contributing to global environmental problems. We cannot escape participating in a system so dependent on excess.
Yet the slogan, “Live simply so others can simply live,” aims to remind us that we don’t need to have it all. We can be content with enough. We need enough food to stave off hunger and provide nutrition; enough house to keep us safe and warm.
I believe that this is what monks and nuns mean when they take vows of poverty. They are not poor. Rather they embrace lives of simplicity: a room, a desk, a chair, lamp and bed, warm bread, spiritual community.
This kind of living is the opposite of the religious messages that talk about abundance and prosperity. The Jewish and Christian traditions have scriptures that speak of having blessings so great that God will “throw open the floodgates of heaven, and pour out a blessing, that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10) or that we will receive gifts in such quantity that they will be “pressed down, shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38).
Other scriptures suggest that plenty is the reward for faithfulness:
- “Therefore keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do,” (Deuteronomy 29:9)
- “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, but those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5)
Even Jesus indicates that he came that so that we can “have life and life more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
These seem to be the opposite of the simple life for which our planet and economy is calling.
So, I want to say that the times have changed. Perhaps we should not apply the lessons of ancient communities that occupied no more land than the state of Maine to contemporary global society.
But perhaps we should?
Even in those ancient times, expectations for plenty were balanced with periodic and ritual emptying. If the harvest was plenty, the temple sacrifice was large. Crops were to be left in the fields for the poor to glean for their own food. Debts and oppressions were released every seven years during the season of Jubilee. Even the early followers of Jesus came together and shared their belongings as they focused on worship and the sharing of their faith. Receiving came after, and as a result, of giving.
This leads me to believe that there is a principle we have missed in the emphasis on abundance and plenty:
Fullness is balanced by emptiness.
This is a difficult concept for me as someone who lives with a depressive condition. For the most part, “emptiness” is a bad thing.
- “Emptiness” is the word I use describe how vacuous and lonely my soul can feel, even in the presence of people who say they love me.
- “Emptiness” is the word I use to describe the challenge of having to teach, write and work when the only nourishment I have is the toast and peanut butter I made myself eat – despite the loss of appetite.
- “Emptiness” is the word I use to describe the groping for something to steady my wavering sense of self until I can find my way on the path again – assuming that I still believe that there is a path.
- Emptiness is hunger, thirst and the hollow sound of nothingness against the tin metal of my soul.
No matter how you slice it, “emptiness” is not something I desire.
“Fullness” is what I revel in and cling to when it’s around. Because I know fullness will not last forever. It will subside again. Into emptiness.
For this reason, I’ve always felt a disconnection when I hear sermons and lessons about how Christ emptied self in the process of incarnation.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV)
Christian traditions have interpreted this passage in a variety of ways. Some say that God relinquishes divine attributes of omnipotence, holiness, perfection, etc. while present in the historical figure of Jesus. That’s how Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Others say that Jesus intentionally hid his true divinity and glory by coming to the common people in a humble manner. Still others will say that God constantly pours out Godself in the beauty and wonder of creation.
Despite these theological trajectories, Paul’s message seems clear:
- imitate Jesus’ self-emptying and be subservient to others
- empty yourself in order to receive God – in order to be like God
The Greek word is “kenosis.” Emptying.
Given my experiences of emptiness, this does not feel holy to me. It does not feel like God. Surely, God wouldn’t consider any kind of emptiness as an ideal. As something I should emulate.
I am left with questions: Can’t God fill us, without displacing us? Without needing us to become empty vessels? Without asking us to lose whatever sense of being we have finally found?
Every part of me tells me to reject this understanding of who Jesus is and how we should understand salvation. When the preachers and teachers speak of kenosis, I close my ears. “Not my God,” I think.
Recently, I’ve begun to re-consider. I decided to throw a party for twenty of my closest friends. I cleaned my home thoroughly. I pushed some furniture and books to the walls and closets. I pulled out folding chairs and stools . . . imagining where I would fit this many people into the corners of the living and dining rooms. I bought pounds of beans, bunches of vegetables, bags of rice and meal. I began cooking two days early. The first guest was scheduled to arrive at 6:30 am; the last guest would not leave until 10 pm. By the end of the day, I had cooked, fed, laughed, danced, hugged, listened to and chatted with people I don’t see nearly enough. And I fell onto the bed, fully clothed, bone tired. Empty.
I felt how my full house and full kitchen had made me empty. And this emptiness left me feeling full of love, friendship and purpose.
Is this the lesson of emptiness and fullness? That we should share what we have?
Could this be why Jesus tells so many parables about how a host has a celebration, banquet and feast, and we are all invited?
Perhaps hospitality is my window into understanding that living simply, experiencing God in our bodies, and being like our spiritual models begins with the childhood lesson to share.
This could be just as true for global politics and the unequal distribution of wealth as it is for my small apartment and circle of friends.
And when we can’t get there, because we’re running on empty, may someone open her doors, cook a meal, pull the chair back from the table, and share with us.