God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us. He moves us with a simplicity that simplifies us. All variety, all complexity, all paradox, all multiplicity cease. Our mind swims in the air of an understanding, a reality that is dark and serene and includes in itself everything. Nothing more is desired. Nothing more is wanting. Our only sorrow, if sorrow be possible at all, is the awareness that we ourselves still live outside of God — Thomas Merton
In a paper for seminary, specifically for my ministry seminar, I used a phrase once that garnered some interesting feedback from my leaders and mentors: empty abundance. I talked about how, as people in ministry, people who are called to tend to the needs of others around us, we often experience emptiness in the form of burnout. I raised the question, "What if empty should be our baseline?" What if we aren't supposed to ever experience more than moments of fullness, of satisfaction? We talk in seminary about the kenosis, or emptying of Christ, yet we complain when we feel empty. I know I have, and it makes me wonder what I'm doing wrong... or maybe, what I'm doing right...
Over the years as my friends and I have written papers and had hard conversations focused on our respective practices of discernment, of figuring out who it is we want to be and where we feel called to live out our vocations. What I find interesting is that I, the only-child-only-grandchild, do not often want to pursue ministry in places or positions that garner a lot of attention. Even more interesting: I don't particularly mind the exhaustion, the drain of being in ministry. I don't mind being tired. Sure, I have my ways of recouping and recharging, but I tend to not hoard my energy to myself. I build it up only to spend it again (I have the same tendency with money, but that's another story). And when people comment on my ministry — when they compliment or praise me, well, I don't often like it. I'd rather go unnoticed. I don't think a lot about the theories or knowledge that guides my work. I just try and do what I feel called to do: show up and love people (which is harder than it sounds, as I'm sure you might guess).
Perhaps emptiness is a sign of ministry, of service, gone right...
I'm not talking about the kind of emptiness that results in feeling bitter, cynical, jaded, hurt, abused, burned out, or other such emotions. I mean the kind of emptiness that comes from knowing you gave everything you had, everything you could, without doing harm to yourself or those you serve. I mean the kind of emptiness that leaves you feeling, or at least hoping, you made a difference, albeit sometimes a small (but not insignificant) one. I mean the kind of empty that leaves you with a desire to fill up, recharge, and do it all over again. But a word of caution, one I speak both to you and to myself: don't let it get to your head.
The title of Merton's entry for today in A Year with Thomas Merton was "The Sin of Wanting to Be Heard." The moment I saw the title, I cringed inside. I knew that this entry, this short devotion, unbeknownst to Merton, was written just for me... or maybe for you...
We live in a world that bombards us with several recurring, often overwhelming messages, a couple of which I struggle against on a regular basis: you need more; don't be invisible; make sure you are heard/seen/noticed; and power is everything. Sometimes I do well in my fight, and other times, well, I mess up royally.
In this entry from Merton, he says this:
I have to face the fact that there is in me a desire for survival as pontiff, prophet, and writer, and this has to be renounced before I can be myself at last.
I have friends who joke about wanting to be Bishop, and I know people for whom the desire is sincere. I know that, in my own life, I write for my readers as much as I write for myself. I write to be heard. I take photos to be seen. I give hugs to feel the touch of another against myself. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a truly altruistic action. Yet when we pursue authority, acclaim, and affirmation, our actions risk being tainted and our motives tarnished. More importantly, we put ourselves at risk for disappointment, letdown, and downright missing the point of why we do what we do and why we try to be who we try to be.
Breathe. Sit still. Listen to your motives. Pay attention to your needs. Do not neglect your need for rest, rejuvenation, and solitude. Know why you are who you are and why you do what you do. Surround yourself with like-minded people who will help keep you full for the journey, the day, or at the very least, the moment. Always remember, we're in this together.