The void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift.
By Steven Paulikas
Mr. Paulikas is an Episcopal priest.
April 11, 2020
My church is empty this Easter. In lieu of greeting the usually joyful parishioners this day, my clergy colleague and I celebrate the ancient rites of our religion six feet apart from each other, as an iPhone live-streams to self-isolated viewers at home.
Like so much else in this bizarre time, the emptiness is foreign and unsettling. Yet we all know the urgency of this disruption. The church, like every other gathering place, has emptied itself so that we may live.
The images of empty public spaces around the world are shocking outward signs that reflect the interior emptiness so many feel right now. Millions are being deprived of the chance to work, socialize and support one another in person. Physically isolated and emptied of our usual lives, we are being forced to face ourselves in a way that few alive today ever have before. Yet the void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift. This emptiness presents to us a mystical and uncluttered view of life as we have been living it until a few weeks ago. Life will never be the same. Each day, it becomes more apparent that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to consider a fundamental question about the spirit and morality of our way of living: Having emptied ourselves, what do we really want to fill our world with once it is time to rebuild? Now on Sundays as I look out over a field of silent pews, I am reminded that self-emptying is, in fact, a divine virtue. Christian tradition calls it kenosis, the Greek word taken from the famous passage of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, in which he writes, “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”
Early Christian thinkers viewed Jesus’ kenosis is a sign of divine supreme power, not the loss of it. The sight of Jesus’ empty tomb was the first sign of his resurrection, believed by Christians to be God’s greatest act. Now that I have adjusted somewhat to the emptiness, I find myself keeping vigil with the opportunity of this time, hoping that something better will be on the other side.
The Christian contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault writes that we can emulate Jesus’ self-emptying love in our own lives by practicing letting go of the things, thoughts and feelings we cling to. This insight is more often associated with other religious and spiritual traditions. The Tao Te Ching teaches that the usefulness of the clay vessel lies in its empty hollowness. Mahayana Buddhists use the spiritual discipline of meditation to cultivate an acceptance of emptiness, or sunyata, using the famous Heart Sutra: “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness.” The lesson transcends religious divides; emptiness is not something to fear but to explore as a spiritual reality that leads to detachment from self-interest and greater compassion for the world. It is notable that the most dangerous places in America right now are the ones filled with people we are refusing the right of empty space. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has used his surging popularity amid the crisis as an occasion to roll back bail reform even as the virus is endangering prisoners and prison workers. The 34,000 people held in ICE detention centers are “sitting ducks” for infection, according to experts. The hypocrisy of homelessness in the world’s wealthiest country is being laid bare.
Similarly, workers in dozens of Amazon warehouses rushing to fulfill the orders of millions of quarantined Americans have tested positive for the virus, yet the company has given them no viable option to stay at home. I have contemplated this news in the sad and persistent knowledge that, as a consumer, I, too, am entangled in a morally corrupt economic web that holds together all these injustices.
What does it say about our economy that it depends on the labor of people whose lives we are willing to sacrifice? Do we want to continue participating in an exhausting economic system that crumbles the instant it is taken out of perpetual motion? And what is the virtue of a desire for constant accumulation of wealth and goods, especially when they come at the cost of collective welfare and equality? These are not just policy questions. They are spiritual concerns that come into view with sharp clarity in the emptiness around them. If there is anything the collective spiritual insight of millenniums can teach us right now, it is that in addition to the horrors of this current state of emptiness, there is also life to be discovered in this moment. The absence left by the virus’s victims is an unspeakable loss, and the lockdowns and quarantine orders are causing untold suffering that will have the biggest impact on those with the fewest resources. But for those who are healthy and patiently waiting, this space — physical, psychological, social and spiritual — can hold unexpected promise. This is a powerful moment in human history in which we can examine, individually and collectively, the unnecessary decadence and cruelty of our contemporary society that we have accepted without sufficient scrutiny.
We don’t yet need detailed plans for the future. For now, we can simply examine the emptiness of this disrupted life and take note of the ways in which we might strive to make it superior to what we had before. Sitting with these questions now will determine what we are willing to accept once this crisis is over. Having tasted a simpler life, perhaps we will shift our values and patterns. Having seen the importance of community, maybe we will invest more in the well-being of the collective and not just the individual. Having seen the suffering of others anew, we may find it impossible to ignore it in the future. And having seen the ease with which the forces Paul called the “powers and principalities” can mobilize to defend entrenched economic interests, maybe — just maybe — we as a people will feel empowered to demand the same urgency of action on our planet’s climate, domestic and global poverty, the health and education of all people, and the myriad pressing problems for which future generations will judge us harshly for tolerating.
The emptiness of this moment is incredibly powerful. Pope Francis has said, “Let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were.”
Life will not be the same next Easter and Passover. Once the world opens back up, we can choose to fill it with the wisdom and insight gained from these weeks — or allow it to be filled with horrors that are even worse than what we had before. The choice will be ours.
Steven Paulikas is an Episcopal priest and rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
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