Emptying Ourselves
by Noel E. Bordador

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” John 15:4

The ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, once wrote “We mold clay into a pot, and it is the emptiness that makes it useful….We hammer wood into a house but it is the empty space that makes it livable.”  What makes a pot useful is its emptiness.  It can hold anything we put in it because it is empty. Likewise, a house is only livable because there is empty space, emptiness within its walls. Otherwise, if the pot is full, we can’t put anything in it; it is of no use. If the house is a solid block with no empty space, it is of no use. Emptiness is what makes these things useful.  In fact, we can say that the nature and identity of these things are tied to their very emptiness.                  

The Gospel from John is about the interrelatedness between Jesus and the Christian. “Abide in me as I abide in you” we hear Jesus say. “Be with me as I am with you,”  “Remain with me as I also remain in you.” “Dwell in me as I dwell in you.” However we translate that Greek word menō (to abide, to remain, to dwell), it points to Christ’s invitation to us to live in deepest intimacy with him who is longing and pining to give himself to us in love.

In the Gospel, John is saying two things: First John says that Jesus wants to be in relationship with us- not because he needs us- for he is complete in himself- but because as God who is love, it is his nature to give himself in love.  Secondly, John says we were created to be in relationship with Jesus. In fact, the Discalced Carmelite scholar, Iain Matthew, says that God created us to need Jesus.1  Without Jesus, we would be no-thing. Without Christ, we would have no life in ourselves. We cannot exist without him. And so, as Iain Matthew says, what makes us truly human is our need for Christ.2 This is John’s definition of what it means to be human person: a being who needs Christ.

The Greek Church Father, Saint Maximos the Confessor (580-662), spoke of the three kinds of lives Jesus gives us. The first life is called being, that is, our biological life, that comes by natural birth. The second life is called well-being, the life we receive at our Baptism, spiritual rebirth, being born again in Christ, and which is sustained by our prayers, and the Sacraments. The third life which he shall give us is “ever-being”, that is, everlasting life through our heavenly birth so that Christ might finally abide, remain and dwell in us and we in him eternally.                  

But in order for Jesus to abide, to remain, and dwell in the deepest recesses of our being, Jesus must find a space- ah, the word really is emptiness: Christ must find an empty space that would receive, contain and hold him in our lives. Otherwise, if our hearts and souls are too full with anything other than God, there won’t be a space for Christ to come and dwell in us.  Emptiness is what holds Christ in our lives. Emptiness is what holds God in our hearts and souls.  We are like to be the pot and house of Lao Tzu. “We mold clay into a pot, and it is the emptiness that makes it useful….We hammer wood into a house but it is the empty space that makes it livable.”  If we were created to need Christ, and if what makes us truly human is that need for Christ, then we can also say that we are most human in our emptiness, when we feel empty enough, (spiritually) poor enough to cry to God to fill us with Christ’s love. It is only when we are in touch with our need for God – that emptiness within- that we can become most receptive to God who is always waiting to fill us with his abiding presence.                    

But it is also not only us who is empty. In so many ways, God is also empty- empty in that he must also carve a space within himself so that we may be able to abide, remain and dwell in him. There is a Jewish religious concept of tzimtzum. The word tzimtzum means “contraction” or “withdrawal”. God who fills all things and is all in all withdraws and contracts, thus creating a space, an emptiness within himself to make room for us to abide, dwell, and remain in him. In that, God is most God when he is Supreme Emptiness, for by that divine emptiness, he allows us to remain and rest in his bosom. Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:7) calls that emptiness kenosis- the self-emptying love of Christ.  There is a difference, however, between our emptiness and God’s emptiness. Human emptiness is a lack that only God could fill. God’s emptiness is not a lack but paradoxically, God’s emptiness in Christ’s self-emptying is but a fullness of love for his creatures.                  

Let me now conclude  with an invitation to get in touch with our emptiness that would allow God to come and dwell in us. How do we do that? The Christian answer is prayer. Prayer is when we carve out a space for God. Prayer is there where we empty ourselves before God. It is there where we feel in touch with our need for him, our spiritual poverty and spiritual emptiness that could possibly make us receptive for God. If, as I said earlier, our identity as humans is our need for God, then it is in prayer where we are most human. Thus, properly speaking, the primary act of a human person qua human is prayer. This is where in our emptiness God fills us. This is where we human, filled with God, become gods.


1 I owe this insight to Iain Matthew in his book, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).

2 ibid.


©2021 Noel E. Bordador

Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.

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