An Empty Bowl

"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us."
--Thomas Merton

C.S. Lewis speaks of a person as consisting of three concentric circles: the innermost being the will, the intellect following, and finally the fantasy. The will in this centrepiece is symbolized by the small glass bowl, the intellect is represented by a selection of books, and finally the clouds correspond to the realm of the imagination or fantasy. The marbles represent the uses and misuses of the will, essentially how our energies are directed or misdirected both inwardly towards ourselves and outwardly into the world.

Inspired by the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10, we are asking the question, "What must I give up to live more fully in God's presence?" If our whole self as described by Lewis's concentric circles, is to be included in self-surrender, we can ask this question three different times: "What does it mean to give up the riches of fantasy?" "What does it mean to give up the riches of the intellect?" and finally "What are the riches of self-surrender?"

Thomas Keating reminds us that the center of our being - the human will - is not in service of a higher power, but is bent towards solving its own needs for affection, belonging, power, control, approval, and security. The will conscripts the imagination as well as the intellect to fulfill these 'happiness projects.' These plans created out of our childhood deficits ultimately fail in adulthood and leave in their wake addictive patterns of feeling and thinking. We, however, do not recognize the failure unless there is a crisis, but in fact idolize these false patterns as our very selves, as 'riches' of feeling and thinking that need to be protected and served.

For example, from the deficit motivation of the will the imagination is conscripted for the task of creating a self-image that serves emotional needs, even though this image that may not have any actual correspondence to reality. Or the imagination is tasked to create a future where the ego dreams are in fact true, or to reinterpret the past in a way that preserves innocence. The imagination is asked to hijack the emotions, to create a self-fulfilling fantasy of happiness and goodness. These are some of the marbles that the will has seeded among the clouds of the imagination.

In the same manner the intellect is also conscripted to rationalize behaviour and to create a system of defense, thereby creating the illusion of control. Keating asks the question: "How do you get beyond the intellect that thinks it can cure and control everything? ... the more intelligent they are the longer it seems to take to surrender." The term 'moralistic therapeutic deists' describes those who do not have to relate to a personal God, but through moral effort and correct thinking can feel good about themselves and find happiness. The intellect essentially carves out a slice of reality thin enough that self-justifying behaviour, no matter how self-serving, is interpreted as virtue. Keating says "no matter how clear it is to everyone else that (intellectually satisfied people) are sick, they can easily rationalize themselves to be the healthiest specimen on earth, or 'this does not apply to me.'" These are some of the marbles of the will strewn amongst the books.

We do not consciously claim that our imaginary ego-dreams or our intellectual conceits are riches, but we live as though this were so. Not unlike the rich young ruler, we want to be congratulated for appearances, not confronted by what seems like an impossible request. How do you give up what you recognize as your very self?

The answer is emptiness: the glass bowl empty of all marbles of intention, or, as Merton suggests, that "point of of nothingness, of pure truth ... inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of the will." This is the riches of surrender, something that from the perspective of ego makes no sense. In surrendering we receive the gift of the Spirit who contains all experience and existence. In this place there is no secondary gain, for all is already contained in God. The misdirected energy that was invested in happiness projects is freed up, and while our outward life may change very little, our relationship to that life changes. No longer does it exist for us, but we are free to participate. In surrendering all, we in fact are leaving ourselves available to be animated by an alternate reality called 'the Kingdom,' our temporal life intersected by eternity.

"The love of God has taken over our motivation so that we have more and more freedom to do God's will ... there is no big investment in self anymore to shed a tear over the humiliations of that illusory entity ... We had given huge value to the childish instinctual needs of early life for security, affection, esteem, and approval, and power and control. Now we choose the gospel values which arise spontaneously from deep within, as we let go of our emotional programs for happiness and reduce the obstacles to God's presence in our innermost being."

--Thomas Keating

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