The spiritual life is a path of letting go. People often talk of religion as if it were ‘adding something’ to people’s lives but I like to think of it more in terms of subtraction than addition! Faith, to me, is not a question of adopting new ideas, beginning new kinds of behaviour, taking on a new identity, but a question of deliberate self-forgetting in order that we may more truly live. For much of the time, we run the risk of living our lives at a distance, separated from reality by ideas of what should be happening or concepts of what we are seeing around us. These concepts place a preconception between us and what we see. Even to give something a name is to risk pinning it down to a limited definition. Indeed, one of the most intrusive names can be ‘I’ and all we associate with that. We can find it so hard simply to see what’s there, perhaps because we have not really got to grips with the (empty – see yesterday’s post!) nature of the one doing the seeing…
If there is a letting-go at the heart of all spirituality, then this can be challenging to us when our instinct is to hold on all the more tightly. When things are turbulent, we reach for what we think is dependable and solid. ‘I wish I had your faith, it would be such a comfort in difficult times’ is a phrase religious people often hear. But faith is not that kind of thing. It is not a solid fixture to cling to but an assurance that it’s ok to let go, and God is not a supernatural rescue service, but the very Life we discover in the letting-go. God is not outside the storm stretching out a hand to pluck us to safety. God is the storm, and the sea, and the one buffeted by the waves, and the peace.
One of the biblical texts that appears again and again in Buddhist-Christian dialogue is the well-known hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 in which the writer speaks of a Christ who emptied himself. This idea of kenosis is appealing to those who are exploring how Christian understandings of Jesus can interact with Buddhist experience of sunyata (emptiness or void) and it is not unusual for Christian thinkers to see this experience of ‘void’ as closely akin to the experience of God. This depends, in part, on an understanding of kenosis that goes beyond a simple expression of humility in the act of incarnation and sees self-emptying as a fundamental expression of the divine. God is not ‘a being’ but being itself, empty of all form and beyond all description or intellectual apprehension. God is sheer simplicity, complete unity, without beginning or end. The distinctively Christian aspect of this would be to see this divine self-emptying as ‘for us’, an act of transforming love, but an act so complete as to be empty of duality or over-againstness. This is a complete identification with us.
But there is an aspect of this discussion that is of particular interest to Franciscans, and that is the suggestion of the language of poverty in the Philippians hymn (humility, the nature of a slave). Franciscan poverty is akin to Buddhist sunyata in that it is not only a kind of ascesis, and not only a compassionate identification with the poor, but is a mystical state of identification with Christ in his emptiness. It is a letting go of contingent things, a refusal to put one’s trust in objects, status or even ideas. All of these things are fleeting, what abides is loving emptiness. For Franciscans, the life of chosen poverty is not a concept but a practice that involves renunciation both in material terms and in spiritual ones. I think this means that the distinctive character of Franciscan contemplation is a practised renunciation of conceptual thought and the adoption of a posture of complete openness. Openness and emptiness are, I think, the same thing in relation to contemplative or meditative practice.
This is an area where I think Franciscans can take a lesson from Zen Buddhists, particularly those of the Soto tradition that is content merely to sit in a thinking-beyond-thinking. The practicalities of this practice – following the breath, adopting a stable, alert posture, letting go of thoughts as they arise – are all there to help one embody the simplicity of emptiness. In Christian terms, they are there to train us in ‘having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil.2:5). Zen helps me to realise that having such a mind is not a question of thinking and ideas, not even a question of doctrines, but of living a life of spiritual poverty.