In Advent-Christmastide we heard the Annunciation story three times. We visited Elizabeth, long barren, and remembered the story of Sarah’s bitterness, and this week we consider Hannah, her tears and prayers and the gift of a child.
Saints and sages have pondered emptiness as the place or state where we lovers and followers of Christ offer ourselves as dwellings for God’s graceful presence, hollow spaces for the treasure of the living Word. I can’t assume this of you, but that was my idea of how the three vows worked: poverty, chastity and obedience were the ways I would offer my being to God as a vessel for God’s love.
Poverty: I would be empty of all the desires for things that would clutter my soul; not clinging to possessions, giving freely, owning nothing and begging for God to own me.
Chastity: No love could transcend God’s. I would forego the love and union of married love, family life. I would be single-hearted, with a passion for God alone, in Dominican life which would call me to remember my desire to give my heart in loving service.
Obedience. Not my will, but God’s. I would seek what God sought. Trusting, I would obey my superiors and accept humbly whatever, wherever, whenever, whoever. I would be God’s handmaid. “Be it done unto me according to your word.”
I can’t know how it was for you, but suspect we all made profession with some understanding like this. We were Mary in this story, blessedly unknowing, assenting to God’s work in and through us, and believing that like Mary we could be a selfless reflection of God’s great love.
And how long did that last, after those first vows? Before my will was in conflict with what I was assigned, before I found myself fixated on something I could not have or someone I could not be, too aware of my failure, my harsh judgment, my stinginess in giving. There were hurts and losses. Certainly tears. I was not young Mary. I was barren Elizabeth, I was cranky Sarah, pitiable and unproductive. I was not living my heart’s desires as I hoped I should be.
I began to suspect that my emptiness (good) had gradually turned into barrenness(bad). As the poet G.M. Hopkins mourned, ”birds build—but not I build, no, but strain/time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes./Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” *
God’s way with us is never what we expect, even as we grow wiser and more tolerant of the mystery. The truth is, Mary had her hour of barrenness, holding her beloved child of promise who dies hated and rejected. And Elizabeth and Sarah and Hannah will be opened and fruitful, give birth and blossom with joy they never imagined.
So what if, for God ever mysterious, holy emptiness and unproductive barrenness are one and the same? What if, in the end, we can only say, “I have so very little to bring you, except the bit of shining you did through me despite myself?” We lift up our nothingness. And it’s all God is looking for.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote of his life experience in a way we too might appreciate. “I asked for success, but you have given me wonder.”**
*Thou art indeed just, Lord…
**Book of the same title