woman looking out at sparkling water of river

The Beginning of Contemplation

by Caryll Houselander

The virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call “emptiness” is the beginning of contemplation.

It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning. On the contrary, it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird’s nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

Emptiness is a very common complaint in our days, not the purposeful emptiness of the virginal heart and mind but a void, a meaningless, unhappy condition.

Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties, and fears, and these sometimes overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt, and always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless such people’s lives are.

Those who complain in these circumstances of the emptiness of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.

They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life. They are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts.

Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is circled, making a shape which in itself is an absolute promise of fulfilment.

The question which most people will ask is: Can someone whose life is already cluttered up with trivial things get back to this virginal emptiness?

Of course, he can. If a bird’s nest has been filled with broken glass and rubbish, it can be emptied.

It is not only trivialities which destroy this virgin-mindedness. Very often, serious people with a conscious purpose in life destroy it by being too set on this purpose.

The core of emptiness is filled, not by trifles but by a hard block, tightly wedged in. Their plan, their enthusiasm, has become so important in their minds that there is neither room to receive God nor silence to hear his voice.

Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At least, they can allow God to restore it and ask him to do so.

At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the hard blocks and congestions; not necessarily to discard all these interests forever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and interests other than Love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had just come from God’s hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being, and of what material we are made.

Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfil the work of giving Christ life in us?

Are we reed pipes? Is he waiting to live lyrically through us?

Are we chalices! Does he ask to be sacrificed in us?

Are we nests? Does he desire of us a warm, sweet abiding in domestic life at home?

These are only some of the possible forms of virginity; each person may find some quite different form, his or her own secret.

The purpose for which human beings are made is told to us briefly in the [old Baltimore] catechism. It is to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.

This knowing, loving and serving is far more intimate than that rather cold little sentence reveals to us.

The material which God has found apt for it is human nature: blood, flesh, bone, salt, water, will, intellect. It is impossible to say too often or too strongly that human nature, body and soul together, is the material for God’s will in us. It is really through ordinary human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about.

But although human nature is something we all share, and we all have the same purpose of knowing and loving God, we do not all achieve that purpose in the same way or through the same experiences.

In fact, no two people have exactly the same personal experience of God. There seem to be rules of love like the rules of music, but within them each soul has her secret—with God.

Every person living is—besides being one of the human race—himself; and in order to make the raw material of himself what it is, innumerable different experiences and influences have been used.

Here are some of the things which go towards making each human person what he is:

Heredity, environment, infant and child experience, opportunity, education or lack of education, friends or lack of friends, and the countless unpredictable things that we misname accidents or chance.

Seldom do we think about the mystery of all the years and all the people and all the gathered memories, both of individual and races, which have made us individually what we are.

To some, these ages of experience and memory have handed down gifts of health and sound nerves and a buoyant attitude to life; to others gifts of mind, talents, sensitivity. Some are endowed with a natural Christianity; others inherit dark and terrible impulses and crumbling weakness, fears, and neuroses.

It is a great mistake to suppose that those who have inherited the material for their life from suffering generations and who have poor health or a timid approach or some vice or weakness have not been designed and planned by God as much as others who seem luckier in the world’s eyes.

Christ has said, “I am the Way,” and he is not limited as we are: He can manifest himself in countless ways we do not dream of. He can will to live in lives of suffering and darkness we cannot conceive of. He can choose what seems to us the most unlikely material in the world to use for a positive miracle of his love.

Christ is not restricted to any type: the glory of God is not more manifest in a strapping young man or woman marching behind the banner of Christianity than in one of the slaughtered innocents of Jerusalem or in the repentant thief on the cross.

Each one of us as we are at the moment when we first ask ourselves “for what purpose do I exist?”—is the material which Christ himself, through all the generations that have gone to our making, has fashioned for his purpose.

That which seems to us to be a crumbling point, a lack, a thorn in the flesh, is destined for God’s glory as surely as the rotting bones of Lazarus, as surely as the radiance of Mary of Nazareth.

Our own experience, the experience of our ancestors and of all our race, has made us the material that we are.

This material gives us the form of our life, the shape of our destiny. Each one can, when he or she has cleared out the rubble even for a day, look honestly at the material from which he is made and ask the Holy Spirit to show him the way Christ wills to show Himself in his life.

Does he ask to be sung, to be uttered as the Word?

Does he ask to be sacrificed, to be lifted up and to draw all men to himself?

Does he ask to be fostered, swaddled, cherished, the little unfledged bird in the human heart?

How much can we do at this stage of contemplation? Not very much, for now, as always, most of it is done by God.

There is, however, one big thing we can do with God’s help. We can trust God’s plan. We can put aside any quibbling or bitterness about ourselves and what we are.

We can accept and seize upon the fact that what we are at this moment—young or old, strong or weak, mild or passionate, beautiful or ugly, clever or stupid, is planned to be like that. Whatever we are gives form to the emptiness in us which can only be filled by God and which God is even now waiting to fill.

Excerpted from The Reed of God, (1978), Arena Lettres edition, pp. 1-9, (original edition, 1944), currently available from Ave Maria Press