Emptying Yourself Of Yourself

By: Brian Robertson

"Make nothing of yourself, so that God can make the universe of you."

-Ambrose of Optina


There is a wonderful story told in the zen tradition of a man who came to the Master seeking help with understanding a certain spiritual question. The Master said he was more than delighted to talk about it, but suggested it would be nice to have a bit of tea first.

While the guest watched, the Master began pouring the tea into the cup. To the guest's surprise, the Master kept pouring after the cup was full. Tea began to spill down from the cup and move across the table.

"Hey!" the alarmed guest shouted, "the cup is full! You can't put any more tea in here."

"Likewise," said the patient Master, "your mind is full. Until you empty it, you cannot receive anything at all!"

We're all, and excuse me for saying this, full of it. Full of what? Of opinions about how life should be and what God should be doing in our lives and in the lives of others. Of regrets for what we have done in life or, perhaps more often, for what we didn't do, the opportunities we missed. Of plans for a future that we have no guarantee will even arrive. Of dogma and creed and belief. Of obligations. Of chatter.

But the great saints of all times and places have told us that in order to receive, we have to be willing to open up, to clean house and throw out the excess baggage. The "nothing" that Ambrose refers to is not to be taken to mean we should think of ourselves as hopeless sinners or evil, for (and here's an awkward phrase) we are not nothing, but rather something -- heirs of the Kingdom who need to realize our worth to ourselves and to God. Ambrose is speaking here of making oneself "nothing" by emptying oneself, lightening the load, getting rid of the opinions and regrets and memories and plans. It is a moment of simply allowing things to be as they are without trying to make something happen -- which is another way to say, "Thy will be done."

As Christians, we accomplish that best when we sit in prayerful expectation of God's presence, when we allow ourselves to find that is already present -- the inward light of the Christ within. I also find in Ambrose's suggestion an echo of the Buddhist concept of "emptiness" or "void." The paradox is that when we enter that emptiness, we find no such thing! We find it full of all things -- of God who within the world through the Inward Light of Christ as well as outside and beyond, more certainly than the sum total of all things!

The world would have you fill yourself -- with noise and distraction, with the blare of television and radio and, yes, even the Internet. It would tell you that who you are is determined in a relative sense -- how you are relative to the world. Democrat or Republican? Conservative or liberal? White collar worker or blue collar?

But the true identity is in the silence we share, when we are empty of the world as a source for our identity and filled with God as a certainty of our being. The labels fall away - for "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."