Sunday, February 13, 2011

Emptying, Emptying, and Again Emptying Our Vessels

Mystics often use the metaphor of “polishing the mirror of the heart” to point to the ongoing process of coming into deeper communion with the One. Ghazali speaks of the heart as being made of iron. It inevitably rusts unless we keep polishing away the grime and other impurities in the surrounding atmosphere that build up on it. This work is never ending. Once one has polished that iron into a brilliantly mirror that can reflect the beauty, love, and glory of the One, one still must work daily to keep that surface free from blotches, smears, and scratches, or the cloudy mists that settle on it and darken it. This is the work of the heart.  Part of this work is forgiving oneself for the spots and layers one must polish away and thanking God for the grace to see and remove them, and  giving thanks for the times when the mirror remains clear. Here is how he expresses this in On Knowing Yourself and God, or, as he called it in Persian, The Alchemy of Happiness, the summary of spiritual teachings he wrote near the end of his life.

     The heart is like a bright mirror; repugnant traits are like smoke and darkness which, when they touch it, darken it so that tomorrow one will not see the Divine Presence and it will become veiled (to one’s view).  Good traits are the light which reaches the heart and wipes away the darkness of sin.  It is for this that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)  said:  “Follow a bad deed with a good (deed) so that (the bad) may be erased.” At the resurrection, it will be the heart which comes into a desert, either bright or dark.  None will be saved except him who comes to God with a sound heart. (Qur’an 26:89)

     A person’s heart, at the beginning of creation, is like (raw) iron from which –if a person keeps it as he should—is made a shining mirror that displays the entire universe.  If not, it will all rust and become so that nothing will be reflected in it.  As God Most High said: Nay, but that which they have earned is rust upon their souls. (Qur’an 83:14) [Al-Ghazali On Knowing Yourself and God, tr. Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam, pp. 18-19]

Recently I had an experience that showed me a different image for this daily work, an image which led me to a deeper understanding of this process of cleansing or emptying the heart and the goal of this daily work. Here is the image that came to me.
This world was God’s storeroom.  Lined up on the shelves were billions of clay vessels of all sizes and shapes, each one unique.  When God needed a particular vessel, God would reach directly for it.  Only if the vessel was completely empty could it be used. If it was not completely empty, it remained on the shelf, for it could not contain what God needed it to contain; it could not be used. 
Different religious traditions emphasize different kinds of imagery for experiencing God and pruifying our hearts to serve the One in truth.  Roman Catholics often prefer visual metaphors—to see God or have a vision or the truth; “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light do we see light,” as the Psalmist (36:9) sings, and Augustine and others love to chant with him or her. Protestants, picking up on the prophetic tradition of Israel, often prefer audial metaphors—to hear the call or listen for the Word of God, whether it comes in thunder or a still small voice.  Mystical traditions vary, too, with some, like Ghazali, using visual images and others audial images. Still others use sensual images—the fragrance of the spirit, the warmth of God’s love.  Individuals, too, though formed by traditions, have their preferences.

The visual and tactile image of the clay vessels that came to me helped me understand not only the process of emptying, but the goal of this emptying as well. What fills us up and makes us not useful?  Things and desires, distractions and addictions, yes.  But also anger, fear, grief, and disappointment.  And hope and expectations and longings—even the longing to serve, to be used.  These all crowd around us in out vessel, forming a barrier so we cannot feel the true shape of the clay vessel that God has shaped for us at creation.  To be present to the One, one must be wholly empty.

And how do we empty ourselves?  For many of us, it is God working through out lives who empties us, who batters our hearts until we exhale all we have been clinging to, leaving room for the presence of the One.  Some of us do what we can to aid and abet this emptying process:  We chant the name of God, Yud-He-Vav-He, the Jesus Prayer (Lord, have mercy), or Al-lah,  exhaling all that fill us up, all that is definite, the Yud, the Vav, the have mercy, the Al, and inhaling the Nothingness that is the One, the He, the Lord, the Lah.  

This was not all the image that came to me made me see.  When I saw the storeroom of clay vessels, I realized that not all the vessels that were empty were used.  They had to be ready to be used by God for whatever purpose whenever they and only they were needed, but being ready, empty, was no guarantee that they would be used, ever. Some vessels might wait 80 years to be used, some only a day.  Some might empty themselves  every day for 50 or more years, only to be full on the one day that the hand of God reached for them.  Some might empty themselves every day of their lives and never be used.  The goal was not to be used, to be of service.  That was a goal of the ego, a hope and expectation and longing that filled the vessel and made it unusable.  The goal was simply to be empty, to be usable, to be serviceable, to be ready, if and when God needed one, and to accept that this was up to God, not oneself.  If one sat empty on the shelf one’s entire life, then one sat empty on the shelf.  One does not guide her own destiny, chart his own path.  One surrenders, empty, emptied, emptying, to the One. This is our daily work and our daily spiritual nourishment.

Give us this day our daily bread—empty us. Give us this day our daily work—emptying.

1 comment:

  1. Your post reminded me of part of a poem written by George Mac Donald:
    "O make my mirror-heart thy shining-place,
    And then my soul awaking with the morn,
    Shall be a waking joy, eternally new-born."

    Blessings to you!