“Kevin Waits” 2m x 1m oil on found board
I recently saw the documentary “Sans Soleil” by Chris Marker. It’s a remarkable film that seems to encompass the whole of human experience. One sequence shows a giraffe being shot through the neck, it runs through the wilderness with blood spurting from either side like red wings before staggering and collapsing. It shook me to the core.
In the midst of images of life, sex and death Marker shows religious rituals that seemed alien to my Western eyes but which were woven deeply into the experience and lives of people on the other side of the world. The narrator comments:
“…it points to the absolute whilst hiding it; that is what religions have always done.”
As someone who calls myself a Christian this resonates with my experience of religion.
At the heart of the story of Jesus is an emptying out. It starts through Lent as he wanders into the wilderness, devoid of direction, security and identity. It ends at the cross as he shouts out “my God why have you forsaken me?”.
The mystics of all traditions call us to this emptying out. And the emptiness the mystics invite us towards makes no sense if we try to dissect what they are talking about with a cool rational detachment. It can only be understood in direct experience. Because ultimately this emptying out isn’t empty.
A few years ago I experienced exactly that stripping away and emptying of any experience or thought I had about God until I was simply gazing into infinite emptiness. This wasn’t a loss of faith but a deepening, even so well meaning Christians tried to rescue me by pulling me back to a more concrete belief in God. As the narrator of Sans Soleil says, “The Western mind privileges being over non-being, the said over the unsaid”.
In my experience God vanished.
But then, over time, as I held that experience of absence then something remarkable happened that I find very hard to put into words. Dualistic ideas of God or no God disintegrated and I found something alive in the emptiness that seemed very much akin to the Buddhist idea of the void being at once totally empty and full of the potential for all things.
The resurrection of my experience of God from that time a few years ago has utterly transformed my faith. No clever theology can account for it and words are so inadequate, they grope in the darkness towards it. And whilst I’m usually most comfortable expressing these experiences in my painting, last year I attended poetry writing workshop and attempted to put the experience into words:
This God is hollow,
And so are you:
Hollow face, hollow heart.
Empty God, empty words,
Ashamed to admit the empty life.
Creation empties itself into the ocean,
The ocean empties itself into the sky,
The sky empties itself into outer space,
And Space has nowhere left to go.
Here in the void, heart still beating,
Pressing on into the hollow deep.
Empty sky takes a breath
Empty God is the source of all things.