Much of my life — and I assume, much of life for many of us — is directed at trying to fill that emptiness. The question to ask of ourselves, of course, is How? How do we do it? We all have instinctive, unconscious ways of doing it, ways that we have been practising our whole lives, mostly without being aware of it.
Met. Anthony, in Beginning to Pray, gives us an image that illustrates this well. He says, “Generally it is greed, fear, and curiosity which make us live outwardly. A French scientist who worked in America, Alexis Carrel, said in a book called Man the Unknown that if you ask yourself where your personality ends you will see that the tongue of a greedy person is projected like tentacles towards all the edibles of the world; the eyes of the curious person are like tentacles projected and attached to everything around; the ears of the eavesdropper become long and wide and go far far afield. If you could draw a picture of what you look like in those terms, you would see that precious little is left of you inside, because everything is extroverted. So that the first thing one must do is to detach the tentacles and bring them in. You cannot go inwards if you are completely outwards.”
So if we are not careful, our personality can become defined by our desires — which is often the same as to say, by our temptations. And I know my particular temptations have been formed over my whole life — and especially strengthened by the times I have failed to resist them. In this way, if we are inattentive, the past can define us. It need not. But in order to avoid being the product of our past experience, we should be attentive to it.
In Four Quartets, T S Eliot talks of:
“The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.”
To look back into our past in this way can be at least uncomfortable, and for some of us, terrifying. So our inattentiveness may arise from our fear. And we don’t want to face the fears, even though it is precisely our fears that drive us back into our habitual ways of seeking to fill the emptiness inside. But facing the fear is a way to begin repentance: it’s a way to look at our true situation, see in all humility where we really are. Many of us, like the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), are in the pigsty wishing we could share the pigs’ food to fill our emptiness.
If we can — and, depending on our past experiences, we may not be able to do this alone — we need to look our fears full in the face, otherwise they will define us; they will dictate what we attempt to fill ourselves with.
So what do we fill ourselves with? What are we afraid of that causes us to fill ourselves with this?Sex or porn may be a way for us to try to fill our emptiness, to meet our fear of being alone, unloved Click To Tweet
The image Met. Anthony gave includes some examples: we may try to fill our emptiness with food, or with the lives of others through curiosity or eavesdropping. But there are many other ways too. We may try to fill our emptiness with sex. With pornography, or with sexual acting out, or masturbation… sex for us might be a way to meet a fear of being alone, or being unloved. We may try to fill the emptiness with achievement: by succeeding at our career, or by being outstanding in some way: outstandingly kind or generous or outstandingly clever or witty — this might be a way to meet a fear of not being good enough. for example, or not being useful enough. We may try to fill the emptiness with activity: through action — business, being busy, or physical activity, or mental activity through endless entertainment, or endless communication — this might be a way to try to meet or cover our fear of nothingness, of silence, of just being.
There are many ways we might try to fill the emptiness, and many fears that may drive us to these specific temptations; in this sense, at root, for all of us, the problem is the same — we are all in the same boat, no matter what our specific temptations.
So when I can see that my real situation is in the pigsty, attempting to fill my emptiness with the pigs’ food, I can also see what my first steps must be: to face my fear and stand in the midst of my humiliation. To admit that I was wrong, and that the way I thought I could find fulfilment in my life was wrong. And turn back to the Heavenly Father, my Creator, and the only one who can truly fill the emptiness at my heart.
But I need to do this wholeheartedly. It is not only a matter of asking God to fill the emptiness, but also a matter of receiving the fulfilment he offers. God will not make me a passive recipient of any blessing — he will not force any blessing on me, but invites me to be a co-creator even in my own creation. Met. Anthony puts it another way:
“It is absolutely pointless to ask God for something which we ourselves are not prepared to do. If we say ‘O God, make me free from this or that temptation’ while at the same time seeking every possible way of falling to just such a temptation, hoping now that God is in control, that He will get us out of it, then we do not stand much chance. God gives us strength but we must use it. When, in our prayers, we ask God to give us strength to do something in His name, we are not asking Him to do it instead of us because we are too feeble to be willing to do it for ourselves.”The emptiness inside me is the throne of God, and it is with God that throne must be filled Click To Tweet
So we can see that it is precisely through our emptiness we must go when we go inward to find God. That emptiness inside is the throne of God, and it is with God that throne must be filled. When we desire to fill that emptiness at our heart with something else, we are enthroning the object of that desire, and we call this idolatry. Whatever else we have seated in this throne must be thrown out so that we can offer the throne of our hearts, our innermost selves, truly to God.
And we can also see that being filled by the Spirit of God is not passively receiving but actively participating. Depending on God is participating in the life and power of God, and manifesting that in my life. In awareness of my own inability to truly fill my emptiness; attentive to my fears and temptations which drive me to attempt to fill my emptiness in ways that can never truly fulfil; in humble knowledge of the reality of my situation, little by little I have to learn to turn to God in every moment and to offer my emptiness to Him to fill, opening my own spirit to work alongside the Holy Spirit in my own transformation.