Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD The self-emptying of Divine Presence

The self-emptying of Divine Presence

•“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’

“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (Isaiah 6:1-8).

• “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

• (A reflection by Rowan Williams on the book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky): “(I)t is in the cross that we see the revelation of what it is that characterises God’s personal being, and so what is also possible for man: the cross reveals personality as ‘kenotic’. This is a theme that was to play an increasingly large part in Lossky’s later work. For the present, I wish to consider it mainly as it finds expression in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. The chapter in that book on ‘Image and Likeness’ establishes personality in man (in the sense already outlined of free self-transcendence) as constituting the imago Dei: the renunciation of existing-for-oneself is man’s most authentically personal act and so also man’s most Godlike act.

“The following chapter, ‘The economy of the Son’, then sets out to explain how such an act can be recognised as ‘Godlike’, in the light of the Incarnation. Christ’s incarnate life is apprehended by the believer as the life of God in the flesh; but it is a life of rejection and agony, lived in the total self-renunciation of absolute obedience to the Father. This obedience leads us to see salvation as the common will and act of the whole Trinity; and the second person is perfectly manifested to us in a life utterly devoid of selfish, individual will: ‘This renunciation of his own will is not a choice, or an act, but is so to speak the very being of the persons of the Trinity who have only one will proper to their common nature’.

“This revelation of humility and self-renunciation in the heart of the Godhead is further confirmed by the ‘kenosis’ of the Spirit. His work is to witness to the Son while his own person remains hidden: he draws each unique human person in a unique and personal way to the contemplation of and participation in the Godhead imparted to humanity in the Incarnation, but conceals his own person in order to manifest and communicate only what is common to the whole Trinity.

“Thus the trinitarian dogma proposes a model of personal being which radically challenges the assumptions of the fallen human mind: thought itself must be turned upside down by grace if we are to grasp the mystery in any way. The dogma is a ‘cross for human ways of thought’ because it demands a belief that the abnegation of self and the absence of self-assertive, self-interested ‘individualism’ are the fundamental notes of personal existence at its source, in God.

“In its fallen and encapsulated condition, the individual human subject cannot accept this: only in the life of the Spirit, who transforms the whole of human being, is faith in the trinitarian dogma possible. This faith is not a matter of indifference, of taste or distaste, for the Christian: it is a mark of the transformation accomplished by the Spirit, it is inseparable from soteriology, indeed from anthropology as a whole. The ‘apophatc attitude’ is the primary expression of trinitatrian faith, of the profound disturbance in thinking which is created by the manifestation of God as personally suffering death and the ‘abyss of hell’” (Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, edited by Mike Higton, SCM Press, 2007, 14-15).

• “Certainly the old order is changing, but we do not know what is to come. ….. The enemy is in all of us. ….. We have got to arm not against Russia but against war. Not only against war but against hatred. Against lies. Against injustice. Against greed. Against every manifestation of those things, wherever they may be found, and above all in ourselves” (Thomas Merton, “Christian Action in World Crisis,” originally published in Blackfriars, June, 1962, reproduced in William H Shannon, Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, Crossroad, 1996, 80, 81 & 82).

• “Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and light. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may be only a radiance of Yours. Shine through me, and be so in me, that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus. Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way which You love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example; by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you. Amen.” (Prayer of St John Henry Newman for the Grace to Radiate Christ)

• “To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow. And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the trinitarian life. St Paul speaks (in II Cor 3.18) of how ‘with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord’, we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance. That is the face we seek to show to our fellow-human beings” (Archbishop Rowan Williams, from his address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, #6).

• “(C)ontemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter” (Archbishop Rowan Williams, from his address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, #8).

• “In a time when it is in vogue to talk about finding one’s purpose, remember that true purpose is born of darkness. It is only by being willing to know and face our own darkness that we can learn where we are most qualified to bring light to a hurting world” (Dõv Baron, June 2019, in the Introduction to Tony McAleer, The Cure for Hate: A Former White Supremacist’s Journey from Violent Extremism to Radical Compassion, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019, 15).