by Joe Nassal, C.PP.S., Provincial Director
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….
Philippians 2, 6
As our Lenten journey brings us to the beginning of Holy Week, what does it mean to be holy? Thomas Merton offers an answer in New Seeds of Contemplation:
If, then, we want to seek some way of being holy, we must first of all renounce our own way and our own wisdom. We must ‘empty ourselves’ as Jesus did. We must ‘deny ourselves’ and in some sense make ourselves ‘nothing’ in order that we may live not so much in ourselves as in Him. We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and never fails to support us at every moment.
The Philippians hymn we hear on Palm Sunday that ushers us into this Holy Week equates “holiness” with “emptiness.” It echoes a story that Merton tells in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander when he was novice master and was on night watch—making sure all the novices were asleep and all was secure. As he walked through the novices’ study hall, Merton’s description of the room reminded me of the study hall at Precious Blood Seminary—at least the first two weeks of each school year when each student had a desk and a chair and we had to keep the desks in a row and our desk tops clear.
The priests and brothers at Precious Blood Seminary were more lenient than the Trappist Monks because towards the end of September, we were allowed to move our desks in various formations. The seniors had precedence and built their fortresses in the back of the study hall. The most coveted spots were the corners where one could arrange two or three desks and decorate the walls with posters of rock stars or pictures from home. We piled as much “stuff” as we could in those corners as we made our “nests” for the school year.
But Merton’s novices had to keep their desks in a row and the tops of the desks cleared throughout the year. One night as he beamed his flashlight over the desks in the study hall, the empty room spoke to him. “I stood there for a long time before going up to the chapel,” he writes. “Four long rows of desks. Their desks are all they have that is more or less ‘theirs.’ It is here that they sit reading, writing, thinking whatever is most personal, most truly their own. They keep their letters, their own few books, their own notes here.”
As Merton looked at the dark, empty room, it seemed to him that “because all that they loved” was in this room, the novices “in a spiritual way were most truly there, though in fact they were all upstairs in the dormitory, asleep. It was as if their love and their goodness had transformed the room and filled it with a presence curiously real, comforting, perfect, one might say, with Christ.” For a moment, it Merton felt Christ was “truly present here, in a certain way, as upstairs in the chapel.”
This real presence Merton felt in the study hall during night watch is why we cultivate an attitude of emptiness during Holy Week. For when we are empty, we make room and create some space for the spirit of the other. In our emptiness this week, may we meet often in prayer!